Seventh Circuit Issues Forum Non Conveniens Ruling

The Seventh Circuit has affirmed a district court's ruling which dismissed Taiwanese plaintiffs' claims against blood product manufacturers on statute of limitations and forum non conveniens grounds. Chang v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 2010 WL 1136521 (7th Cir. 3/26/10).

Because my colleague Dave Walk was part of the winning defense team, just the facts here without alot of commentary. 

The case was filed originally in California by residents of Taiwan but transferred by the multidistrict panel to the district court in Illinois with the other suits in the clotting-factor mass tort for pretrial proceedings.  The main tort claim was that the defendants acquired blood from "high-risk" donors, processed it improperly in California where they manufactured clotting factors, and after discovering that the factors were contaminated by HIV nevertheless continued to distribute the product in foreign countries (while withdrawing them from distribution in the United States). Thus, plaintiffs in this case, or the hemophiliac decedents whom they represented, in fact resided, and obtained and injected the clotting factor, in a foreign country.

The court addressed first the claims that were dismissed as untimely. The critical issue so far as these dismissals on the merits were concerned, said the court, was choice of law. When a diversity case is transferred by the multidistrict litigation panel, the law applied is that of the jurisdiction from which the case was transferred, in this case California. The California statutes of limitations don't begin to run until the plaintiff discovers, or should in the exercise of reasonable diligence have discovered, that he has a claim against the defendant.  But this discovery rule, even if applicable, would not save the plaintiffs' tort claims from dismissal for untimeliness. Plaintiffs argued that they didn't have enough information on which to base a suit until a New York Times article about the contamination of clotting factors with HIV was published on May 22, 2003, and therefore that their suit, filed in 2004, was timely.  But as the district court found, the plaintiffs had a reasonable basis to suspect that they had a cause of action more than five years before the article appeared, when their counsel actually had begun negotiations with two of the defendants to settle negligence claims arising from the alleged contamination of the defendants' clotting factors with HIV. (These negotiations culminated in the settlement in 1998 on which the plaintiffs' breach of contract claim was based.)

The plaintiffs argued that the limitations period should have been tolled by defendants' “fraudulent concealment” because when entering into the settlement agreement they claimed that they had done nothing wrong and that they were offering financial aid purely as a humanitarian gesture. The plaintiffs were mistaken in this. Denial of liability when negotiating a settlement agreement is the norm; it is not evidence of fraudulent concealment of anything.

The district court was also correct in ruling in the alternative that a California court would apply the Taiwanese 10-year statute of repose, because the plaintiffs' tort claims arose under Taiwanese law. The hemophiliacs whom the plaintiffs represented were infected in the 1980s, more than a decade before these suits were brought. If the plaintiffs' tort claims arose in Taiwan, California law makes the Taiwanese statute of repose applicable to those claims. The reason is California's “borrowing” statute, which is sensibly designed to discourage forum shopping, would bar the action in California if it would have been barred in Taiwan. The plaintiffs tried to argue that their claims arose in California, not Taiwan, because it was in California that the defendants allegedly failed to process their clotting factors in a way that would prevent contamination by HIV. But generally there is no tort without an injury. That is the rule in California.  And the injury alleged occurred in Taiwan.

Turning to the claims that the district court dismissed not as untimely but on the basis, rather, of forum non conveniens, the court noted that the contract was negotiated and signed in Taiwan.  The key language at issue, the so-called scale-up clause, was ambiguous.  Evidence beyond the language of the settlement agreement would be necessary to "disambiguate the clause," said the court, and it seemed that most of the persons who are in a position to give such evidence live in Taiwan, including the plaintiffs' Taiwanese counsel who negotiated the settlement, a Taiwanese patient representative, members of the Taiwanese department of health, defendants' Taiwanese outside counsel, and an employee of defendants in Taiwan.

Taiwanese law makes it difficult to gather evidence for use in a trial in a foreign country because Taiwan is not a party to the Convention on the Taking of Evidence Abroad in Civil or Commercial Matters; the alternative method of obtaining evidence in a foreign country, sending a letter rogatory to the foreign court, seemed to not be a very satisfactory means of obtaining evidence.  So this important factor pointed to Taiwan. The only circumstance that would favor holding the trial in California rather than in Taiwan would be the greater convenience for the defendants, since they are American companies. But as they didn't want the case to be tried in California, or indeed anywhere else in the United States, really there was nothing in favor of the American forum, said the court. When application of the doctrine of forum non conveniens would send the plaintiffs to their home court, the presumption in favor of giving plaintiffs their choice of court is little more than a tie breaker.  But, said the panel, "there is no tie here."

 

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