June 23, 2021
What Happened: A Florida federal judge dismissed a Helms-Burton Act claim for lack of personal jurisdiction over the defendant and closed the case.
The Bottom Line: A foreign company does not subject itself to a court’s jurisdiction merely by selling its products through a publicly accessible website and at duty-free stores in international airports to residents of a certain state. Federal judges continue to limit the circumstances in which courts may exercise general personal jurisdiction over foreign companies.
The Full Story
In Cueto Iglesias v. Pernod Ricard, the plaintiffs sued Pernod Ricard, a French spirits company, under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. The Act allows U.S. nationals who have had property confiscated by the Cuban government to sue those “trafficking” in the confiscated property. The plaintiffs alleged that the Cuban government confiscated without compensation all assets, including intellectual property, of Cueto, a cognac producer and seller, ultimately rebranding the assets as Havana Club. The plaintiffs, heirs of Cueto’s deceased founder, alleged that Pernod “trafficked” in the property by selling Havana Club. Pernod moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction.
The plaintiffs argued that the court had general personal jurisdiction over Pernod. General personal jurisdiction is broad, allowing a court to hear any case involving the defendant. It does not require that the case have anything to do with the state in which the court is located. Rather, for general personal jurisdiction to attach, the defendant must have substantial contacts with the forum state. The plaintiffs argued that general personal jurisdiction was satisfied because a Pernod subsidiary sells Havana Club, duty-free, to international travelers flying out of the Miami airport. Moreover, they argued that Pernod’s marketing, selling, and distributing of Havana Club to Florida residents through a publicly accessible website was sufficient to establish general personal jurisdiction over Pernod. The court disagreed.
The court stated that if conducting business in duty-free shops in international airports and through generally accessible websites was sufficient to establish general personal jurisdiction, then courts in almost every major city in the U.S. would have personal jurisdiction over almost every foreign corporation. The court listed various examples of similar, as well as even more substantial, contacts that did not satisfy the requirements for general personal jurisdiction. Because the plaintiffs failed to establish general personal jurisdiction, the court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss and closed the case.