Food Trucks: Cooking Up a Jurisdictional Dispute

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Food Trucks: Cooking Up a Jurisdictional Dispute

November 10, 2014

foodtruckI love food trucks. They’re just cool. It’s no wonder they’re the latest craze among foodies. Most of them put out surprisingly good fare (not just street tacos, but all types of cuisine) and what’s really nice is they often come to you. But before there was social media, you never knew where a food truck was going to be. Now with Twitter and other social media, you can know where a particular food truck will be at any given time. There are even apps to help you find them.

Since I’m a big fan of food trucks, I couldn’t wait to see the new movie Chef. It tells the story of a renowned chef at a Los Angeles bistro who’s getting ready for a big night because a famous food critic is coming to review his latest work. The chef wants to offer a special menu, but the owner, played by Dustin Hoffman, puts his foot down and instructs the chef to go with the crowd-pleasing favorites. The chef gives in, and as you might guess, disastrous results follow. The critic hates the food and writes a scathing review, personally attacking the chef. The review makes its way to the internet and Twitter, and this sets off a chain of events that drive the remainder of the plot. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but let’s just say the chef doesn’t take the criticism particularly well, and this leads to his quick ouster from the restaurant. It also dashes any hopes he may have had of landing another job in town.

So what does the down-on-his luck, out of work famous chef do? He flies to Miami with his ex-wife and 10 year old-son and finds an old, beaten down and filthy food truck. With the idea planted by his ex-wife, and the help of his son and an assistant chef from his old restaurant, the chef transforms the truck into an amazing Cuban restaurant on wheels. In the process, he transforms his relationship with his son. Together the three embark on a cross-country trip, stopping in culinary meccas like New Orleans (my old stomping ground) where they sample beignets at Café Du Monde, and Austin, Texas, where they pick up a few briskets at Franklin’s Barbecue (I still haven’t been able to get in there before they run out). In the process, the chef not only finds his true calling, but also reunites with his family. It’s a great story.

What does the movie have to do with personal jurisdiction, you ask? Not a whole lot, frankly, at least not directly. But as I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how a court would analyze the issue of personal jurisdiction with respect to a business on wheels, one that travels from state to state, with no fixed presence in any one state. What if, God forbid, the chef had given a tourist in the French Quarter a life-threatening case of food poisoning? Since I’ve personally enjoyed the toilet-hanging experience of salmonella food poisoning, I wondered in what state(s) the food truck business and its chef could be sued.

Based on recent clarifications in the law, the answer became pretty apparent. In Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S.Ct. 746 (2014), the U.S. Supreme Court held that “general” jurisdiction exists in the state where the defendant is considered “at home.” Well, that standard doesn’t really apply to a business that is constantly on the move and has no real home. Although the food truck would be titled and licensed in a particular state, those “contacts” might not be substantial enough to trigger a finding of general jurisdiction if the truck doesn’t do a lot of business there.

If a court were to have jurisdiction over a food truck in this scenario, it would likely be in the form of “specific,” not general jurisdiction. Specific jurisdiction is “case-linked” jurisdiction. Another recent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, Walden v. Fiore, 134 S.Ct. 1115, (2014), makes clear that the focus of a court’s analysis with respect to this type of jurisdiction is where the defendant’s activity occurs that gives rise to the claim. The state where the plaintiff happens to reside, or feels the effect of the defendant’s conduct, is largely if not completely irrelevant.

So in our food truck hypothetical, our tourist plaintiff wouldn’t be entitled to sue the food truck business in his or her home state, even if he or she didn’t become ill until arriving home (what a fun plane ride that would be). The plaintiff would have to sue the food truck business in Louisiana, where the food was prepared and served. And the food truck business would have to answer and defend the suit in Louisiana since it established “minimum contacts” in that state by making the conscious decision to enter the state and serve food there. It would not matter that the food truck was long gone from Louisiana by the time the plaintiff became ill. The proper forum would still be Louisiana.

This is all “food for thought,” but doesn’t this discussion just make your mouth water?

Bon appetit!

Written By: Alex Beard

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