Piper Aircraft v. Reyno

454 U.S. 235 (1981)

Yeazell, pp. 204-209


Facts: There was a plane crash in Scotland.  The plane was manufactured by a Pennsylvania company with parts made in Ohio.  A representative of the decedents, who lived in Scotland, filed lawsuits against the two companies in the United States because the laws here are more favorable to plaintiffs than in Scotland.


Procedural Posture:  The defendants had the case removed to federal court in California, then transferred to Pennsylvania and finally tried to get a forum non conveniens dismissal.  The federal district court granted the motion, but the Third Circuit reversed on the ground that forum non conveniens mustn’t be applied if it will cause the plaintiff to go to a forum with less favorable law for the plaintiff.  This decision, in turn, was appealed to the Supreme Court.


Issue: Should the trial court be allowed to issue a forum non conveniens dismissal?


Rule: A court has the authority to decline jurisdiction if the suit may be brought more appropriately in another forum.


Analysis: In deciding whether to dismiss for forum non conveniens, a court must follow the rule of Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, which says:


·        When the plaintiff chooses a forum, you shouldn’t mess with their choice unless you have a really good reason.

·        One reason to change the forum is if the burden and “oppressiveness” to the defendant is out of proportion to the convenience of the plaintiff.

·        It seems that a court may decline jurisdiction if its docket is overloaded.  (?)

·        Finally, the court must consider and balance certain public interest factors and private interest factors.


The Court finds that the district court applied the test correctly.  In particular, it finds that forum non conveniens cannot be inflexibly defeated merely on the basis that the alternative forum would have laws less favorable to the plaintiff.  The district court also ruled correctly that the interests of foreign plaintiffs should be weighted less heavily than the interests of domestic defendants.


Finally, the Court acknowledges that Scotland has many contacts with the litigation and that it would be best if it moved there.


Conclusion: The judgment of the Court of Appeals was reversed.


Notes and Problems


1.     The defendants were arguing that it would be more convenient to litigate in Scotland than in the United States.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the law in Scotland would be more favorable to the defendants.

2.     There are a lot of things that would change this result because of the strong presumption towards the plaintiff’s choice of forum.

a.      This might well do it because it would be highly inconvenient for American plaintiffs to litigate in Scotland.  On the other hand, the evidence and witnesses are in Scotland and Scottish law would have to be applied towards the Ohio company.

b.     This would weigh against forum non conveniens dismissal to recommence in Scotland, because this would be a strike against Scotland being a useful forum.

c.     The Court said that “if the remedy provided by the alternative forum is so clearly inadequate or unsatisfactory that it is no remedy at all, the unfavorable change in law may be given substantial weight”.  Here, that might be found to be true and thus could cause forum non conveniens to fail.

3.     I think the possibility of taking up the action in another court is one of the factors that is considered when a forum non conveniens motion is at issue.

a.      How could U.S. courts make sure that the courts of Scotland would keep the defendants to their word not to argue that the statute of limitations has expired?

b.     So I can defend in a court that doesn’t really have jurisdiction if I waive my right to object to that lack of jurisdiction.

4.     I think my personal opinion might be different from the law, because by necessity the United States legal system must think of itself as superior to all other legal systems, but I’m not prepared to blindly accept that.

a.      This sort of makes me think that it would be better not to have juries in civil cases.  Maybe that would reduce the megahuge personal injury verdicts.

b.     I don’t know if this is a good thing or not.  I wouldn’t have a problem with going to a legal system where the court helped out with investigation.

c.     I wish judges could examine witnesses here.

d.     Again, I think appeals may be good, but they can be very costly.  I don’t have a problem with transferring litigation to any legal system where people seem relatively content with what they have and aren’t agitating to change it.

5.     So, just like venue in general, some people want to get rid of forum non conveniens.


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