State Supreme Court Issues Forum Non Conveniens Decision

A tip of the hat to faithful reader Brendan Kenny at Blackwell Burke for noting the recent decision by the Illinois Supreme Court in Fennell v. Illinois Central Railroad.

The issue is forum non conveniens. Brendan notes that the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied defendant Illinois Central's forum non conveniens motion. The state Supreme Court reversed the appellate court judgment affirming the trial court's denial, and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to dismiss. Per Brendan, this 5-1 decision will be helpful to defendants as it emphasizes that Illinois trial courts must grant a defendant's forum non conveniens motion if the plaintiff has no significant connection to the forum and there is an alternative forum that is more convenient. This decision likely strengthens defendants' challenges to asbestos plaintiffs forum shopping in plaintiff-friendly forums like Madison County. This will allow defendants to move asbestos cases to more appropriate forums. 

Brendan notes that Fennell involved plaintiff's 37-year exposure to asbestos-containing products while working for Illinois Central. Fennell lived and sometimes worked in Mississippi, but he also worked across the country for the railroad, and he alleged that he was exposed to asbestos-containing products wherever he worked. In 2002, Fennell and a group of 80 other plaintiffs sued Illinois Central in Mississippi state court. In 2006, Illinois Central filed a motion to dismiss, and the Mississippi court dismissed the case without prejudice.

In 2009, rather than re-file the case in Mississippi, Fennell filed an action against Illinois Central in Saint Clair County, Illinois. He alleged that he was exposed to asbestos and other toxic substances while working for Illinois Central, but he did not allege an injury in Saint Clair County. In May 2010, Illinois Central filed a forum non conveniens motion. Brendan observes that the trial court denied the motion because: (1) Illinois Central's lawyers had significant evidence in Saint Clair County, (2) two of Fennell's important witnesses would testify in Illinois but not in Mississippi, (3) Saint Clair County is closer for Fennell's Chicago-based expert witness than Mississippi, (4) Saint Clair citizens have an interest in "traveling asbestos and other harmful substances"; and (5) Saint Clair County's dockets are uncongested.

Illinois Central appealed, and a divided appellate-court panel affirmed. Illinois Central appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, and several amici filed briefs.

A trial court's denial of a forum non conveniens motion is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Under the forum non conveniens doctrine, a trial court may decline jurisdiction if it appears that another forum can better serve the parties' convenience and the ends of justice. When ruling on the motion, trial court must consider what forum the totality of public and private-interest factors favor.

Brendan notes that private-interest factors include the parties convenience, access to evidence, ability to compel witnesses to appear for trial, cost of presenting willing witnesses at trial, possibility of viewing the premises at issue, and any other factors that make a trial "easy, expeditious, and inexpensive." Trial courts should also consider that courts have never favored forum shopping, and that a plaintiff's interest in selecting a forum is less if the plaintiff is foreign to the forum and the action arose outside the forum. Public-interest factors include the congestion of the forum's courts, the unfairness of imposing jury duty on residents in a community unconnected to the litigation, and the interests of local communities in deciding local issues.

The Supreme Court held that the trial court abused its discretion because it failed to properly apply the public and private-interest factors. Brendan points out that Fennell was from Mississippi and his cause of action arose outside Illinois. The Supreme Court noted that trial court ignored that Fennell initially filed in Mississippi and re-filed in Illinois. It emphasized that Fennell lives less than 25 miles from the Mississippi courthouse, but 530 miles away from the Saint Clair courthouse, and that almost no one connected with Fennell's case lives in Illinois. Nothing suggested that having the case in Mississippi would unduly hamper the parties' discovery. And it held that Fennell's Chicago-based expert's convenience was entitled to little weight because he is compensated for his travel, and factoring the convenience of plaintiffs' expert would make forum shopping even easier.

The Illinois Supreme Court also rejected the trial court's conclusion that two of Fennell's important witnesses would not testify in court in Mississippi; these witnesses were Illinois Central employeees and this makes it unlikely that Fennell would have difficulty compelling them to testify in Mississippi. In contrast, the Mississippi-based witnesses could not be compelled to testify in Saint Clair County, and bringing the willing witnesses there would cost more.

