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Jurisdiction found lacking in exploding battery suit

Scott Lauck//June 10, 2020//

Jurisdiction found lacking in exploding battery suit

Scott Lauck//June 10, 2020//

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The Missouri Supreme Court ruled June 2 that a Korean battery manufacturer can’t be sued in Missouri without some kind of direct connection to the state.

Missouri resident Peter Bishop had alleged that one of LG Chem’s lithium-ion batteries exploded while in his pocket, severely burning him. But in a unanimous ruling, the court said the St. Louis County Circuit Court lacked personal jurisdiction over the case because a third party, rather than LG Chem, had sold the battery.

However, the court didn’t quite bring the litigation to an end. In a footnote, the court said the plaintiffs still could ask the circuit court to allow for discovery to determine if LG Chem had a connection with the state that would allow the case to proceed.

John M. Simon of The Simon Law Firm in St. Louis, an attorney for Bishop, said he believed that discovery would show such a connection.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed that the Supreme Court thinks a battery that was shipped to Missouri, sold in Missouri, explodes in Missouri and injures a Missouri citizen, that that Missouri citizen doesn’t have recourse in Missouri courts,” Simon said. “I think that’s a clear indication that our courts are willing to protect foreign manufacturers rather than our own citizens, which I don’t think is proper.”

Bishop had purchased the battery from a Missouri retailer, Smoke Smart, for use in his e-cigarette device. LG Chem maintains that its batteries aren’t intended to be used in such devices and that it doesn’t have any relationship with Smoke Smart or any other Missouri retailer. Instead, Smoke Smart allegedly obtained the batteries from a supplier in China, which in turn had acquired them from a China-based e-bike manufacturer.

The parties agreed that Missouri courts had no general jurisdiction over South Korea-based LG Chem. But Bishop argued that the pattern of the company’s battery sales established specific jurisdiction — that is, jurisdiction based on the particular facts of the case.

A 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of California, held that a state court couldn’t hear suits by nonresidents involving conduct that didn’t occur in that state. Bishop, however, argued that the company satisfied that standard because it must have known that its products were ending up in Missouri. According to the plaintiffs, Smoke Smart itself has sold more than 16,500 of the particular model of LG battery that allegedly injured Bishop.

Judge W. Brent Powell, writing for the Missouri high court, said Bishop’s reading of the Bristol-Myers Squibb standard was “overbroad.”

“Bishop, therefore, argues it was foreseeable that LG Chem batteries would make their way to Missouri and cause injury in this state,” Powell wrote. But, he added, foreseeability isn’t enough to create personal jurisdiction as a matter of due process.

At oral arguments in February, Rachel Hedley, an attorney for LG Chem, told the court that under the facts of the case no U.S. state would have personal jurisdiction over the company. According to the plaintiff’s briefs, there are at least 184 cases involving injuries allegedly caused by exploding LG batteries pending in courts across the country, including four others in Missouri.

Hedley, of the firm Nelson Mullins in South Carolina, didn’t respond to a phone message seeking comment. LG Chem was represented locally by Brown & James.

The case is State ex rel. LG Chem Ltd. v. Watkins McLaughlin, SC97991.

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