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Martins v. Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, LLC

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

January 29, 2019

ALISON N. MARTINS, Individually and as Co-Executrix of the ESTATE OF JOHN MARTINS, Plaintiff,

          Providence County Superior Court

          Mark Decof, Esq. For Plaintiff:

          For Defendant: Brian J. Lamoureux, Esq.; William E. O'Gara, Esq.; Amanda Prosek, Esq.; Kathleen M. Guilfoyle, Esq.; Mark P. Dolan, Esq.; John M. Boland, Esq.


          STERN, J.

         Defendant PACCAR, Inc. (PACCAR) moves this Court for an order dismissing PACCAR from the above-captioned matter for lack of personal jurisdiction pursuant to Super. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(2). The Plaintiff, Allison N. Martins (Plaintiff), has objected.

         I Facts and Travel

         This case arises out of a motor vehicle accident that resulted in John Martins' (Decedent) death. The truck he was operating at the time (hereinafter Rotator Truck)[1] suffered a belt and/or tread separation, causing the Rotator Truck to veer off the road, crash into a tree and catch fire. Second Am. Compl. 7. The Plaintiff is the Decedent's natural daughter who brought this wrongful death action individually and in her capacity as the co-executrix of the Estate of the Decedent and as the Decedent's legal beneficiary. Id. ¶ 1.

         PACCAR-a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in the State of Washington-designs and manufactures vehicles such as the Rotator Truck. Id. at 3, 42. Peterbilt Motors Co. (Peterbilt Motors) is an unincorporated division of PACCAR with its principal place of business in Texas. Id. at 3. For purposes of the present motion and ease of reference, this Court will refer to Peterbilt Motors and PACCAR collectively as "PACCAR."[2]PACCAR follows a corporate structure whereby it engages and contracts with local dealerships, which, in turn, sell and service PACCAR products. See Pl.'s Ex. 44 at PACCAR 000151.

         One such local dealer, Peterbilt of Connecticut, Inc. (Peterbilt of Connecticut), through an addendum (Addendum) to its Dealer Sales and Services Agreement with PACCAR, agreed to establish and maintain facilities and operations at 11 Industrial Lane in Johnston, Rhode Island. Pl.'s Ex. 44 at PACCAR 000166. The Addendum contains certain performance goals specific to Peterbilt of Rhode Island and requires Peterbilt of Rhode Island to employ, at all times, two trained and qualified salespersons to sell PACCAR vehicles.[3] See Pl.'s Ex. 44 at PACCAR 000166, 000170. The Rhode Island facility is owned by Peterbilt of Connecticut and does business under the moniker "Peterbilt of Rhode Island." See id. at 000170-71. The parties agreed that PACCAR would "evaluate [Peterbilt of Rhode Island's] sales and service performance periodically" and that PACCAR would have the right to "take prompt action if necessary to improve [Peterbilt of Rhode Island's] sales and service performance." See id. at 000170. PACCAR distinguishes between the Rhode Island and Connecticut locations in that they are assigned different dealer codes: P102 and P100, respectively. Pl.'s Ex. 46; Curbo Dep. Tr. (Tr.) 12-13, 24-25, 161-62, Aug. 9, 2018. PACCAR's logo is displayed at Peterbilt of Rhode Island; PACCAR has the right to approve signage; and PACCAR has been registered to conduct business in Rhode Island since the year 1990. Pl.'s Exs. 4, 11; Pl.'s Ex. 44 at PACCAR 000166, 000170-71; Tr. at 29, 30, 69.

         Peterbilt of Connecticut placed the initial order for the Rotator Truck. However, on September 19, 2005-before the truck was manufactured-Peterbilt of Connecticut requested and PACCAR agreed to "change order"[4] no. 009 to chassis no. 637511 (which would become the Rotator Truck) to reflect that Peterbilt of Rhode Island was, in fact, the requesting dealer. Pl.'s Ex. 28; Tr. at 116-17. All ensuing communications, including ten change orders, identified Peterbilt of Rhode Island as the dealer associated with the Rotator Truck. For example, on September 27, 2005, PACCAR received an email from Matt Berluti, a Peterbilt of Rhode Island employee (using email address, requesting a specific design for chassis no. 637511. Pl.'s Ex. 5, Tr. at 37. A later change order documented Mr. Berluti as the dealer contact and provided a phone number with a Rhode Island area code. Pl.'s Ex. 29, Tr. at 37. A vehicle quality booklet specific to chassis no. 637511 traveled with the Rotator Truck from PACCAR's facility and identified Peterbilt of Rhode Island as the dealer.[5] Pl.'s Ex. 42.