The Illinois Supreme Court was not persuaded, Brendan notes, that the office of Illinois Central's counsel in Saint Clair County was significant. Assuming that the law firm had many Illinois Central documents relevant to the case there, the Illinois Supreme Court noted that modern technology allows litigants to copy and transport the documents long distance easily and cheaply. 

The Supreme Court found that Saint Clair County had a strong interest in avoiding subjecting its citizens to jury duty in a case unrelated to their community. And even assuming that Saint Clair County citizens had some interest in "traveling asbestos and other harmful substances," they have a greater interest in not being burdened with litigation they have no connection to. 

 

Appeals Court Unhappy With Plaintiffs' Advocacy

Today we note an opinion that, in its opening words, is about "two appeals that raise concerns about appellate advocacy." Both are appeals from grants of forum non conveniens in multidistrict litigation. See Gonzalez-Servin et al. v. Ford Motor Co. et al., No. 11-1665; Kerman et al. v. Bayer Corp. et al., No. 08-2792 (7th Cir. 2011).

The Ford case was an appeal from an order to transfer a case from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana to the courts of Mexico, and was one of many offshoots of litigation arising out of vehicular accidents allegedly caused by defects in Bridgestone/Firestone tires installed on Ford vehicles.  All these cases have been consolidated in an MDL.

The 7th Circuit found the lower court's careful and thorough analysis demonstrated that it was acting well within its discretion in deciding that the Mexican courts would be a more appropriate forum for the adjudication of this lawsuit by Mexican citizens arising from the death of another Mexican citizen in an accident in Mexico.

What seemed to bother the panel is that plaintiffs did not cite an FNC case seemingly on all fours with the appeal in their opening brief, though the district court’s decision in their case was issued in 2011—long after the prior case.  In their response the defendants cited the case repeatedly and asserted that its circumstances were “nearly identical” to those of the present case. Yet, in their reply brief the appellants still didn't mention it, let alone try to distinguish it, said the panel.

The second case involved litigation against manufacturers of blood products used by hemophiliacs, which turned out to be contaminated by HIV.  This particular suit was brought by Israeli citizens allegedly infected by the blood products in Israel. The defendants, invoking forum non conveniens, moved to transfer the case to Israel.  There were two prior appellate decisions on point, said the panel, including Chang v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 599 F.3d 728 (7th Cir. 2010), which arose from the same multidistrict litigation.  The court said that these plaintiffs' short treatment of the prior cases "left much to be desired." 

Overall, said the court, the plaintiffs' "advocacy is unacceptable." The panel then invoked a well-known symbol: "The ostrich is a noble animal, but not a proper model for an appellate  advocate."  The “ostrich-like tactic of pretending that potentially dispositive authority against a litigant’s contention does not exist" is "pointless,” said the court.

The opinion closes with pictures of an ostrich burying his head in the sand, and of a man in a suit doing the same.  The reminder here is, when there is apparently dispositive precedent, an appellant may urge its overruling, or distinguish it, or reserve a challenge to it for a petition for certiorari, but may not ignore it. 

 

Chevron Suit Proceeds: Ecuador Plaintiffs' Judicial Estoppel Motion Rejected

A New York federal court ruled last week that Chevron could continue to pursue its effort to overturn a questionable $18 billion judgment against the company in Ecuadorean court. Chevron Corp. v. Salazar et al., No. 1:11-cv-0371 (S.D.N.Y. 8/31/11).

This is an action by Chevron for, among other things, a declaration that the large judgment entered against it by a provincial court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, is not entitled to recognition or enforcement, and for an injunction against its enforcement outside of Ecuador.

The district court's memorandum opinion dealt with their contentions that Chevron was judicially estopped to now deny that (1) the Ecuadorian legal system provides impartial tribunals and procedures compatible with due process of law, and (2) the Ecuadorian court had jurisdiction over Chevron.

The judicial estoppel argument rested principally on statements made in a separate lawsuit brought in 1993 by many of the same plaintiffs against Texaco, Inc. — then an independent, publicly owned company.  That suit was dismissed on the ground of forum non conveniens many years ago and, indeed, before this Lago Agrio litigation even began.  Plaintiffs cited statements made in briefs, and in affidavits and declarations by witnesses submitted in the prior litigation in
support of Texaco's efforts to obtain the forum non conveniens dismissal.  All were allegedly to the effect that the Ecuadorian courts were neither corrupt nor unfair.

