October 28, 2020

The State of Minnesota Court of Appeals (“Minnesota Appellate Court”) held in its unpublished opinion dated September 28, 2020: “Following the death of the musician Prince, the trustee for his next of kin brought a wrongful-death action against a physician and healthcare clinic, both located in California, alleging that they failed to provide adequate medical advice that would have prevented Prince’s death. These defendants moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, and the district court granted the motion. Because the defendants’ alleged contacts with Minnesota are insufficient to establish specific personal jurisdiction over them, we affirm.”

The Underlying Facts

This case arose out of the death of musician Prince Rogers Nelson (“Prince”). Prince passed away at his home in Carver County, Minnesota, in April 2016, due to an accidental overdose of opioid drugs. Appellant Michael Zimmer was appointed trustee of Prince’s next of kin, and he sued healthcare providers for their allegedly negligent failure to take reasonable steps to prevent Prince’s overdose. These healthcare providers are not parties to this appeal.

Zimmer amended his complaint to add respondents Dr. Howard Kornfeld and the doctor’s healthcare clinic, Recovery Without Walls. According to the complaint, Dr. Kornfeld practices in California and specializes in addiction treatment, including the treatment of opioid addiction. The complaint alleged that Prince’s agents contacted the Kornfeld defendants by telephone in California to seek advice for emergency addiction treatment for Prince. It also asserted that these defendants departed from the proper standard of medical care by failing to advise Prince’s agents that Prince should be immediately admitted to a treatment facility. And it alleged that the defendants sent Dr. Kornfeld’s son, Andrew Kornfeld, to Minnesota with medicine to treat Prince, but that he was unqualified and not licensed to administer the medicine and was also tardy, arriving in Minnesota at about the time of Prince’s death.

The Kornfeld defendants moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Zimmer argued that the district court had specific personal jurisdiction because the Kornfeld defendants engaged in Minnesota-directed conduct that formed the basis for the wrongful-death action. The district court granted the motion to dismiss, and Zimmer appealed.

Minnesota Appellate Court Opinion

Specific Jurisdiction

Zimmer argued on appeal that personal jurisdiction exists based on specific contacts (“specific jurisdiction”). Specific jurisdiction exists when a defendant has purposefully directed his activities at residents of the forum and the alleged injuries giving rise to the litigation arise out of or relate to those activities. This requires a relationship between the defendant, the forum, and the litigation.

Minnesota courts consider five factors when assessing whether the exercise of personal jurisdiction over a defendant comports with due process: (1) the quantity of contacts with the forum state; (2) the nature and quality of those contacts; (3) the connection of the cause of action with these contacts; (4) the interest of the state providing a forum; and (5) the convenience of the parties. Although Minnesota courts have applied all five factors when analyzing claims of specific jurisdiction, because specific-jurisdiction cases typically involve relatively few contacts and rest on the degree to which the lawsuit derives from those contacts, the second and third factors are the most relevant.

In the present case, the Minnesota Appellate Court stated that the Kornfeld defendants had two relevant contacts with Minnesota. The first is the telephone contact initiated by Prince’s agents, who called the defendants seeking advice about emergency treatment for Prince. During the phone conversation, the defendants failed to say that Prince should be admitted to a treatment facility immediately. The second is Andrew Kornfeld’s flight to Minnesota. The Kornfeld defendants sent Andrew to Minnesota to administer medicine to Prince, but he arrived in Minnesota too late, at about the time that Prince died.

The Minnesota Appellate Court concluded that Andrew’s flight does not establish specific personal jurisdiction because the contact is immaterial to the wrongful-death action. To establish sufficient minimum contacts, it is the defendant’s conduct that must form the necessary connection with the forum state. By arriving in Minnesota at about the time that Prince passed away and having no interaction with Prince or his agents, Andrew engaged in no conduct in Minnesota related to the allegedly death-causing negligence of the Kornfeld defendants. Because Andrew’s flight to Minnesota has no nexus to the alleged negligence in the wrongful-death action, the contact does not provide a basis for specific personal jurisdiction.

The Minnesota Appellate Court further concluded that the telephone communication between the Kornfeld defendants and Prince’s agents also does not establish specific personal jurisdiction. Personal jurisdiction depends on the defendants’ conduct and connection with the forum state, and the conduct must be such that they should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there. The Minnesota Appellate Court stated that the complaint demonstrates that it was Prince’s agents who unilaterally initiated the telephone contact with the Kornfeld defendants, and the communication was limited to a single occurrence. “The Kornfeld defendants did not reach into Minnesota; Prince’s agents reached out to them from Minnesota. This was the only relevant contact, and it does not support personal jurisdiction because it is not of a nature that would cause the Kornfeld defendants to reasonably expect to be brought to court in Minnesota.”

The Minnesota Appellate Court further explained, “the Kornfeld defendants’ alleged non-conduct differs in nature from the active conduct in those [cited] cases. They neither initiated the communication nor misadvised Prince’s agents or intentionally or even negligently provided inaccurate advice. Applying the rudimentary principles of due process, we do not believe it is fundamentally fair for the state to exercise its power to summon California defendants to court in Minnesota based on contact that the plaintiff unilaterally initiated and that rests on the defendants’ not giving advice. A plaintiff cannot manufacture personal jurisdiction in this way.”

Source Michael A. Zimmer, Appellant, vs. Michael T. Schulenberg, M.D., et al., Defendants, Howard Kornfeld, M.D., et al., Respondents, A19-2030.

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