454 U.S. 235 (1981).
One-Sentence Takeaway: A motion to dismiss based on forum non conveniens should be denied if the remedy provided by the alternative forum is so clearly inadequate that it is no remedy at all; however, such a motion cannot be defeated merely by a showing that the substantive law that would be applied in the alternative forum is less favorable to the plaintiff than the law of the current forum.
Summary: A wrongful death action was brought in the United States District Court located in Pennsylvania by six Scottish residents as a result of an airplane crash that occurred in Scotland. The plaintiffs alleged venue was proper because the plane was manufactured in Pennsylvania, the forum state.
The District Court dismissed the action based on forum non conveniens and the United States Supreme Court upheld the dismissal.
The Court reasoned that a plaintiff may not defeat a forum non conveniens motion merely by showing that the substantive law of the alternative forum would be less favorable to the plaintiff than the law of the present forum. However, where a showing is made that the remedy provided by the alternative forum is so clearly inadequate or unsatisfactory that it is no remedy at all, a forum non conveniens motion may be denied.
Here, the plaintiffs opposed the motion by arguing that strict liability, recognized under Pennsylvania law, was not recognized under Scottish law. The Court held that the fact there was no strict liability in Scotland was not a sufficient reason to justify retention in Pennsylvania.
Lueck v. Sundstrand Corp., 236 F.3d 1137 (9th Cir. 2001):
In Piper Aircraft, the Supreme Court held that a foreign country was not an inadequate forum merely because its laws offered the plaintiff a lesser remedy than he could expect to receive in the United States court system. There, the suit stemmed from the crash of a chartered aircraft in Scotland. The victims of the accident were Scottish, and the companies which owned and operated the aircraft and the air taxi service were incorporated in the United Kingdom. The plaintiff was the administratrix, appointed by a California probate court, of the estates of the five passengers. She was not related to any of the passengers. Relatives of the decedents had filed suit against the owners of the aircraft and air taxi service in the United Kingdom. The defendants in the American suit were the American manufacturers of the propeller and the aircraft. An inquiry into the causes of the crash found no evidence that the equipment was defective and concluded that pilot error may have caused the accident as the pilot had little experience and was flying the aircraft at a lower altitude than that recommended in the airline’s operations manual. Piper Aircraft, 454 U.S. at 239.
Plaintiff brought suit against the defendants in the United States because Scottish law did not recognize strict liability in tort. Furthermore, Scottish law only permitted wrongful death actions when brought by a decedent’s relatives, and, even then, the relatives could only recover for the “loss of support and society” of the decedent. Id. at 240. Plaintiff brought suit in the United States because “its laws regarding liability, capacity to sue, and damages [were] more favorable to her position than are those of Scotland.” Id.
The Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit, which had found that, where the law of the purported alternative forum is less favorable to the plaintiff, dismissal on forum non conveniens grounds is inappropriate. Because plaintiffs usually bring suit in the forum with the most favorable law, the Supreme Court found, the doctrine would be severely undercut by such a bright-line rule. Furthermore, by allowing dismissal to be avoided solely by showing the foreign forum’s law was less favorable, the Third Circuit had failed to consider the whole picture and weigh the numerous factors which had previously been held to underlie the forum non conveniens analysis. The Court stated that the Circuit’s ruling was contrary to the main purpose of the forum non conveniens doctrine: convenience. Id. at 249-51. The Supreme Court also noted that such a ruling would have the negative effect of requiring district courts to interpret the law of foreign jurisdictions; this outcome is diametrically opposed to another of the doctrine’s purposes, as it was “designed in part to help courts avoid conducting complex exercises in comparative law.” Id. at 251.