Each and every one of these statements was made by Texaco. Indeed, each was made before Chevron acquired its stock in Texaco in October, 2001.  Chevron never was a party to the prior litigation. Thus, the statements about and the alleged consent to jurisdiction in Ecuador were made by Texaco and Texaco alone.

The court thought it important to emphasize that the pleadings in this case were entirely devoid of any allegations that Texaco merged with or into Chevron, or indeed, any subsidiary of Chevron. Nor were there any allegations that would support piercing the corporate veil of Texaco, treating Chevron as Texaco's alter ego, or otherwise disregarding the separate corporate existence of Texaco. Texaco did not merge with or into Chevron. Rather, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chevron
merged with and into Texaco. Texaco was the surviving entity. Chevron became the sole stockholder.

Judicial estoppel occurs when a party assumes a legal position which it later changes, and  assumes a contrary position, especially if it be to the prejudice of the party who has acquiesced in the position previously taken by him. It applies if 1) a party's later position is clearly inconsistent with its earlier position; 2) the party's former position has been adopted in some way by the court in the earlier proceeding; and 3) the party asserting the two positions would derive an unfair
advantage against the party seeking estoppel. Some courts limit it to situations where the risk of inconsistent results has a clear impact on judicial integrity.

Here, the court had a factual and a legal rejection of the application of judicial estoppel.  While Texaco certainly appeared to have argued throughout much of the 1990s that it could get a fair trial in Ecuador, the issue here was different. The issue now was whether the Ecuadorian legal system, in the next decade, provided impartial tribunals and procedures compatible with due process of law. It was Chevron's contention that it did not, as a result of events that occurred in and after 2004, whatever may have been the case previously.  That is not an inconsistent position from what Texaco had allegedly argued.

Second, the operative legal documents in the public record established that Texaco at all relevant times was a legal entity separate and distinct from Chevron. The fact that a Chevron subsidiary merged into Texaco did not make Chevron responsible for Texaco's obligations. To be sure the law recognizes various bases for disregarding a corporate entity and imposing its obligations upon the stockholder or stockholders. But a litigant seeking to impose corporate obligations on a shareholder or shareholders must allege facts that, if proven, would justify disregard of the corporate entity. The plaintiffs alleged no such facts in this case. They certainly had not demonstrated, as they must in order to prevail on a motion for judgment on the pleadings on this theory, that the pleadings unequivocally establish facts that warrant disregarding Texaco's separate corporate existence and imputing its prior statements and positions to Chevron. 

Third Circuit Affirms Forum Non Conveniens Dismissal

We have posted before about how foreign plaintiffs desire to take advantage of U.S. product liability law and remedies.  The Third Circuit last week affirmed the granting of a forum non conveniens motion against the claims of hundreds of Australian plaintiffs seeking to sue Alcoa Inc. in the U.S. over injuries allegedly caused by emissions at three refineries in Western Australia. See Cameron Auxer et al. v. Alcoa Inc., No. 10-2131(3d Cir. 1/20/11).

These five consolidated cases involved 244 plaintiffs who claim to have suffered personal injuries caused by their alleged exposure to emissions from three alumina refineries in Western Australia.  The plaintiffs filed suit in June, 2009, alleging that Alcoa was liable for exposing them to a variety of  toxic chemicals from the Wagerup, Kwinana and Pinjarra refineries, and allegedly intentionally concealing the dangers of the pollution.  Alcoa produces alumina or aluminum oxide at its Western Australia facilities. 

FYI, the state of Western Australia is Australia’s face on the Indian Ocean. Its capital, Perth, is closer to Singapore and Jakarta than it is to Canberra. The majority of people live in and around Perth. Western Australia is the largest Australian State. With an area of more than 2,500,000 sq km, a 12,500 km coastline, and spanning 2,400 km from north to south, it occupies a third of the continent.

Defendant moved to dismiss, and the lower court dismissed the five consolidated suits on forum non conveniens grounds. Plaintiffs appealed.

While plaintiffs acknowledged that their exposure, injuries, diagnoses, and medical treatment all occurred exclusively in Western Australia, and that none of the operative facts material to causation, injuries, diagnoses and treatments occurred in Pennsylvania, they insisted that the witnesses and documentary evidence necessary for the plaintiffs to prove liability are located at defendant’s corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh.  Thus, the cases should proceed in Pennsylvania.

