specific jurisdiction

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Specific jurisdiction is a form of minimum contacts that enables a court to exercise personal jurisdiction over a corporate defendant in that state without violating due process because of the extent of the defendants’ activities within that state. Compare: general jurisdiction

In International Shoe v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945), the U.S. Supreme Court required that, in order for a state to exercise personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state corporate defendant, the state must have general jurisdiction and specific jurisdiction over the defendant. 

In McGee v. International Life Insurance, 355 U.S. 220 (1957), the Supreme Court held that a state could exercise personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state corporation defendant where the state had specific jurisdiction over the defendant, even though the state lacked general jurisdiction. There, an individual purchased a life insurance policy in California from an Arizona insurance company. Then, a Texas company bought the Arizona insurance company. The Texas company conducted no operations in California. When the beneficiaries of the policy sued the Texas company, who challenged that the beneficiaries were not entitled to anything under the policy, in California state court, the U.S. Supreme Court held that California had personal jurisdiction over the Texas company. California lacked general jurisdiction over the Texas insurance company, i.e. the corporate defendant, because they had no continuous and systematic operations in California. Since the claim arose directly from the Texas company’s activities though, namely providing a policy to someone in California, California had specific jurisdiction which allowed them to exercise personal jurisdiction. 

Subsequent Supreme Court cases have limited McGee’s holding, and thus the extent to which courts can exercise personal jurisdiction based on specific jurisdiction alone. In 2017, in Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court, the Supreme Court heightened the requirement for how closely the corporate defendant’s activities in the state and the activities from which the claim arose must relate. The Court dispelled any notion that specific jurisdiction is a sliding scale between how extensive a corporate defendant’s activities in the state are and how closely the claim arose from those activities. Instead, the Court clarified that there must be a specific connection between the claims and the corporate defendant’s activities in that state. Specifically, there, plaintiffs from around the country sued Bristol-Myers Squibb, a large pharmaceutical company, in California because Bristol-Myers Squibb conducted extensive research and business there. The Court found that California did not have personal jurisdiction in this case, however, since the plaintiffs’ claims did not directly arise from Bristol-Myers Squibb’s California activities.

[Last updated in December of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]