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Coons v. Honda Motor Co.

Decided: December 29, 1980.

WALTER P. COONS, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
HONDA MOTOR COMPANY, LTD., OF JAPAN, A CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



On appeal from Interlocutory Order of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County.

Fritz, Polow and Joelson. The opinion of the court was delivered by Polow, J.A.D.

Polow

On October 30, 1974, plaintiff suffered serious injuries when thrown from his 1972 Honda CB350 motorcycle. In his complaint, filed October 30, 1978, he demanded damages from the designer-manufacturer, Honda Motor Co., Ltd. of Japan (Honda Ltd.) and its distributor, American Honda Motor Co., Inc. (American Honda) alleging that he suffered severe burns when the defectively designed gas cap opened during the accident and a fire ensued. American Honda, a wholly owned subsidiary of Honda Ltd., is authorized to do business in New Jersey and was promptly served. A year later, the court authorized service of process on Honda Ltd. through service on a Washington D.C. law firm acting as its agent, it was effected accordingly and Honda Ltd. became a defendant.

Summary judgment was granted in favor of American Honda based on its contention that plaintiff's suit was barred by the statute of limitations. In a separate opinion filed this day, we have affirmed that judgment against plaintiff. Here we deal with the appeal of defendant Honda Ltd. which contends that the court lacked in personam jurisdiction over it and that, in any event, it, too, should be afforded the protection of the statute of limitations, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2.

In December 1977, American Honda notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of its intention to recall certain motorcycle models because a defect had been discovered in the fuel filler cap release mechanism. Notices of the defect were forwarded to owners of the recalled motorcycles, including the 1972 Honda CB350, in December 1977, but plaintiff claims he was unaware of the recall notice until July 1978 when so advised by his neighbor. Hence, he contacted counsel and suit was instituted on October 30, 1978. Appellant does not question the propriety of plaintiff's certification that after diligent inquiry and effort, personal service could not be made on any servant of Honda, Ltd., within this state, and that since the corporation is a foreign corporation with no place of business in this state, as far as service of process is concerned, it may be made by registered or certified mail return receipt requested to a registered agent. R. 4:4-4(c)(1). However, appellant attacks the ruling in favor of in personam jurisdiction, asserting lack of minimum contacts. Additionally, assuming arguendo that there is jurisdiction, it seeks protection of the statute of limitations.

Historically, jurisdiction was based upon a court's de facto authority over the person of the individual. Pennoyer v. Neff , 95 U.S. 714, 24 L. Ed. 565 (1878). Accordingly, the physical presence of a defendant within the jurisdiction was critical to a binding judgment. However, in Int'l Shoe Co. v. Washington , 326 U.S. 310, 66 S. Ct. 154, 90 L. Ed. 95 (1945), the Supreme Court extended the concept of due process to include in personam jurisdiction over a defendant not present within the territory of the forum provided he has "certain minimum contacts with it such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend 'traditional notions of fair play.'" Id. at 316, 66 S. Ct. at 158. See Milliken v. Meyer , 311 U.S. 457, 463, 61 S. Ct. 339, 342, 85 L. Ed. 278 (1940).

Nevertheless, the "minimum contacts" requirement, in order to satisfy due process, requires that the defendant have some contacts, ties, or relations with the forum state for in

personam jurisdiction or that "a corporation exercis[e] the privilege of conducting activities within a state" thus enjoying the benefits and protection of its laws. Int'l Shoe Co. v. Washington, supra , 326 U.S. at 319, 66 S. Ct. at 160. Since 1945 there has been a discernible trend in the direction of expanding of in personam jurisdiction to the extent that, in 1974, a New Jersey Federal District Judge wrote that

when a manufacturer deliberately seeks to profit from marketing its products in a state, he is doing business within that state as to each transaction, whether he does so by an agent, indirectly by mail or even more indirectly through a third party, who may have an exclusive distributorship. In such case there is nothing unfair, unjust or violative of due process standards in imposing ' in personam ' jurisdiction over such a manufacturer in an action predicated upon that transaction.

Indeed, under such circumstances it would be fundamentally unfair for those who purchased products in New Jersey, relying on the protection of New Jersey's laws and courts to assure that the New Jersey's standards of fitness and warranties would be maintained, to be denied adjudication of their claims, and forced to travel throughout this nation, perhaps the world, seeking a forum in which the manufacturer of these goods was actually present. [ Gelineau v. New York Univ. Hosp. , 375 F. Supp. 661, 667 (D.N.J.1974)]

Two years after that decision, a Federal District court in Nebraska under circumstances similar to those here present, involving this very appellant corporation, denied its motion to dismiss for lack of in personam jurisdiction. Hetrick v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc. , 429 F. Supp. 116 (D.Neb.1976). There, addressing the due process issue, the court said: "Where a foreign defendant has reason to know that its products, traveling through interstate commerce will reach an ultimate consumer in any state of the United States, due process is satisfied." Id. at 118. Furthermore, it was reasoned that "it would be ...


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