The key issues to be considered in reaching a decision on the appropriate forum are: (1) what degree of deference is to be given the plaintiffs’ choice of forum, (2) whether there is an adequate alternative forum, (3) whether a balancing of the private factors weighs in favor of dismissal, and (4) whether a balancing of public factors weighs in favor of dismissal. See, e.g., Lacey v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 862 F.2d 38, 43 (3d Cir. 1988).

The court of appeals addressed the lower court's treatment of factors 2-4.  On the second, Alcoa was registered to do business and subject to service of process in Western Australia; the courts of Western Australia had jurisdiction over cases of this kind and recognize theories of liability for negligence, reckless conduct, and “damage caused by hazardous activities,” and, the applicable foreign court rules provide for discovery of documents, interrogatories, and the compelling of the attendance of witnesses and production of documents at trial by court-ordered subpoenas. For these reasons, numerous federal courts have found Australia to be an adequate alternative forum and dismissed on grounds of forum non conveniens. Some have specifically held that the mere absence of pretrial depositions does not render an alternative forum inadequate.

On factor three, the court observed that Pennsylvania evidence from a party would be much more accessible to plaintiffs for trial in a Western Australian forum than Western Australian evidence from non-parties would be for Alcoa for trial in a Pennsylvania forum. Because of this distinction between access to party and non-party witnesses and documents and the primary importance of a party’s being able to present its case at trial, the District Court correctly had concluded that this factor weighed heavily in favor of dismissal.

On the final factor, the lower court was fully aware that plaintiffs alleged culpable conduct in Pennsylvania and expressly recognized at the outset of its public interest factor discussion that it must consider the locus of the alleged culpable conduct and the connection of that conduct to plaintiff’s chosen forum.  But, said the Third Circuit, even if the District Court had failed to take this interest of Pennsylvania into account, it would not alter the outcome of these appeals. The applicable precedent does not suggest that, where culpable conduct takes place in a mass tort case in both jurisdictions and injury in only one, the interests of the two are in any way “comparable.”  This issue is "not a close call."

Court Rebuffs Forum Shopping - But Shoppers Get Bargain Anyway?

A federal court recently ordered the transfer of an action involving an allegedly defective pain pump from Minnesota to plaintiffs' home state of North Carolina, in an apparent rebuff of attempted forum-shopping. Powell v. I-Flow Corp., No. 10-1984 (D. Minn. 7/14/10).

This case is one of thousands of product liability actions filed in recent years in the District of Minnesota by plaintiffs who have no connection to Minnesota against defendants who have no connection to Minnesota regarding events that did not occur in Minnesota and that had
no impact within Minnesota.  Here, defendants are  Delaware corporations with their principal places of business in California. Plaintiff underwent shoulder surgery in North Carolina in 2001, and he and his wife sued defendants for damage to his joint that allegedly resulted from the treatment of his post-surgical pain with a pain pump made by the defendants. In short, this case had no discernible connection to Minnesota.

Presumably the plaintiffs did not file this action in North Carolina — where they live,
where the pain pump was implanted, and where plaintiffs' alleged injuries occurred —
because it is too late to sue the defendants there.  Indeed, observed the court, the vast majority of these kinds of unconnected actions have been filed in this district because, if they were filed by the plaintiffs in their home states (or almost anywhere else), they would be dismissed under the applicable statutes of limitations. The Minnesota Legislature has, however, enacted unusually long statutes of limitations, and the state court has applied them to cases such as this.  See Fleeger v. Wyeth, 771 N.W.2d 524, 525 (Minn. 2009).

The federal court noted that such forum shopping imposes heavy burdens on the District Court and
diverts the court’s limited resources away from litigants and cases that have much stronger
connections to the District of Minnesota.

Defendants moved to transfer. Section 1404(a) provides: “For the convenience of parties and
witnesses, in the interest of justice, a district court may transfer any civil action to any other
district or division where it might have been brought.” 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). Deciding whether
to order a transfer under § 1404(a) requires a case-by-case evaluation of the particular
circumstances at hand and a consideration of all relevant factors. See Terra Int’l, Inc. v. Miss.
Chem. Corp.
, 119 F.3d 688, 691 (8th Cir. 1997). The relevant factors fall generally into three
categories: (1) the convenience of the parties; (2) the convenience of the witnesses; and (3) the
interests of justice.

