Minimum contacts is a term used in U.S. law to determine when it is appropriate for a court in one state to assert personal jurisdiction over a defendant from another state. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided a number of cases that have established and refined the principle that it is unfair for a court to assert jurisdiction over a party unless that party's contacts with the state in which that court sits are such that the party "could reasonably expect to be haled into court" in that state. This jurisdiction must "not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice."
Consent and waiver
Because the need for minimum contacts is a matter of personal jurisdiction (the power of the court to hear the claim with respect to a particular party) instead of subject matter jurisdiction (the power of the court to hear this kind of claim at all), a party can waive their right to object to the court hearing the case. Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a party who wishes to object to the court's assertion of personal jurisdiction must do so at the beginning of legal proceedings, or lose the ability to raise such an objection. Furthermore, a court may request that a party provide evidence that its contacts do not rise to the level which would allow the court to have jurisdiction. The Supreme Court has held that if a party refuses to comply with such a request, the court can deem them to have waived their right to object to jurisdiction.
Activities as a basis for jurisdiction
A party's activities within a state can provide the basis for that state to have jurisdiction over that party. The Supreme Court has held that the state can properly assert jurisdiction based on a party's "purposeful availment of the benefits and protections" offered by a state.
General vs. specific jurisdiction
The necessary contacts that a party must have for a state to assert personal jurisdiction may vary depending on the relationship between the contacts and the claim brought against that party. If the state is alleged to have jurisdiction over a defendant irrespective of the nature of the claim, this would be general jurisdiction; but if the state is alleged to have jurisdiction over a defendant because the defendant's activities in that state gave rise to the claim itself, this would be specific jurisdiction.
In Helicopteros Nacionales De Colombia v. Hall, a helicopter crash caused the death of four Americans in Peru. The Supreme Court found that the state of Texas could not assert general jurisdiction over the defendant company that had negotiated the purchase of helicopters and trained its pilots in Texas, because its activities in that forum were not of a continuous and systematic nature.
A party who receives service of process (formal notification that they are being sued) while physically present in a state is properly subject to personal jurisdiction in that state. The current justification for the rule is uncertain. In Burnham v. Superior Court of California, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed that this rule was still effective, but split as to the rationale. Justice Scalia wrote for four justices who felt that the rule should apply simply because it was a continuation of a longstanding tradition. Justice Brennan]] wrote for four justices who felt that the rule should apply because the party was purposefully availing himself of the benefits of being in the state at that time, and that the rule was fair under modern standards because it was well known, therefore putting defendants on notice of their susceptibility to suit in a state if physically present. The ninth vote, by Justice Stevens, agreed that jurisdiction was proper, but did not endorse either Scalia's or Brennan's test.
Merely placing products in the "stream of commerce" is insufficient to provide minimum contacts with the states where the products end up. The defendant must make an effort to market in the forum state or otherwise purposefully avail himself of the resources of that state. However, since only four of the nine Supreme Court Justices joined the opinion that required a defendant to do more than place his products in a "stream of commerce," some lower courts still rule that doing so is adequate for a court to exercise personal jurisdiction.
Courts have struggled with the Internet as a source of minimum contacts. Although not determinately established by the U.S. Supreme Court, many courts use the Zippo test, which examines the kind of use to which a defendant's website is being put.
Property as a basis for jurisdiction
The Supreme Court has held that the mere fact of ownership of property within a state is not sufficient to provide minimum contacts for a court to hear cases unrelated to that property. However, the property alone provides a sufficient contact for a court having jurisdiction over that geographic area to adjudicate claims relating to the ownership of the property, or relating to injuries which occurred on the property. In that case, the jurisdiction exercised by the court is referred to in rem jurisdiction (i.e. jurisdiction over the thing), instead of in personam jurisdiction.
- International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945).
- See The Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1 (1972); Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v. Shute, 499 U.S. 585 (1991).
- Insurance Corp. of Ireland v. Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinee, 456 U.S. 694 (1982).
- 466 U.S. 408 (1984).
- Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1878).
- 495 U.S. 604 (1990).
- See World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286 (1980); Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987).
- See Keeton v. Hustler Magazine, Inc., 465 U.S. 770 (1984); Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783 (1984).
- Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186 (1977).
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