Hinrichs v. General Motors of Canada – Foreign Automaker Dismissed From Injury Lawsuit for Lack of Jurisdiction
Gregg Hollander | July 5, 2016 | Car Accidents and Vehicle Defects
Jurisdiction is a key issue for any personal injury lawsuit. If a certain court does not have jurisdiction, the case cannot proceed. It’s imperative to have a thorough understanding of whatever jurisdictional issues may arise prior to filing the case, as an error could result in a setback that not only wastes time and money, but could result in forever losing the opportunity to bring the case, if the decision falls outside the statute of limitations.
There are three basic types of judicial jurisdiction: Personal, Territorial and Subject Matter. Personal jurisdiction is when a court has authority over a person, regardless of the location. Territorial jurisdiction is authority that is confined to a certain space. Subject matter jurisdiction is when one has legal authority over the subject of the legal questions in the case. When a court has exclusive jurisdiction, it is the only court that can decide the case. If the court has concurrent jurisdiction, one or both parties may try to “forum shop,” to take the case to the court the party presumes may reach the most favorable result.
In the recent Alabama Supreme Court case of Hinrichs v. General Motors of Canada, Ltd., the question was whether the state courts in Alabama had jurisdiction over a foreign automobile manufacturer accused of designing a defective pickup truck seat belt that allegedly failed to restrain a passenger in a rollover car accident. The plaintiff, a German citizen, now suffers quadriplegia as a result of the crash. Plaintiff was in Alabama as a member of the German military who was assigned to Fort Rucker for flight training.
According to court records, plaintiff was riding in the front passenger seat of a pickup truck owned and operated by his friend when a drunk driver reportedly ran a stop sign and collided with the passenger-side door of the pickup truck. The pickup truck rolled twice but ultimately landed on its wheels. Plaintiff, who was wearing his seat belt, suffered a severe spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Plaintiff alleged his injuries were caused by the defective design of the roof over the passenger seat that collapsed in the rollover, as well as the defective seat belt, which failed to properly restrain him. At the time of the crash, plaintiff was a German citizen/ military member undergoing flight training. His friend/ driver was in the same program. The driver purchased the truck at a dealership in Pennsylvania.
The principle place of business for GM Canada is Ontario. That’s the company that manufactured certain parts, assembled it and sold it to GM in Canada, where the title was transferred and it ws then distributed for sale in the U.S. through a GM dealer.
GM, one of the named defendants, declared bankruptcy in 2009. Plaintiff filed a claim in that bankruptcy and settled the case for $2 million
But a new complaint named GM Canada, a totally separate entity, as well as the dealership. Defendants moved to dismiss the action, alleging the trial court lacked personal jurisdiction. Defendant explained that the Canadian manufacturer is organized in and bound by the laws of Canada. The truck was assembled and sold in Canada and defendant doesn’t do any business in Alabama, where this claim was filed. Further, the truck was sold in Pennsylvania, not Alabama.
The trial court concluded that it lacked the general or specific jurisdiction over the company in this instance. Plaintiff appealed, but the state supreme court affirmed, meaning if plaintiff still has time to file a new claim, it will have to be done either in Pennsylvania or Canada.
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Hinrichs v. General Motors of Canada, Ltd., June 24, 2016, Alabama Supreme Court