All these factors, said the court, overwhelmingly favor transfer. Because none of the parties is located in Minnesota, none of the relevant events occurred in Minnesota, none of the alleged injuries has been suffered in Minnesota, and none of the evidence is present in Minnesota, Minnesota does not appear to be convenient for anyone — including the Powells, who live in North Carolina.  In fact, any state with any connection to this lawsuit would be more convenient than Minnesota.  It is true that, as a general rule, courts afford some deference to a plaintiff’s
choice of forum; but this deference “is based on an assumption that the plaintiff’s choice of forum will be a convenient one.” In re Apple, Inc., 602 F.3d 909, 913 (8th Cir. 2010). When that assumption does not hold — when, as here, the plaintiff has chosen an inconvenient forum — the plaintiff’s choice of forum fades in importance.

The plaintiffs also argued that keeping all of the pain-pump cases like this one in Minnesota would further the interests of justice because the cases could be litigated more efficiently if they were all
litigated in the same district. But by this logic, plaintiffs’ lawyers could routinely force a “de facto” MDL on a district simply by filing enough similar cases in that district. This would allow plaintiffs’ lawyers to sidestep the MDL process — the very mechanism that federal courts have implemented for handling mass-tort actions.  In fact, the JPML has twice declined to consolidate pain-pump cases into an MDL. See In re Ambulatory Pain Pump-Chondrolysis Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 2139, 2010 WL 1790214 (JPML May 5, 2010); In re Shoulder Pain Pump-Chondrolysis Prods. Liab. Litig., 571 F. Supp. 2d 1367 (JPML 2008).

One interesting tidbit, even though transferred, because the plaintiffs originally filed suit in Minnesota, the Minnesota statutes of limitations may travel with this case.  That is, if, under Minnesota’s choice-of-law rules, the Powells are entitled to the benefit of Minnesota’s statute of limitations, they may retain that benefit in the Eastern District of North Carolina. See Ferens v. John Deere Co., 494 U.S. 516, 523 (1990) ( § 1404(a) transfer does not change the law applicable in a diversity case); Eggleton v. Plasser & Theurer Export Von Bahnbaumaschinen Gesellschaft, MBH, 495 F.3d 582, 586 (8th Cir. 2007) (after a § 1404(a) transfer, “the transferee court applies the
choice-of-law rules of the state in which the transferor court sits”).  Thus, it may have been a rewarding shopping trip.

Federal Court Sends Melamine Contamination Claims To China

A federal court recently sent back to China various Chinese families' product liability cases stemming from alleged melamine contamination of infant formula. See Tang v. Synutra International Inc., 2010 WL 1375373 (D. Md.).

Plaintiffs, one hundred Chinese citizens residing in China, brought suit on their own behalf as parents and on behalf of fifty-three minor children who allegedly suffered adverse health
conditions, predominantly the development of kidney stones, as a result of ingesting contaminated milk products produced by Defendants’ Chinese subsidiaries.  The principal place of business of both defendants, Synutra International, Inc., and Synutra, Inc., is in Maryland. Plaintiffs sought compensatory damages of at least $5.5 million for each child and $1.5 million for each parent, as well as a collective punitive damages award of $500 million. Defendants filed their motion to
dismiss on, inter alia,  the grounds of forum non conveniens.

In September 2008, the Chinese Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and
Quarantine (“AQSIQ”) initiated an emergency testing program of the country’s dairy supplies. Later that month, AQSIQ announced that certain lots of infant formula were found to have contained melamine, a chemical commonly used as an industrial component in plastics, adhesives, countertops, etc.  Melamine is not a food additive. It is not approved for human consumption.

By December 2008, approximately 300,000 Chinese infants were found to have ingested dairy products contaminated with melamine. Allegedly as a result, at least six infants have died and scores of others have required medical treatment for maladies associated with kidney damage. AQSIQ found varying amounts of melamine in sixty-nine batches of infant milk powder produced by several companies, including defendants' subs. In response to this crisis, the Chinese government, in conjunction with the China Dairy Industry Association, established a compensation program, funded by the dairy companies, that produced the contaminated milk products and totals approximately $160 million. It offered a lump-sum payment to the families of affected children, according to the extent of injury. To date, the families of approximately ninety-five percent of the injured children have reportedly accepted the remedies provided by the plan. Of those who have not, some have opted instead to bring suits in Chinese or U.S. courts.

