Court Rules Website Is "Equivalent" To Physical Store In California

While there may be a myriad of differences between a physical store and a website, a California Court of Appeal ruled yesterday that corporeal is the equivalent of the incorporeal, at least when it comes to jurisdiction.  

The case involves the plaintiff's allegation that the defendant's website is is not fully accessible by the blind and the visually impaired, in violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act. (Civ. Code, § 51 et seq.)  The defendant, which sells collectibles through catalogs and a website, successfully moved to quash service of summons on the basis that it did not have sufficient minimum contacts with California. 

The Court of Appeal reversed finding that specific jurisdiction existed.  It found that making a substantial number of sales of goods or services to California residents via one’s own website constitutes purposeful availment.  The Court, however, expressly did not hold that California law (i.e., the Unruh Civil Rights Act) applies to the defendant, finding that the issue of personal jurisdiction is distinct from the issue of choice of law.  Thurston v. Fairfield Collectibles of Georgia, LLC, Cal. Ct. of Appeal Case No. E072909 (Aug. 26, 2020).

Justice Frank J. Menetrez wrote a strong dissent, arguing:

"The facts of this case are analogous—some California residents happened upon an out-of-state website that does not target California, believed it to be unlawfully inaccessible, and are trying to subject the website operator to suit in California. The law of specific personal jurisdiction does not allow that—plaintiffs’ claims are not related to and do not arise from any conduct by Fairfield [the defendant] that is purposefully directed at California residents."

Note to readers: Parts III (Appealability) and IV (Mootness) are not certified for publication.  See Cal. Rules of Court, Rules rules 8.1105(b) and 8.1110.