Seventh Circuit Rejects Plaintiffs’ Chain-of-Causation Theory of Personal Jurisdiction

14 April 2016 Wisconsin Appellate Law Blog

Although spring-break season is officially over, a recent Seventh Circuit decision offers a lesson to vacationers: When choosing your next vacation destination, make sure it’s somewhere you would be willing to visit again. You might need to litigate there.

In Noboa v. Barceló Corporación Empresarial, SA, 812 F.3d 571 (7th Cir. 2016), the Seventh Circuit reminds litigants that the proper focus of the “minimum contacts” inquiry for specific jurisdiction depends on the defendant’s intentional contacts with the forum jurisdiction. In affirming the district court’s dismissal for lack of personal jurisdiction, the Court rejected the plaintiffs’ “chain-of-causation theory,” which fundamentally relied upon the plaintiffs’ own contacts with the forum state, rather than any accident-related contacts of the defendants.

The facts of the case are as follows: Vanessa Noboa, a resident of Illinois, decided to embark upon a Mexican vacation. From a computer in Illinois, Noboa accessed Orbitz’s website and booked a stay at hotel Barceló Los Cabos Palace Deluxe in Baja California Sur, Mexico. After Noboa arrived at the hotel, she encountered a representative of Rancho Carisuva in the hotel’s lobby offering off-premises “ecotours.” Noboa signed up, and ultimately fell off her ATV during the tour, dying from her injuries.

Plaintiffs, the executors of Naboa’s estate, sued hotel Barceló and Rancho Carisuva in the Northern District of Illinois. After the case was dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction, plaintiffs appealed, insisting that Naboa’s death was connected to Illinois through a “causal chain” beginning with her use of Orbitz’s website, which had a contract with the hotel, which then led to the hotel lobby, which then led to the tour, which then led to her death.

The Seventh Circuit disagreed. Judge Easterbrook wrote for the court and found that plaintiffs’ attempt to bootstrap personal jurisdiction to Noboa’s own contacts with Illinois ran afoul of the Supreme Court’s holding in Walden v. Fiore, 134 S. Ct. 1115 (2014). As the court explained (and as we discussed here), Walden teaches that the pertinent question for specific jurisdiction is “whether the defendant has links to the jurisdiction in which the suit was filed, not whether the plaintiff has such links—or whether the loss flowed through a causal chain from the plaintiff’s contacts with the jurisdiction of suit.”

The court succinctly concluded that plaintiffs failed to allege that defendants had any “accident-related contacts with Illinois.”

Instead, the closest plaintiffs’ “chain-of-causation” came to connecting defendants to Illinois was through Barceló’s contract with Orbitz, which Naboa used to book and pay for her trip. This, however, was factually similar to another Supreme Court decision: OBB Personenverkehr AG v. Sachs, 136 S. Ct. 390 (2015).

In OBB Personenverkehr, Sachs, a California resident, used the internet to purchase a Eurail Pass from a travel agent in Massachusetts. Then, while using her Eurail pass to travel in Austria, Sachs fell to the tracks and injured herself. Upon returning home, Sachs filed suit against the Austrian railway in California. The Supreme Court observed that, though Sachs and her purchase of the Eurail Pass had California contacts, this did not establish that the Austrian railway had any contacts whatsoever with California.

The parallels are undeniable: Sachs pairs with Noboa, the Massachusetts travel agent pairs with Orbitz, and the Austrian railway pairs with hotel Barceló. But who pairs with Rancho Carisuva?

Perhaps the Seventh Circuit asked itself the same question, because it explained that plaintiffs’ theory had an “even longer chain” than Sachs in OBB Personenverkehr. It would be as if “Sachs attempt[ed] to sue, in California, someone who caused her food poisoning on board the train in Austria.”

As Judge Easterbrook candidly wrote, “[c]ombine the rationale of OBB Personenverkehr with the legal standard of Walden, and the argument for personal jurisdiction in Illinois evaporates.”

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