         In addition to the aforementioned communications, several other documents manifested PACCAR's understanding that Peterbilt of Rhode Island-not Peterbilt of Connecticut-was the Rotator Truck's acting dealer. PACCAR issued a certificate of origin for the Rotator Truck identifying as the transferee Peterbilt of Rhode Island, with its Rhode Island address. Pl.'s Exs. 7, 8. PACCAR issued an invoice to Peterbilt of Rhode Island directed to its Rhode Island address requesting payment for the Rotator Truck. Pl.'s Ex. 15; Tr. at 94-96. Finally, PACCAR entered into a warranty agreement relating to the Rotator Truck that lists Peterbilt of Rhode Island as the "Selling Dealer." Pl.'s Ex. 9.[6]

         In May of 2017, the Plaintiff filed her original complaint alleging counts for negligence, strict liability, breach of warranties, and punitive damages. The Plaintiff filed a second amended complaint on August 28, 2017, which names several corporate defendants connected with the Rotator Truck's manufacture and sale. Various defendants, including the Bridgestone Entities[7]and PACCAR, moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. On March 8, 2018, this Court granted the Bridgestone Entities' motion and reserved judgment with respect to PACCAR'S motion pending jurisdictional discovery. Having completed jurisdictional discovery, the parties submitted supplemental briefing to this Court concerning PACCAR connections with Rhode Island. For the following reasons, this Court determines PACCAR is subject to jurisdiction in Rhode Island and therefore, denies PACCAR's motion to dismiss.

         II Standard of Review

         A Personal Jurisdiction in Rhode Island

         "It is well established that to withstand a defendant's Rule 12(b)(2) motion to dismiss a complaint for lack of in personam jurisdiction, a plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to make out a prima facie case of jurisdiction." Cerberus Partners, L.P. v. Gadsby & Hannah, LLP, 836 A.2d 1113, 1118 (R.I. 2003) (citing Ben's Marine Sales v. Sleek Craft Boats, 502 A.2d 808, 809 (R.I. 1985)). "A prima facie case of jurisdiction is established when the requirements of Rhode Island's long-arm statute are satisfied." Id. at 1118 (citation omitted). Section 9-5-33(a) of the Rhode Island General Laws provides the following:

"Every foreign corporation, every individual not a resident of this state . . . and every partnership or association, composed of any person or persons not such residents, that shall have the necessary minimum contacts with the state of Rhode Island, shall be subject to the jurisdiction of the state of Rhode Island . . . in every case not contrary to the provisions of the constitution or laws of the United States."

         Our Supreme Court has interpreted G.L. 1956 § 9-5-33(a) as allowing Rhode Island courts to exercise jurisdiction "over nonresident defendants to the fullest extent allowed by the United States Constitution." Rose v. Firstar Bank, 819 A.2d 1247, 1250 (R.I. 2003) (citing McKenney v. Kenyon Piece Dye Works, Inc., 582 A.2d 107, 108 (R.I. 1990)).

         B Constitutional Due Process Requirements

         A Rhode Island court's exercise of personal jurisdiction comports with constitutional due process requirements when the plaintiff demonstrates the defendant has "certain minimum contacts with [the forum] such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice." Rose, 819 A.2d at 1250 (quoting Int'l Shoe Co. v. State of Washington, Office of Unemployment Comp. and Placement, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945)) (quotation marks omitted). "[T]here are no 'readily discernable guidelines for determining what [constitutes] 'minimum contacts' for the purposes of the long-arm statute.'" Cassidy v. Lonquist Mgmt. Co., LLC., 920 A.2d 228, 232 (R.I. 2007). Analyzing personal jurisdiction is "more an art than a science." Ticketmaster-New York, Inc. v. Alioto, 26 F.3d 201, 206 (1st Cir. 1994) (citation omitted). A reviewing court must consider the particular facts in each case and analyze ...

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