In 1977, a California probate court appointed a legal secretary the administratrix of five Scottish victims killed in a plane crash in Scotland in 1976, for the purposes of bringing a wrongful death action against the airplane manufacturer, Piper Aircraft Co., and the propeller manufacturer, Hartzell Propeller, Inc., using California’s laws. Piper removed to federal district under diversity, then moved for transfer of venue to Pennsylvania under §1404(a). Once in Pennsylvania, Hartzell and Piper moved for dismissal on forum non conveniens.
The District Court granted the motion on the argument that the case could be brought in Scotland if Piper and Hartzell both agreed to waive statute and jurisdiction. Reyno appealed, and the Third Circuit reversed on the argument that dismissal is never appropriate where the law of the alternative forum is less favorable to the plaintiff, whose choice of law should be protected. Piper and Hartzell appealed to SCOTUS.
Questions of law
What discretion does a Federal District Court have in dismissal for forum non conveniens? Does law in an alternative forum that disadvantages the plaintiff bar dismissal? What test should be followed, and how?
SCOTUS reversed, affirming the original District Court dismissal. The Third Circuit had erred, it said, in considering the change in substantive law to be conclusive or even substantial in evaluating a motion for dismissal. The Gilbert test used by the District Court, which considers the burden on the defendant and the convenience for the plaintiff, would be meaningless if the possibility of an unfavorable change in law was the controlling factor. Because there are often multiple forums where venue and jurisdiction are proper, allowing the plaintiff’s choice of law to control would make transfers all but nonexistent, regardless of considerations of justice and convenience. Such a situation would also require courts to analyze the laws of other forums to determine the advantages and disadvantages of differences in law.
Note that §1404(a) transfers do not change choice of law, but dismissal for forum non conveniens does.
SCOTUS agreed with the District Court’s reasoning that while there is ordinarily a strong presumption in favor of the plaintiff’s choice of forum, this is reduced when the plaintiff or actual parties are foreign. The central purpose of any forum non conveniens inquiry is convenience.