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Piper Aircraft v. Reyno

    Brief Fact Summary
    A plane crashed in Scotland killing six Scottish people.  A wrongful death lawsuit was filed in a U.S. court on behalf of the decedents.  Defendants were named as the makers of the plane and the propeller, both companies based in the United States.  The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, on forum non conveniens grounds.  The federal court of appeals reversed and remanded to trial.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law
    (1) The possibility of an unfavorable change in law does not bar dismissal on the ground of forum non conveniens.  (2) The presumption in favor of the plaintiff’s forum choice applies with less than maximum force where the real parties in interest are foreign and private and public interests favor trial outside the United States.

    Facts
    In 1976, a plane crashed in Scotland killing six people, all Scottish.  The twin-engine plane was manufactured in Pennslvania by Piper aircraft (Defendant), and the propellers were manufactured by Hartzell Propeller, Inc. (Defendant) in Ohio.  The airplane was registered in Great Britain and was owned and maintained by Air Navigation and Trading Co.  It was operated by McDonald Aviation, Ltd., a Scottish air taxi service.  The court appointed administratrix of the estates of the five passengers, Gaynell Reyno (Plaintiff), filed a wrongful death lawsuit in a U.S. court on behalf of the decedents.  The lawsuit named Piper (Defendant) and Hartzell (Defendant) as defendants, but not Air Navigation and Trading or McDonald Aviation.  Reyno (Plaintiff) admits that the action against Defendants was filed in the United States because its laws on the issues were more favorable to her case than Scottish laws.  Defendants moved to dismiss on the ground of forum non conveniens, and the district court granted the motions.  The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded to trial.

    Issue
    (1) Does the possibility of an unfavorable change in law does not bar dismissal on the ground of forum non conveniens?  (2) Does the presumption in favor of the plaintiff’s forum choice apply with less than maximum force where the real parties in interest are foreign and private and public interests favor trial outside the United States?

    Held
    (Marshall, J.)
    (1) No.  The possibility of an unfavorable change in law does not bar dismissal on the ground of forum non conveniens.  While the possibility of an unfavorable change in law should sometimes be a relevant consideration in a forum non conveniens inquiry, for example when the remedy provided by the alternative forum is so clearly inadequate or unsatisfactory that it is no remedy at all.  However, in this case, the remedies that would be provided by the Scottish courts do not fall in that category.  There is no danger here that the relatives of the decedents will be deprived of any remedy or untreated unfairly.  Also, if substantial weight were given to the possibility of a change in law, dismissal would rarely be proper, and the forum non conveniens doctrine would become nearly useless.  Finally, if substantial weight were given to the possibility of a change in law, deciding motions to dismiss on the ground of forum non conveniens would become difficult, and choice-of-law analysis would become more important, and courts would often be required to interpret the law of foreign jurisdictions.  American courts would become even more attractive to foreign plaintiffs than they already are.  The flow of litigation into the United States would increase and further congest already crowded courts.

    (2) Yes.  The presumption in favor of the plaintiff’s forum choice applies with less than maximum force where the real parties in interest are foreign and private and public interests favor trial outside the United States.  Under Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501 (1947), dismissal will be appropriate where trial in the plaintiff’s chosen forum imposes a heavy burden on the defendant or the court, and where the plaintiff is unable to offer any specific reasons of convenience supporting his choice.  The district court determined that the plaintiff’s choice of forum deserved less deference since the real parties in interest are foreign, and properly turned to balancing the private interests of the plaintiffs and defendants, as well as consideration of the public interests.  When the forum has been chosen, it is reasonable to assume that this choice is convenient, but when the plaintiff is foreign, this assumption is much less reasonable.  The central purpose of any forum non conveniens inquiry is to ensure that the trial is convenient, and therefore, a foreign plaintiff’s choice deserves less deference.  Also, the district court reasonably considered the private and public interests would be best served if the trial were held in Scotland.  The district court was correct in concluding that the problems posed by the inability to implead potential third-party defendants supported holding the trial in Scotland.  Additionally, the factors relating to the public interest were also reasonable.  Scotland has a very strong interest in this litigation.  Reversed.

    Dissent
    (Stevens, J.)  Whereas a motion to dismiss on forum non conveniens grounds should not be denied just because the alternate forum is less favorable to recovery, the case should be remanded to determine whether the district court was correct in deciding that Pennsylvania was not a convenient forum.

    Discussion
    In footnote 6 of the opinion, the court lists the private and public interests that are balanced in a Gilbert inquiry, but the court does not state how factors are balanced to reach a conclusion.


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