Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno
454 U.S. 235 (1981)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235 (1981)

Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno

No. 8048

Argued October 14, 1981

Decided December 8, 1981*

454 U.S. 235

Syllabus

Respondent, as representative of the estates of several citizens and residents of Scotland who were killed in an airplane crash in Scotland during a charter flight, instituted wrongful death litigation in a California state court against petitioners, which are the company that manufactured the plane in Pennsylvania and the company that manufactured the plane's propellers in Ohio. At the time of the crash, the plane was registered in Great Britain and was owned and operated by companies organized in the United Kingdom. The pilot and all of the decedents' heirs and next of kin were Scottish subjects and citizens, and the investigation of the accident was conducted by British authorities. Respondent sought to recover from petitioners on the basis of negligence or strict liability (not recognized by Scottish law), and admitted that the action was filed in the United States because its laws regarding liability, capacity to sue, and damages are more favorable to respondent's position than those of Scotland. On petitioners' motion, the action was removed to a Federal District Court in California and was then transferred to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). The District Court granted petitioners' motion to dismiss the action on the ground offorum non conveniens. Relying on the test set forth in Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert,330 U. S. 501, and analyzing the "private interest factors" affecting the litigants' convenience and the "public interest factors" affecting the forum's convenience, as set forth in Gilbert, the District Court concluded that Scotland was the appropriate forum. However, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the District Court had abused its discretion in conducting the Gilbert analysis and that, in any event, dismissal is automatically barred where

Page 454 U. S. 236

the law of the alternative forum is less favorable to the plaintiff than the law of the forum chosen by the plaintiff.

Held:

1. Plaintiffs may not defeat a motion to dismiss on the ground of forum non conveniens merely by showing that the substantive law that would be applied in the alternative forum is less favorable to the plaintiffs than that of the chosen forum. The possibility of a change in substantive law should ordinarily not be given conclusive or even substantial weight in the forum non conveniens inquiry. Canada Malting Co. v. Paterson Steamships, Ltd.,285 U. S. 413. Pp. 454 U. S. 247-255.

(a) Under Gilbert, supra, dismissal will ordinarily 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. If substantial weight were given to the possibility of an unfavorable change in law, however, dismissal might be barred even where trial in the chosen forum was plainly inconvenient, and the forum non conveniens doctrine would become virtually useless. Such an approach not only would be inconsistent with the purpose of the forum non conveniens doctrine, but also would pose substantial practical problems, requiring that trial courts determine complex problems in conflict of laws and comparative law, and increasing the flow into American courts of litigation by foreign plaintiffs against American manufacturers. Pp. 454 U. S. 248-252.

(b) Nor may an analogy be drawn between forum non conveniens dismissals and transfers between federal courts pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), which was construed in Van Dusen v. Barrack,376 U. S. 612, as precluding a transfer if it resulted in a change in the applicable law. The statute was enacted to permit change of venue between federal courts, and although it was drafted in accordance with the doctrine of forum non conveniens, it was intended to be a revision, rather than a codification of the common law. District courts were given more discretion to transfer under § 1404(a) than they had to dismiss on grounds of forum non conveniens.Van Dusen v. Barrack, supra, distinguished. Pp. 454 U. S. 253-254.

2. The District Court properly decided that the presumption in favor of the plaintiff's forum choice applied with less than maximum force when the plaintiff or (as here) the real parties in interest are foreign. When the plaintiff has chosen the home forum, it is reasonable to assume that the choice is convenient; but when the plaintiff or real parties in interest are foreign, this assumption is much less reasonable, and the plaintiff's choice deserves less deference. Pp. 454 U. S. 255-256.

Page 454 U. S. 237

3. The forum non conveniens determination is committed to the trial court's sound discretion, and may be reversed only when there has been a clear abuse of discretion. Here, the District Court did not abuse its discretion in weighing the private and public interests under the Gilbert analysis, and thereby determining that the trial should be held in Scotland. Pp. 454 U. S. 257-261.

(a) In analyzing the private interest factors, the District Court did not act unreasonably in concluding that fewer evidentiary problems would be posed if the trial were held in Scotland, a large proportion of the relevant evidence being located there. The District Court also correctly concluded that the problems posed by the petitioners' inability to implead potential Scottish third-party defendants -- the pilot's estate, the plane's owners, and the charter company -- supported holding the trial in Scotland. Pp. 454 U. S. 257-259.

(b) The District Court's review of the factors relating to the public interest was also reasonable. Even aside from the question whether Scottish law might be applicable in part, all other public interest factors favor trial in Scotland, which has a very strong interest in this litigation. The accident occurred there, all of the decedents were Scottish, and apart from petitioners, all potential parties are either Scottish or English. As to respondent's argument that American citizens have an interest in ensuring that American manufacturers are deterred from producing defective products and that additional deterrence might be obtained by trial in the United States where they could be sued on the basis of both negligence and strict liability, any incremental deterrence from trial in an American court is likely to be insignificant and is not sufficient to justify the enormous commitment of judicial time and resources that would be required. Pp. 454 U. S. 259-261.

630 F.2d 149, reversed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, and in Parts I and II of which WHITE, J., joined. WHITE J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 454 U. S. 261. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 454 U. S. 261. POWELL, J., took no part in the decision of the cases. O'CONNOR, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

Page 454 U. S. 238

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