Civil Procedure Class Notes 9/25/03


Gibbons v. Brown


It’s another car accident!  What happened?  Gibbons and the Browns were driving in Montreal.  Gibbons gave Mr. Brown some bad directions that caused him to turn the wrong way on a one-way street.  They got into an accident.


So the accident was in Canada, the Browns live in Florida, and Gibbons lives in Texas.


Gibbons sued for her injuries in Florida (the Browns’ home state) in state court, even though she could have filed in federal court.


The first lawsuit is Gibbons v. Clarence Brown.  Two years later, also in Florida state court, Mrs. Brown sues Gibbons: Donna Brown v. Gibbons.  How is this possible that we could have a second lawsuit about the same events filed years later?  Mrs. Brown sues under a different interpretation of the events.[1]


What is the issue of this case?  Is it a jurisdictional issue?  The question is whether the “long-arm” statute in Florida gives the state jurisdiction over Gibbons for the purposes of the suit.


This case is irrelevant to the scheme of jurisprudence in this country.  It’s a “piddley little case out of an intermediate court in Florida”.


“Long-arm” statutes


These statutes establish a subset of the scope of personal jurisdiction that the Constitution allows.  If a state chooses, they can make their authority coextensive with the Due Process Clause: “The long-arm statute of the state of X is coextensive with the Due Process Clause of the Constitution.”


In Florida, the long-arm statute has a somewhat smaller scope than it could under the Constitution.  This will generally mean that Florida will get fewer cases.


The first question you should ask when you are dealing with issues of personal jurisdiction is: Does it satisfy the long-arm statute?  If the answer is “no”, then you’re done.  If the answer is “yes”, then you move to Due Process.  Courts will avoid ruling on constitutional questions when it can.


So, the long-arm statute offers a threshold test.  You always look at it first, because it is no wider than the constitutional limit of the state’s authority.


Isn’t it possible that a state could have an unconstitutional long-arm statute?[2]


If a long-arm statute partially busts out of Due Process, you may need to go to the next level to make sure that the statute itself is constitutional.


What the Florida long-arm statute says is that a defendant must be “engaged in substantial and not isolated activity” within Florida in order for Florida to have jurisdiction.  This sounds like a version of “continuous and systematic”, the federal standard for general jurisdiction.


Is the first lawsuit by Gibbons “substantial and not isolated”?  What if the first case wasn’t over?  How would that affect our answer to this question?  Uh…what was the answer to this question?


The court keys in on the temporal aspect of Gibbons’s activities.  Is Gibbons engaged in an activity?  The court assumes that the case is over.  Based on this, they say Gibbons is not currently engaged in any activities in Florida.


There’s a practical aspect to this.  If Gibbons is subject to personal jurisdiction in Florida, she can be sued there for anything that happens anywhere at any time.


Compare this situation to Adam v. Saenger.  Saenger went to California to sue, but then Adam countersued and won as Saenger defaulted.  When Adam went to Texas to enforce the judgment, Saenger argued that the California court had no jurisdiction.  The Supreme Court found that California had jurisdiction because Saenger had gone to California to sue Adam.


Most states have gone the way of Helicopteros and the Texas long-arm statute, which goes as far as the Due Process Clause permits, as interpreted by the courts.  On the other hand, in California, the long-arm statute says exactly what it means to say: that it’s exactly coextensive with the Constitution.


Let’s say we’ve cleared the long-arm statute.  How do we come out in Gibbons under Due Process?  There’s no way you’d get general jurisdiction.  Compare to Perkins and Rosenberg.


What about specific jurisdiction?  Can we get Gibbons there?  Gibbons availed herself of the courts.  This is a closer case.  Brennan would say there are minimum contacts (c.f. Burnham).  Other justices might say that there is fairness, too.


Back to Class Notes

[1] An aside: could Mrs. Brown have been somehow joined in the first lawsuit?  Someone would have to try to bring her in.  Gibbons didn’t want to bring her in.  Mr. Brown could bring her in, but then again, she is his wife.  Donna herself might not have been able to join the suit on her own in Florida.  In federal court, however, she might have been able to get herself joined.

[2] I’m experiencing major déjà vu on this point.  I have a feeling somebody told me about this in a class in high school.