A drop-down menu and a few sales create personal jurisdiction over nonresident website operator

Many of the cases that deal with personal jurisdiction arising from online activity are of limited instructional value, because the defendant often has contacts with the forum state in addition to the contacts made through the Internet. The cases are usually fact-specific, and it is sometimes difficult to distill principles that may apply to other situations where a plaintiff claims that a court should exercise personal jurisdiction over a nonresident party because of something that party did online.

The recent decision in the case of Qwest Comm. Int’l. v. Sonny Corp., however, provides some useful guidance on the question of Internet jurisdiction, because the facts are relatively simple. The defendant has a website through which products are sold, and indeed has fulfilled the orders of at least three customers living in the state where the action was filed.

Telecom giant Qwest sued family-owned Sonny Corporation in federal court in the state of Washington. From its facility in Michigan, Sonny sells educational plush toys called “Qwesties” through the website www.qwesty.com. Qwest alleged, among other things, that Sonny’s use of the name “Qwesty” in connection with toys dilutes the famous Qwest trademark.

Sonny moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. The court denied the motion, holding that Sonny purposefully availed itself to the privilege of conducting activity in the state of Washington.

The Qwesty website is simple in its layout and operation. It is not unlike thousands of other small business e-commerce websites. A visitor merely chooses a product for purchase, and, in the process of completing the transaction, selects from a drop-down menu the state to which the product should be shipped. Every state, including Washington, is listed as a choice in this drop-down menu.

Determining that it could exercise personal jurisdiction over the out-of-state defendant, the court applied both the Zippo “sliding scale” test (derived from Zippo Mfg. Co. v. Zippo Dot Com, Inc., 952 F.Supp 1119 (W.D. Pa. 1997)) and the “effects doctrine” of Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783 (1984). Citing to Rio Props. v. Rio Int’l Interlink, 284 F.3d 1007 (9th Cir. 2002), the court held that “[g]enerally, operating at least a passive website, in conjunction with ‘something more’ that demonstrates that the defendant directed activity toward the forum state, is sufficient to confer jurisdiction.”

The court concluded that Sonny’s website is sufficiently interactive under the Zippo test because it is used to “advertise, sell and ship [the] product[s] into customers’ Washington homes.” In holding that Sonny’s conduct satisfied the “effects doctrine,” the court emphasized that sales efforts are “expressly aimed at Washington in that the website lists Washington as an available shipping location and Defendant intentionally ship[s] its product into this state.” Furthermore, that conduct has allegedly caused harm in Washington.

One is left to wonder whether the holding would have been different had Sonny omitted the drop-down menu that included Washington state as a choice. If it were up to the Internet user to manually type in his or her home state, would that render the consumers as the ones doing the “express aiming” and not Sonny? Should a website owner only pre-populate its form fields with the names of states in which it is willing to conduct litigation?

Qwest Comm. Int’l, Inc. v. Sonny Corp., (Slip Op.) 2006 WL 1319451 (W.D. Wash., May 15, 2006).