Cyberlaw Update: A Facebook page does not create personal jurisdiction

May 9, 2012

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(Editor’s Note: Technology changes so quickly nowadays that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. To help with this, Westlaw Insider will be looking at recent developments and updates in social media law and cyberlaw throughout the month of May.)

For the first week’s post on a Facebook “Like” not being expressive, click here.

The Internet has created a vast array of legal complications, and continues to do so today.

One of these many complications is the issue of personal jurisdiction – specifically, when is it created by activities online?

According to a new ruling out of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, personal jurisdiction over an individual or a company is not created simply because of the existence of a Facebook page.

That ruling was Lyons v. Rienzi & Sons, which started as a design defect lawsuit.

Kelly Lyons alleged that he was employed by Rienzi as the captain (and sole crew member) of a yacht – the Brianna – owned by Rienzi, and that, in August of 2008, Lyons was injured after slipping and falling while working aboard the vessel.

Lyons claimed that it was due to the negligent design of the yacht.

Rienzi later brought a third-party complaint against the manufacturer of the Brianna and its putative successor, an intermediate seller, and the designer of the yacht, Nuvolari-Lenard.

Nuvolari then moved to dismiss the claims against it for lack of personal jurisdiction, of which this ruling is the result.

So the court had to look at stuff like Nuvolari’s minimum contacts with the state of New York – the kind of thing that gives lawyers unpleasant flashbacks to their law school civil procedure class.

What the court found in its analysis led it to the conclusion that New York lacked personal jurisdiction over the company:

Nuvolari, founded in 1992, is a small company: it has six full-time employees and four who work part-time.

All of Nuvolari’s design work is carried out at its Italian design center, where the company has a single mailing address.

Its telephone and fax numbers allow it to be contacted only in Italy.

Nuvolari has not sought authorization to do business in – and is not registered to do business in – any state in the U.S.

The company’s website was created in Italy and is updated there, and consumers cannot purchase or request the provision of services through the website

The Brianna was designed in Italy, and Nuvolari’s CEO and senior partner signed the relevant design agreement with an intermediary seller therein.

The only actual business presence that Nuvolari had within the state of New York is its Facebook page, which, naturally, can be accessed by residents of New York.

And this is how the question of whether a Facebook page alone can create personal jurisdiction found its way in front of the court.

Considering the facts of the case, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the court ruled as it did – that maintaining a Facebook page in itself does not create the minimum contacts necessary to establish personal jurisdiction.

The ruling is more or less in line with Zippo Manufacturing Co. v. Zippo Dot Com, Inc., a case heavily cited for determining personal jurisdiction based on a defendant’s website, though the Lyons ruling made no reference to it.

The Zippo case established three different classifications of websites and assigned different jurisdictional analyses for each of them.*

A Facebook page isn’t really a standalone website, but the general principles behind Zippo seem to have been applied here.

If Nuvolari had provided information for users to purchase its products on its Facebook page, would the court have ruled differently?  Perhaps.

Moreover, the intricacies presented by a Facebook page, and the potential uses for any variety of businesses, ensures that this ruling isn’t going to be universally applied to other such jurisdictional questions presented in the future.

However, the case does provide a solid legal foundation to the idea that the mere existence of a Facebook page does not create personal jurisdiction wherever it is accessible.

That is something that surely comes as a relief to many organizations and individuals.

*The three website classifications revealed in Zippo – in order of increasingly likelihood of a finding of personal jurisdiction –  are:

  1. a passive site that only provides information,
  2. websites where users exchange information with host computers, and
  3. websites that conduct business over the Internet.