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Hillerich & Bradsby Co. Inc. v. Christie's, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

May 4, 2017

HILLERICH & BRADSBY CO., INC. PLAINTIFF
v.
CHRISTIE'S, INC., et al. DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge.

         Fifty years ago, a baseball bat once belonging to Hall of Famer George Sisler disappeared from the Louisville Slugger factory in Kentucky. Six months ago, Christie's, the famous New York auction house, sold Sisler's bat at auction to an unknown bidder. Today, Hillerich & Bradsby (H&B), manufacturer of the world-renowned Louisville Slugger, wants it back. May H&B hale the bat's consignor and auctioneer into court in Kentucky, or must H&B go to them?

         In 2016, Christie's listed for sale the Louisville Slugger bat George Sisler used to smack his record-breaking 257th hit in the 1920 season. H&B says this was the first time it knew of the bat's whereabouts since it was stolen from H&B's factory in 1967. After negotiations for the bat's return fell through, Christie's sold it at auction for $137, 500.00. H&B brought this suit against the bat's consignor, the bat's purchaser, and Christie's.[1] See [DN 13.] Defendants now move to dismiss H&B's complaint, arguing that this Court lacks personal jurisdiction over them. [DN 14.] They assert that, aside from their former possession of the Sisler bat, they have no substantial connection to Kentucky. H&B contends that by transferring possession of the bat after H&B claimed that it was stolen, Defendants caused harm in Kentucky, rendering them amenable to suit in this forum. See [DN 20.]

         To adjudicate this dispute on its merits, this Court must possess jurisdiction over not only the subject matter of the action, but also the parties to it. And in this diversity suit, the Court may only exercise personal jurisdiction over Defendants when courts of this Commonwealth could do so under Kentucky's long-arm statute. Int'l. Tech. Consultants, Inc. v. Euroglas S.A., 107 F.3d 386, 391 (6th Cir. 1997). Here, no Defendant caused “tortious injury by an act or omission in this Commonwealth, ” so no personal jurisdiction exists under Kentucky law. KRS 454.210(2)(a)(3). And while it presents a closer question, this Court may not exercise jurisdiction over Defendants without running afoul of the federal due process clause, because no Defendant “purposefully avail[ed] itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state.” Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 253 (1958). Defendants' motion [DN 14] is GRANTED, and H&B's claims against them are dismissed.

         I

         George Sisler is widely regarded as “the first great first baseman of the twentieth century.” Bill Lamberty, George Sisler, Society for American Baseball Research, https://goo.gl/SLcqhv. He joined the St. Louis Browns in 1915 as a southpaw pitcher, but the Browns soon realized that Sisler's slugging was needed on a daily basis, and moved him to first base. Id. From 1916 to 1927, fans of the Browns never had to ask, “Who's on first?” - it was always “Gorgeous George.” Sisler's longtime American League rival Ty Cobb described him as “the nearest thing to a perfect ballplayer” Cobb had ever seen. Sisler, George, Baseball Hall of Fame, https://goo.gl/LK4aNX. Even Justice Blackmun included Sisler in his list of ballplayers who “sparked the diamond and its environs and . . . provided tinder for recaptured thrills, for reminiscence and comparisons, and for conversation and anticipation in-season and off-season.” Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258, 263 (1972). Sisler was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. Hall of Fame, supra. [2]

         Although Sisler earned a reputation as an outstanding first baseman, his hitting prowess eclipsed even his fielding abilities. Sisler finished his career as the best player in St. Louis Browns history, with 2, 812 hits and a .340 career batting average. Hall of Fame, supra. Sisler's 1922 campaign was particularly remarkable. He won the American League's first-ever Most Valuable Player award, and his .420 batting average “still stands as the third-best season average in modern baseball history.” Lamberty, supra. Two years earlier, he batted an impressive .407 while swatting 257 hits, a single-season record. Id. Sisler's mark stood in a league of its own until 2004, when, with Sisler's descendants in attendance, Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki surpassed his record. Ichiro visits Sisler's grave, ESPN.com (July 15, 2009), https://goo.gl/wguFn9.

         The lumber Sisler swung to accomplish his 257th hit is the subject of this case. Since 1894, Hillerich & Bradsby has manufactured baseball bats under the “Louisville Slugger” trademark. [DN 13 at 1.] Many of the game's all-time greats have wielded a Louisville Slugger. And on Sunday, October 3, 1920 at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, so too did George Sisler. See [id. at 4]; Retrosheet Boxscore: St. Louis Browns 16, Chicago White Sox 7, Retrosheet, https://goo.gl/n8XTqE. Following his retirement, Sisler returned the record-breaking bat to H&B to be used for promotional purposes. [DN 13 at 4.] Apparently believing if they built it, the fans would come, H&B constructed a traveling “Old Timers Bat Display” that included Sisler's bat and several others. [Id.] In October 1967, H&B loaned the display to the Mercantile Trust Company in St. Louis to celebrate World Series week. [Id. at 5.] Following the St. Louis Cardinals' victory in Game 7, the display was returned to H&B in Louisville.