The adequacy of the Chinese courts to adjudicate these suits was a significant point of contention between the parties; indeed, it was the critical factor of the forum non conveniens analysis in this case.

At the outset of any forum non conveniens inquiry, the court must determine whether there exists an alternative forum. The defendant bears the burden of establishing that the alternative forum is
available to all parties and that an adequate remedy is available to the plaintiff.  Although some courts conflate these issues, the availability and adequacy of the supposed forum are better seen as raising independent issues that warrant separate consideration by the court.

Ordinarily, a defendant can satisfy the availability element by showing that it is “amenable to process” in the alternative forum. Where the remedy offered by the alternative forum is so clearly inadequate or unsatisfactory that it is no remedy at all, however, the court may conclude that dismissal would not be in the interests of justice. Many courts have presumed the adequacy of the alternative forum and placed at least the burden of production on the plaintiff to establish otherwise.

Although plaintiffs here challenged both the availability and adequacy of the alternative forum to adjudicate their claims, there was no question in the court's mind that the Chinese forum was
available, since the defendant showed that it is “amenable to process” in the alternative forum.

Whether China constitutes an adequate forum was the primary issue in dispute. The dispute as to the adequacy of the Chinese forum boiled down to the competing declarations of the parties' China law experts. Defendants’ declarant opined that Chinese courts are adequate to resolve plaintiffs’ dispute and described that Chinese law provides causes of action for personal injury and products liability, a right to present evidence and argument in court, the power to compel witness testimony, and a right to appeal. Plaintiffs would be entitled to recover compensatory damages for expenses such as loss of income, related travel expenses, food subsidies, living expenses for dependents, as well as compensation for emotional damages, but not punitive damages.

Plaintiffs' experts claimed that “several volunteer milk attorneys” were summoned to a meeting held at the Beijing Bureau of Justice, a government entity, where an official demanded all attorneys to withdraw from representation on tainted-milk cases. The experts also asserted that the Chinese courts have denied litigants access to the courts, as well as the right to appeal an adverse ruling, because none of the complaints filed by contaminated-milk victims has been “either accepted or formally denied,”  resulting in the cases remaining perpetually in limbo. They also asserted that families of “seriously sickened children” receive $4,400, and “those suffering from other kidney problems” receive $292 under the government compensation scheme, and this is not “a legal remedy,” but rather “a settlement offer" made by the dairy companies,  In essence, plaintiffs asserted that the Chinese courts were deviating from normal process with respect to melamine claims and pressuring lawyers to withdraw representation of these claimants, thereby forcing the
unfortunate victims into a Hobson’s choice between pursuing futile litigation or accepting the "meager remedy" provided by the compensation program.

The court granted the motion, finding China an adequate forum.  The guiding principles included that the prospect of delay presented by the alternative forum does not typically render the alternative forum inadequate. The complaints had not yet been rejected in China. The court was not wiling to make the value judgment, on the basis of what it called limited evidence presented, that corruption in the Chinese judiciary would systematically deny access to a legal remedy there.  Courts have traditionally been reluctant to cast such aspersions on foreign judicial systems absent a substantial showing of a lack of procedural safeguards.

Second, even if the Chinese courts were not open to plaintiffs, another remedy was indisputably available to them, namely, the compensation program. While the plaintiffs characterized the
program as a “government-sanctioned settlement plan” from the companies that produced the contaminated milk products, as opposed to a legal remedy , they cited no authority for the proposition that the available remedy need be purely “legal” in nature. Regardless of whether it was enacted by the Chinese legislature or sanctioned by the judiciary, it is undisputed that the compensation program developed in China in the wake of the melamine contamination crisis was organized and sanctioned by government entities working in conjunction with the dairy industry and administered through an insurance provider.

Third, although the remedy offered by the compensation program was far less lucrative than what plaintiffs sought in the U.S., the courts have made clear, that the test is not to compare the rights, remedies, and procedures available under the law that would be applied in each forum to determine whether the law applied by the alternative forum is as favorable. 

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."

 

Foreign Toxic Tort Judgment Cannot Be Enforced in U.S.

A federal court has ruled that a $97million judgment issued against Dole Food Co. and Dow Chemical in a Nicaraguan court cannot be enforced in the U.S. courts.  See Osorio v. Dole Food Co., No. 1:07-22693 (S.D. Fla.).

