Citation. 54 U.S. 235, 102 S. Ct. 252, 70 L. Ed. 2d 419 (1981)
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Brief Fact Summary.
Plaintiffs sued Defendants, in state court arising from injuries sustained in a plane crash in Scotland. The cases were removed to federal court and transferred to the District Court of Pennsylvania. Defendants moved to dismiss under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, arguing that the better forum was located in Scotland.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
The doctrine of forum non conveniens allows a court to dismiss a case that was brought in the wrong forum. When all or most of the significant events, witnesses and evidence are centered in one location, then a court must dismiss a case brought in another location under the doctrine of forum non conveniens unless the alternate forum provides the plaintiff with absolutely no remedy. Whether the law of the forum chosen by the plaintiff is more favorable to the plaintiff should not be given weight.
There was a plane crash in Scotland, where five citizens of Scotland were killed. The aircraft was manufactured in Pennsylvania by Piper Aircraft Company (Defendant) and the propellers were made in Ohio by Hartzell Propeller, Inc. (Defendant). The plane was registered in Great Britain and owned and operated by people from the United Kingdom. The wreckage was in England. An investigation conducted by The British Department of Trade concluded that there was no evidence of defective equipment and that the crash was probably due to pilot error. Reyno, Plaintiff, a legal secretary for the attorney of the decedents’ survivors, was appointed administratrix of the decedents’ estate by a California probate court. Plaintiff commenced separate wrongful death actions against the Piper and Hartzell in California Superior Court, claiming negligence and strict liability. They also filed suit in the United Kingdom against the owner and operator. Plaintiff admits that she filed suit in the United Stat
es because of its laws regarding liability and capacity to sue. Defendant filed motion to remove to the District Court in California which was granted. Piper moved to transfer to the District Court in Pennsylvania. Hartzell moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction or, in the alternative, to transfer. The District Court quashed service and transferred the case to Pennsylvania. Plaintiff then served Hartzell with process in the District Court in Pennsylvania. Defendants moved to dismiss for forum non conveniens.
The District Court of Pennsylvania granted the motions based on the analysis articulated in [Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501, 67 S.Ct. 839, 91 L.Ed. 1055 (1947)], namely that: 1) An alternative forum existed in Scotland; 2) The plaintiff only filed in the U.S. for the favorable law; 3) There were overwhelming connections with Scotland; 4) Witnesses and evidence were beyond the reach of compulsory process.; 5) All of Defendants’ witnesses are in Great Britain; 6) There should be only one trial to preserve judicial expense and avoid the risk of inconsistent verdicts; 7) Scottish law would apply to Hartzell, and Pennsylvania law would apply to Piper, which would be excessively confusing for a jury; 8) The jurors have little connection to the controversy; 9) Scotland has a substantial interest in the outcome of litigation.
The Circuit Court reversed and remanded District Court’s decision. It held that the District Court abused its discretion when using the Gilbert analysis. In addition, the court baed its argument on several additional factors: (1) dismissal is never appropriate where the law of the alternative forum is less favorable to Plaintiffs; (2) Plaintiffs’ choice of forum deserves substantial weight even though they are non-residents; (3) Defendants did not prove that all their witnesses were in Great Britain; (4) Defendants’ inability to implead other defendants would be burdensome but not unfair; (5) viewing the wreckage and Scottish topography was not that significant; (6) application of foreign law does not require dismissal; (7) Pennsylvania and Ohio would be the governing law anyway, because these states have the greatest policy interests; and finally (8) a dismissal for forum non conveniens should not result in a change in the applicable law, just a change in the location of the trial. T
he Supreme Court read this holding to mandate that dismissal is automatically barred if it would lead to a change in the applicable law unfavorable to the plaintiff.
Should a case be dismissed on the grounds of forum non conveniens when all the witnesses and evidence are in another country, the other country’s jurors would be more connected to the problem, it is inconvenient to the parties to try the case in the jurisdiction where it was brought, and the other country’s law will be applied?
The possibility of a change of law should not be given substantial weight in a forum non conveniens analysis. Plaintiffs can choose among many forums, and generally choose the most favorable one. If they do not choose the most favorable but the action can be dismissed anyway, it would not be proper. In addition, courts would have to interpret the law of foreign districts, which would pose a lot of problems and inconsistencies. This is why there is a doctrine of forum non conveniens, to get rid of this kind of confusion.
Upholding the Court of Appeals’ judgment would also increase the flow of litigation, and the courts would be overwhelmed.
Choice of law should only be considered in this scenario when the remedy in the alternative forum is totally inadequate or when the alternative forum lacks subject matter jurisdiction. The facts of the case do not show either scenario.
Giving the plaintiff’s interests less weight is justified when the plaintiffs are foreign. Under this circumstance, the choice of forum is not necessarily convenient. The connections with Scotland were not necessarily “overwhelming”, but the District Court correctly found that there would be fewer evidentiary problems. If Defendants had to prove exactly what persons it would be difficult to identify and bring as witnesses, Defendants required expenditures would defeat the purpose of their motion.
Even if Scottish law would not apply, the other public interest factors would be sufficient to support dismissal. There is a local interest. The American interest is not sufficient.
Choosing a particular forum because the law is more favorable to the plaintiff cannot be given any substantial weight under a forum non conveniens analysis. Although the general rule is that a court should not dismiss a case on grounds of forum non conveniens unless there is an alternate forum in which the plaintiff can pursue a remedy, this rule only requires that the plaintiff be able to file a proper lawsuit in that alternate fo