         Then George Sisler's baseball bat went missing.

         The parties dispute how and why the bat disappeared. Defendants claim that Sisler's bat and others were discarded by H&B and given to an employee, Rex Bradley. [DN 14 at 3.] Bradley sold the bats, including Sisler's, piecemeal from his garage. [Id.] According to Defendants, Sisler's bat was sold and resold three times prior to 2016. [Id.] However, for the purpose of resolving Defendants' motion, the Court will accept as true H&B's well-pleaded factual allegation that the bat was stolen from the Louisville Slugger factory. [DN 13 at 6]; see Binno v. Am. Bar. Assoc., 826 F.3d 338, 344 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 501 (1975)).

         In any event, H&B says it knew nothing of the whereabouts of the Sisler bat until Christie's listed it for auction in New York City. [DN 13 at 5.] Christie's is an auction house that offers valuable art and memorabilia for sale to buyers worldwide. [Id. at 3.] Bidders can participate in live auctions in person, on the phone, or via the internet. In addition, Christie's hosts a number of online-only auctions. Christie's catalogue described the Sisler bat as follows:

An un-cracked, Hillerich & Bradsby, Pre Model number bat dating from the 1916-20 labeling period with the signature George Sisler emblazoned upon the barrel. Exhibits heavy use with a chip on the knob, many ball marks visible on the right, left and back barrel (ball marks include green ink transfers), bat rack streaks, defined lathe marks in the handle, a moderate coat of pine tar on the upper handle and small nails removed from the barrel. A label from the Louisville Slugger traveling display is affixed to the front barrel attributing this bat to George Sisler's 257th hit of the 1920 season, a record number of hits in a season that would stand for 84 years (the label misidentifies the hit as a home run). The Louisville Slugger traveling display was used as a marketing tool for the company and features 20 bats of the greatest hitters in the game. The display was used by the company for over forty years. Hall of Famer George Sisler (1893-1973) played for the St. Louis Browns from 1915-1927, during the labeling period of the offered bat. Authenticated and graded by PSA/DNA GU 10.

George Sisler Professional Model Bat, Christie's, https://goo.gl/N8TLbv. H&B later learned the bat was consigned for sale by its then-owner, California resident Mark Roberts. Roberts founded and currently manages two business entities: 33 Collections LLC, a California limited liability company, and 33 Baseball Foundation, a Delaware corporation headquartered in California. [DN 13 at 3.] Through his companies, Roberts operates www.TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com, an online museum that displays pictures of historical baseball artifacts for its virtual patrons. [Id.] Roberts says that in 2010, he purchased the Sisler bat from Leland's, another New York auction house, for $152, 647.15. [DN 14-2.] He kept the bat for a few years, and then consigned it with Christie's. [Id.]

         After Christie's listed the Sisler bat alongside other memorabilia in its “Golden Age of Baseball” auction, H&B contacted Christie's, claiming the bat was rightfully H&B's. [DN 13 at 6.] The two parties corresponded, each asking the other to prove ownership. During this time, H&B was unaware Roberts was the bat's consignor. After negotiation proved unavailing, H&B filed suit in state court, naming as defendants Christie's and the then-anonymous consignor of the Sisler bat. [DN 1-3.] Defendants removed H&B's suit to this Court, unmasking Roberts and his companies in the process. [DN 1.] Thereafter, Christie's sold the bat to an as-yet-unknown buyer for $137, 500.00, and transferred possession of the bat to the buyer in New York. [DN 13 at 6.] H&B amended its complaint to name this John Doe, not believed to be a Kentucky resident, as an additional defendant. See [id.] H&B seeks a declaration that it is the bat's true owner and either a writ of replevin ordering the bat's return or compensation for its loss. [Id. at 7-8.]

         Roberts, Roberts' companies, and Christie's jointly moved to dismiss, arguing that this Court lacks personal jurisdiction over them. [DN 14.] H&B responded, [DN 20], and Defendants replied, [DN 21]. Fully briefed, Defendants' motion is ripe for adjudication.

         II

         Under Rule 12(b)(2), a defendant may challenge the Court's authority to entertain an action against him for lack of personal jurisdiction. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(2). In diversity cases, the Court's exercise of personal jurisdiction must not only be authorized by the forum state's long-arm statute, but also must comport with the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Daimler AG v. Bauman, ___ U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 746, 753 (2014); accord Brunner v. Hampson, 441 F.3d 457, 463 (6th Cir. 2006). When the Court decides the jurisdictional question based solely upon the parties' written submissions, the plaintiff bears the burden of making a prima facie showing that personal jurisdiction exists. AlixPartners, LLP v. Brewington, 836 F.3d 543, 549 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting Air Prods. & Controls, Inc. v. Safetech Int'l, Inc., 503 F.3d 544, 549 (6th Cir. 2007)). “In that instance, the ...


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