Plaintiffs in this case had alleged that 150 banana farmers had suffered a number of injuries because of exposure to pesticides. Specifically,the workers on Dole’s banana plantations in Nicaragua between 1970 and 1982 claimed they were harmed by their exposure to the chemical compound dibromochloropropane (DBCP) which has been linked to sterility, according to plaintiffs. The Nicaraguan Legislature enacted a statute in 2000 specifically to handle DBCP claims there.  More than 10,000 plaintiffs have filed approximately 200 DBCP lawsuits in Nicaragua, most of which are still pending. Already, however, Nicaraguan courts have handed down over $2 billion in judgments to these plaintiffs. A few Nicaraguan plaintiffs have brought DBCP suits in the United States, with the California state courts, for example, concluding that the DBCP claims before it were the direct result of a widespread conspiracy to commit fraud by attorneys in Nicaragua, Nicaraguan doctors and judges (including the Nicaraguan trial judge who issued the judgment in this case), and some of the plaintiffs themselves.

Here, pursuant to this new law, the trial court awarded $97.4 million to compensate the plaintiffs for the alleged DBCP-induced infertility and psychological effects, about $647,000 per plaintiff.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida held that defendants had “clearly established” their entitlement to nonrecognition of the award.  States are not required to recognize judgments rendered in foreign countries under the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution of the United States. U.S. CONST. art. IV, § 1; Guinness PLC v. Ward, 955 F.2d 875, 883 (4th Cir. 1992). In the absence of a treaty, the effect given to a foreign judgment has historically been governed by the more flexible doctrine of comity, which, though often couched in the language of mutual respect and obligation, is most accurately described as a matter of grace. See, e.g., Hilton v. Guyot, 159 U.S. 113, 166 (1895).

Here, the district court found: (1) the Nicaraguan trial court lacked personal and/or subject matter jurisdiction under the Special Law 364; (2) the judgment was rendered under a system which does not provide procedures compatible with due process of law; (3) enforcing the judgment would violate Florida public policy; and (4) the judgment was rendered under a judicial system that lacks impartial tribunals.

A few highlights: the federal court noted that the Nicaraguan attorney general had found that this Special Law violates the country’s constitution because, among other things, it assumed that the plaintiffs will automatically prevail and does not even contemplate the possibility that DBCP defendants might succeed in defeating the plaintiffs’ claims.  While the Nicaraguan Supreme Court later upheld the law, it is clear that absent the presumption of causation, there was no evidence before the Nicaraguan trial court sufficient to determine that DBCP exposure caused the plaintiffs’ injuries.  And the irrefutable presumption of causation resulted in findings that were incompatible with medical and scientific facts. The majority of the plaintiffs were awarded damages even though they allegedly suffered exclusively from conditions not scientifically linked to DBCP exposure. About one-fifth of the prevailing plaintiffs had fathered children in the years since their last alleged exposure to the chemical -- undercutting the infertility claim in a somewhat conclusive way.

In every year from 1999 through 2008, the Country Reports prepared by the State Department have concluded that Nicaragua lacks an effective civil law system.  In 2002, the year this case was filed in Nicaragua, the State Department found that  “Judges’ political sympathies, acceptance of bribes, or influence from political leaders reportedly often influenced judicial actions and findings."   The Special Law was upheld as constitutional by the Nicaraguan Supreme Court because it allowed a defendant to opt-out of jurisdiction there if the defendant agreed to jurisdiction in the U.S.  Here, the defendants consented to jurisdiction in the United States and waived their defenses under the forum non conveniens doctrine. Their initial pleadings contested the foreign trial court’s jurisdiction and attempted to exercise their opt-out rights.  Yet, in December 2004, 14 months after the Nicaraguan Supreme Court issued its opinion clarifying that Special Law 364 was constitutional because it permitted defendants to opt out of Nicaragua’s jurisdiction, the trial court denied Dole and Dow’s jurisdictional challenges.

In sum, Special Law 364 contained numerous unique provisions that apply only to a narrow class of defendants, and operate to their distinct disadvantage in a pronounced discriminatory fashion. The court also found that Special Law 364’s disparate treatment of defendants is fatally unfair and discriminatory, fails to provide the minimum level of due process to which all foreign defendants are entitled, and is, therefore, incompatible with the requirements of due process under Florida law.

