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Oregon Supreme Court disavows precedent on personal jurisdiction

By Lori Irish Bauman
December 31, 2013

The Oregon Supreme Court earlier this month refined its test for personal jurisdiction, rejecting thirty-year-old precedent and adopting a flexible approach consistent with more recent U.S. Supreme Court case law. 

Robinson v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co. focuses on the test courts use to determine whether a lawsuit arises from or is related to the out-of-state defendant's contacts with the forum.  In Robinson, plaintiff was a resident of Oregon who purchased a motorcycle in Oregon, had the motorcycled serviced by defendant dealership in Idaho, and was injured in Wyoming due to defendant's allegedly negligent repair.  Plaintiff sued defendant in Oregon, and defendant sought to dismiss on the ground that it was not subject to personal jurisdiction in an Oregon court.

Plaintiff argued for specific jurisdiction, claiming that defendant was subject to suit because it engaged in activity in Oregon and the claim arose from or related to that activity.  While the defendant dealership had no physical presence in Oregon, its contacts with the state included selling a limited number of products to Oregon residents through its interactive web site, advertising in publications distributed in Oregon, and selling products to Oregon residents who visit its Idaho location. 

In 1982 the Oregon Supreme Court held in State ex rel. Michelin v. Wells that a court may exercise personal jurisdiction when at least one of the defendant's contacts with the forum state is substantively relevant to the cause of action.  The court in Robinson acknowledged that this so-called "substantive relevance" test has been rejected by certain federal courts as "mechanical and rigid" and not consistent with more recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions on personal jurisdiction.  The court accordingly disavowed Michelin, and stated that litigation arises from and relates to the defendant's activity in the forum if the activity (1) is a but-for cause of the litigation and (2) provides a basis for a determination that the litigation was foreseeable. 

Applying this test, the supreme court concluded that defendant's contacts in Oregon were not such that it was reasonably foreseeable that it would be sued in Oregon as a result of work performed in Idaho.  On that basis the court affirmed dismissal of the claim against the dealership.