Biker Attacks, Cabarets & Online Jurisdiction: Lessons in Staying Home and Safely Watching TV

BikerA Pennsylvania Pro se Plaintiff sued a Massachusetts “cabaret” for its employee’s failure to call 911 while he was being attacked by Hell Angels.  No, this is not a “Sons of Anarchy” episode, but an actual court case: Spuglio v. Cabaret Lounge, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 20398 (3d Cir. Pa. Sept. 14, 2009).

The Plaintiff sued in Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Defendant brought a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. 

The Plaintiff claimed personal jurisdiction was proper over the Defendant in Pennsylvania because the Defendant maintained an “active” website.  Spuglio, 2-3.

The Court dismissed the case for lack of personal jurisdiction. 

Standards for Online Personal Jurisdiction

Personal jurisdiction from a website depends on “the nature and quality of commercial activity that [the defendant] conducts over the Internet.” Spuglio, 4, citing Zippo Mfg. Co. v. Zippo Dot Com, Inc.,952 F. Supp. 1119, 1124 (W.D. Pa. 1997); see also Toys “R” Us, Inc. v. Step Two, SA, 318 F.3d 446, 453 (3d Cir. 2003) .

Google Searches & Personal Jurisdiction

The Pro se Plaintiff’s evidence supporting an active website was a printout from Google of the Defendant’s address.  Spuglio, 2. 

The Court of Appeals was gracious in not bluntly saying “No” to the Pro se Plaintiff.  

The Court of Appeals held that using Google to locate the Defendant’s address was not an “active” website to establish personal jurisdiction.  Spuglio, 5.  Nor was a hyperlink to a website administrator’s email address sufficient to show an “active” website.  Spuglio, 7.

A party does not have control over a Google search and what is passively available online from an Internet search.  Spuglio, 5. Even if there were reviews on Google (or Yelp), those are not paid advertisements by a party, let alone an active website controlled by a party.  Furthermore, the Court of Appeals stated established law that “merely posting information online is insufficient” to establish “nationwide” jurisdiction.  Spuglio, 5-6.

The Court of Appeals held that subjecting a party to personal jurisdiction because of a Google search would not “comport with fair play and substantial justice.” Spuglio, 6, citing Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 477, 105 S. Ct. 2174, 85 L. Ed. 2d 528 (1985). 

The Court dismissed the case for lack of personal jurisdiction.

Bow Tie Lessons

Courts have consistently held for over a decade that passive websites are not a gateway to general or specific jurisdiction.  Seeking personal jurisdiction over a party because of a Google search would cause chaos in jurisdictional analysis, let alone drive “fair play and substantial justice” off a cliff.