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Gaillet v. Ford Motor Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

May 3, 2017

DAN GAILLET, individually; and BETHANY GAILLET, individually and as conservator of ROBERT GAILLET, a minor, Plaintiffs,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, a corporation; and XYZ CORPORATIONS 1-5, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT [11]

          Nancy G. Edmunds United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs Dan Gaillet, individually, and Bethany Gaillet, individually and on behalf of Robert Gaillet, a minor, are suing Defendant Ford Motor Company under various theories of products liability. The matter now before the Court is Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment, which seeks the application of Mississippi's law on punitive damages.[1] For the following reasons, Plaintiffs' motion is DENIED.

         I. Background

         The lawsuit arises out of a car accident that occurred on November 17, 2013 in Mississippi, where all three Plaintiffs reside. (Dkt. 2 at ¶¶ 1, 10.) According to Plaintiffs, Robert Gaillet was driving a 1992 Ford Explorer when he lost control of the vehicle and crashed, sustaining serious injuries in the process. (Id. at ¶ 10.) Plaintiffs allege that this accident occurred because Defendant defectively designed the Explorer. (Id. at ¶¶ 12-14.) They assert claims of strict liability, negligence, negligent failure to warn, and breach of warranty. (Id. at ¶¶ 15-33.) Plaintiffs also seek punitive damages based on Defendant's allegedly willful, wanton, and reckless disregard for Plaintiffs' rights. (Id. at ¶ 37.)

         Defendant is incorporated in Delaware, and its principal place of business is in Michigan. (Dkt. 18-2 at ¶ 4.) Defendant designed the 1992 Explorer in Michigan and manufactured it in Kentucky. (Id. at ¶ 5; Dkt. 22-1, at 11.) Defendant does not manufacture any vehicles in Mississippi, nor does it directly service its vehicles in Mississippi. (Dkt. 18-2 at ¶¶ 9, 12.) Furthermore, Defendant does not have an office, companies, subsidiary entities, employees, or representatives in Mississippi. (Dkt. 22-1, at 7.) Defendant does advertise nationally, however, and it sells a substantial amount of vehicles to independent dealerships in Mississippi, including Ford Explorers. (Id. at 22, 24-25, 32.) Defendant also provides service and technical information to Mississippi dealerships regarding repair procedures, field service actions, and dealer bulletins. (Id. at 18.) Additionally, Defendant provides new vehicle warranties to vehicle owners in Mississippi. (Id. at 32.)

         As to the particular Explorer involved in the accident, Defendant first distributed it to a dealership in Georgia. (Dkt. 18-2 at ¶ 5.) The vehicle's first owner, who purchased it in May 1992, was a resident of Georgia and titled it in Georgia. (Id. at ¶¶ 5-6.) Its second owner was one of Plaintiffs' relatives, Phillipe Gaillet. (Id. at ¶ 7.) He purchased the vehicle on or around December 31, 1998, and he was also a resident of Georgia. (Id.) The Explorer then remained in Georgia until March 2012, when Plaintiff Bethany Gaillet acquired it from her relative and brought it to Mississippi. (Id. at ¶ 8.)

         Plaintiffs originally filed this action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on April 24, 2015. (Dkt. 1.) A few months later, on September 21, 2015, Defendant moved to dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction. (Dkt. 4, at 3.) Over the next year, the parties engaged in jurisdictional discovery. (Id.)

         Then, on October 10, 2016, while Defendant's motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction remained pending, Plaintiffs filed an emergency motion to transfer the case to this Court. (Id. at 6.) Plaintiffs' motion sought a transfer under either 18 U.S.C. §§ 1404 or 1406. (Dkt. 18, at 4 (citation omitted).) The former permits transfer "[f]or the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice, " while the latter permits transfer to cure defects, including a lack of jurisdiction. 18 U.S.C. §§ 1404, 1406. Defendant consented to a transfer but maintained that the transfer should proceed under § 1406 to cure the lack of personal jurisdiction. (See Dkt. 3.)

         Two weeks later, the Mississippi court entered an order transferring the case here. (Id.) The court stated that it was transferring the case under 28 U.S.C. § 1404 "in the interests of justice." (Id.) The court added that transfer under 28 U.S.C. § 1406 to cure defects, as requested by Defendants, "would be improper" because the court "never reached a decision concerning whether personal jurisdiction over defendants existed." (Id.)

         Now before the Court is Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment. Plaintiffs seek the application of Mississippi law, which permits the recovery of punitive damages in products liability cases. See Miss. Code. Ann. § 11-1-65. Defendant responds that the Court should apply Michigan law, which does not. See Broadnax-Hill v. Hosington, 625 F.App'x 268, 271 (6th Cir. 2015); McAuley v. Gen. Motors Corp., 578 N.W.2d 282, 285 (Mich. 1998). For the reasons below, the Court concludes that it must apply Michigan law.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 is proper when the movant “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). When reviewing the record, “the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor.” U.S. S.E.C. v. Sierra Brokerage Servs., Inc., 712 F.3d 321, 327 (6th Cir. 2013) (internal citation omitted). “[S]ummary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is ‘genuine, ' that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment raises only one issue: whether the Court should apply Mississippi's law on punitive damages To resolve this question, the Court must undertake a choice of law analysis; however, the Court cannot do so until it determines which state's choice of law rules apply. And that determination, as explained below, requires resolving the lingering question of whether Mississippi has personal jurisdiction over Defendant.

         A. Whether Mississippi Could Exercise Jurisdiction over Defendant

         This case was transferred to this Court from the district court in Mississippi under 18 U.S.C. § 1404 "in the interests of justice." (Dkt. 3.) Had the case been transferred under 28 U.S.C. § 1406 to cure Mississippi's lack of personal jurisdiction, as Defendant requested, then Michigan's choice of law framework would automatically apply. Newberry v. Silverman, 789 F.3d 636, 640 (6th Cir. 2015) (citing Martin v. Stokes, 623 F.2d 469, 473 (6th Cir. 1980)).[2] ...


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