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Tag, You’re It! Bay State Court Finds Personal Jurisdiction Over Non-Residents Served in the State

Sheridan King

Tag, You’re It! Bay State Court Finds Personal Jurisdiction Over Non-Residents Served in the State
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Early this year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that a non-resident can be sued in the state if served with a complaint while in the state—or what is commonly called transient or tag jurisdiction: “Massachusetts courts have personal jurisdiction over nonresident individuals who are served with process while intentionally, knowingly, and voluntarily in Massachusetts.” Mollica v. Roch, SJC-12517 at 1-2 (Mass. Jan. 4, 2019). The court opined that personal jurisdiction over a nonresident need not be predicated upon a statute; rather, service of process upon nonresidents in Massachusetts comports with both due process and Massachusetts law, which, in turn, effectively confers personal jurisdiction. No previous Supreme Judicial Court precedent precisely analyzed the relationship between tag jurisdiction and statutory jurisdiction over nonresidents. This holding, therefore, officially confirms that personal jurisdiction over a nonresident may be conferred either by service of process in Massachusetts or by statute.

Plaintiff Roch, a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, was injured during a softball team training trip in Florida. While in Florida, the team visited a house rented by the defendants, where Roch was pushed into a swimming pool during a team initiation ritual, injuring her shoulder on the edge of the pool. Subsequently, she filed an action in Worcester Superior Court, alleging that “the [defendants] ‘negligently allowed a dangerous act of initiation or hazing to be imposed upon’ [Roch] and ‘negligently failed to obtain or seek immediate medical attention and/or medical advice for’ her.” Id. at 4. The defendants, both residents of New Hampshire, were later served with process in-hand by a sheriff, while attending a softball game in Massachusetts. Roch argued that tag jurisdiction may confer personal jurisdiction over nonresidents in lieu of personal jurisdiction conferred by the Massachusetts long-arm statute. Moreover, tagging a non-resident defendant with service in Massachusetts can subject them to the application of personal jurisdiction over the defendant.

In summary, the role of transient jurisdiction in Massachusetts courts has now been expressly confirmed by its highest court as an alternative avenue to statutory jurisdiction—at least as to individuals—conferring personal jurisdiction over nonresidents previously outside the reach of Massachusetts statutes.

One question raised by this decision—particularly for commercial litigators—is: What about corporations? Recall that the U.S. Supreme Court has held under the International Shoe framework that general jurisdiction can only be asserted against a corporation where it is at home—i.e, where it is incorporated or has its principal place of business. Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117, 139 (2014). Will service upon a registered agent subject corporations to general jurisdiction of that state’s courts? The Supreme Judicial Court stated in a footnote that it was not going to answer that question: “We do not address whether presence in the forum State when served with process confers personal jurisdiction over corporations.” Mollica v. Roch, SJC-12517 at 3, n.3.