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No Personal Jurisdiction on Corp. by Serving Executive: 9th Cir.

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

Remember Burnham v. Superior Court? That's the one where a defendant was personally served in California while traveling there on business. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld personal service due to transient presence in the forum state ("tag jurisdiction") as legitimate on its own, without requiring any of the "sufficient minimum contacts" nonsense of International Shoe.

Here's a law school hypothetical for you: What if an officer of a foreign corporation is personally served in the forum state? Does that grant a court personal jurisdiction over the corporation? No it doesn't, said the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Martinez v. Aero Caribbean.

Where Is a Corporation?

ATR is a French company that makes airplanes. One of its planes crashed near Cuba, killing all 68 people on board. The plaintiffs -- relatives of the deceased -- tried to serve ATR in France, but the U.S. court dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, though not before allowing the plaintiffs to figure out where else they could serve ATR. Then, the plaintiffs personally served ATR's vice president of marketing while he was in California at a business conference.

Courts have struggled for a long time to figure out how corporations relate to the people who operate them. It was only in 2010, after all, that the Supreme Court figured out what a "headquarters" was for personal jurisdiction purposes. The Ninth Circuit in this case decided that the "personal service" type of personal jurisdiction, and specifically tag jurisdiction, doesn't allow service on a corporate officer to be considered service on a corporation.

This Time, a Corporation Isn't a Person

The Ninth Circuit hearkened back to International Shoe and its progeny, none of which ever suggested that anything other than contacts with the forum state granted personal jurisdiction over a corporation. The court was able to find only two cases from other federal circuits holding the opposite, and one of those was a partnership, not a corporation. That's easily distinguishable because a partnership doesn't exist apart from the human partners. A corporation, however, exists as an entity separate from its officers and shareholders.

The decision in Martinez leaves personal jurisdiction undisturbed: Human beings can still be personally served in the forum state, but corporations can be brought into court only if they have sufficient contacts with the forum state. That certainly doesn't get ATR into court in California -- it has no office in California and doesn't have a business license there.

Corporations may have free speech rights and religious rights, but as of yet, science hasn't figured out a way to condense them into a form that can be handed a subpoena anywhere in the world.

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