As a Missouri product liability attorney, I was interested to see a product liability case out of Arkansas in which the injured person had bought the product secondhand. In Yanmar Co. Ltd. V. Slater, Wanda Slater sued various Yanmar entities, the makers of a tractor involved in the accident that killed her husband, Rudolph Slater. Slater had purchased the tractor secondhand from Chris Elder Enterprises, which bought it from Yanmar Japan. An Arkansas state-court jury awarded Slater $2.5 million in damages for strict liability, breach of warranty, negligence and more, but the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed and dismissed. It found that there was no personal jurisdiction over Yanmar Japan and that Yanmar America owed no duty of care to Rudolph Slater.
The Yanmar tractor in question was manufactured in 1977 and used in Asia until it was sold by a Vietnamese company on the “gray market” to a Texas company that auctioned it to Chris Elder Enterprises. Elder testified that the tractor had been refurbished and gotten cosmetic upgrades like new paint and did not look like a 30-year-old tractor, but had had a part added and another part substituted. Just a few days after buying it, Rudolph was using it to mow grass on a slope when it rolled over, killing him. Wanda Slater sued Yanmar Japan, Yanmar America, Chris Elder Enterprises and later, the Texas and Vietnamese companies. She alleged fraud, strict liability, breach of implied and express warranties, negligence, failure to warn and violations of Arkansas law. Chris Elder Enterprises settled; a jury ultimately split liability between Yanmar America, Yanmar Japan, the Texas company and Rudolph Slater. The Yanmar defendants appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
That court started with the allegation by Yanmar Japan that the Arkansas state court did not have personal jurisdiction over it, and thus should have granted a directed verdict in its favor. The lower court found the requisite minimum contacts with Arkansas through Yanmar’s sales in the state, and through Yanmar Japan’s relationship with Yanmar America. But under recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the Arkansas high court found, this would violate Yanmar’s due process rights by holding it liable for sporadic and random contacts, and it cannot be said that Yanmar Japan is Yanmar America’s alter ego. It turned next to Yanmar America’s argument that it had no duty of care to Slater because it did not design, manufacture, sell or import the tractor; Yanmar Japan made it and third parties imported it, and the two Yanmar entities are separate. The Arkansas high court agreed, adding that there was also no liability imputed by the Yanmar entities’ attempts to stop “gray market” imports; this is not enough to constitute assuming a duty. Thus, it reversed the decision and dismissed the case.
This decision involves issues that affect me as a St. Louis defective product lawyer, which is why I’d be pleased to see more about the jurisdiction issue. Any time a company from out of state is involved in this kind of case, that company may be able to use a jurisdictional defense. Whether the defense works is a different question, of course, and depends a lot on whether the company does enough business in the state. When the contacts are not obvious and clear, as in this case, the issue is likely to come up. However, I’d like a closer examination of the Supreme Court case cited in this case, because the Arkansas court interpreted it to broadly limit jurisdiction over foreign entities. As a southern Illinois personal injury attorney, I believe it’s a vital part of victims’ rights to have access to the courts no matter where they happen to live.
Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients across Missouri and southern Illinois who were seriously injured or lost a loved one because of a defective or dangerous product, or a failure to warn. If you’d like to tell us your story and learn more about your legal options, call us today at 1-877-678-3400 or send us an email.
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