 

State Supreme Court Adopts And Applies Forum Non Conveniens

Rhode Island's Supreme Court recently adopted the forum non conveniens doctrine and dismissed multiple asbestos suits filed there by Canadian residents. Kedy v. A.W. Chesterton Co., 946 A.2d 1171 (R.I. 2008).


Rhode Island becomes one of the last states to recognize the doctrine, which is an increasingly important procedural aspect of many mass torts. Large numbers of nonresidents will often file suit in the so-called “magic” jurisdictions -- judicial hellholes for defendants as coined by the American Tort Reform Association -- even though these plaintiffs and the facts of their cases may have no significant relationship with the chosen jurisdiction. The state may be attractive to plaintiffs because of perception of the jury pool, or because of procedural advantages such as when its trial courts employ mass consolidations of multiple individual claims that pressure defendants to settle and limit the ability of courts and defendants to focus on the individual claims. E.g., State ex rel. Mobil Corp. v. Gaughan, 563 S.E.2d 419 (W.Va. 2002). And foreign plaintiffs in general may be attracted to U.S.-style remedies, damages, and procedures.


The forum non conveniens doctrine has been employed by courts to dismiss claims by foreign and out of state plaintiffs in mass torts. The principle allows a court to decline to exercise jurisdiction when the plaintiff's chosen forum is significantly inconvenient and the ends of justice would be better served if the action were brought and tried in another forum. For example, in the In re Vioxx Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1657, 2006 WL 2504353 (E.D. La. Aug. 30, 2006), former Vioxx users from 11 foreign countries were dismissed from the MDL. Merck argued that the cases involve the prescription and use of Vioxx in foreign countries, and the drug was distributed under each nation's unique regulatory and legal structure. The plaintiffs were injured abroad and the injury-causing conduct occurred abroad. The foreign courts offered adequate alternative forums; American courts would not have easy access to the foreign documents and witnesses related to the claims. Finally, trying the plaintiffs' claims here in the U.S. risked disrupting the judgments of foreign regulatory bodies by imposing an American jury's view of the appropriate standards of safety and labeling on companies marketing and selling drugs in those nations.


In recent years, tort reform efforts in some states have made an impact on filing of suits by nonresidents that would otherwise swamp their courts. Mississippi has undertaken a series of legislative and judicial reforms to limit the number of out-of-state asbestos claims. For example, the Mississippi Tort Reform Act of 2004 tightened venue provisions and joinder rules and expanded the ability of courts to transfer or dismiss claims under the doctrine of forum non conveniens. Miss. Code Ann. § 11-11-3. As a result of the reforms, the "courts of Mississippi will not become the default forum for plaintiffs seeking to consolidate mass-tort actions." 3M Co. v. Johnson, 926 So. 2d 860, 18–19 (Miss. 2006). Similarly, Texas has expanded the power of courts to dismiss actions on forum non conveniens grounds. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 71.051.

Rhode Island
Several Canadian residents sued in a Rhode Island court, seeking damages for injuries associated with workplace exposure to asbestos in Canada. Several defendants sought dismissal under the doctrine of forum non conveniens. The trial court denied the motion, noting that Rhode Island had not recognized forum non conveniens outside in the tort context, and accepting plaintiffs’ arguments that forum non conveniens has led to confusion and inconsistency in federal and state courts, and that the legislature is the appropriate body to adopt the doctrine.

The state supreme court noted that the doctrine of forum non conveniens is founded in considerations of fundamental fairness and sensible and effective judicial administration. The doctrine has been recognized by common law, statute or rule of civil procedure in most states. Legal commentators are in general agreement that most states follow the federal forum non conveniens test. See Davies, Time to Change the Federal Forum Non Conveniens Analysis, 77 Tul. L.Rev. 309, 315 (2002) (thirty states have “effectively identical” analyses to the federal test, and thirteen other states employ a “very similar” test); Robinson & Speck, Access to State Courts in Transnational Personal Injury Cases: Forum Non Conveniens and Antisuit Injunctions, 68 Tex. L.Rev. 937, 950 (1990) (thirty-two states recognized “something very closely resembling” the federal doctrine, and four other states indicated they would follow the federal doctrine).

The first prong of the forum non conveniens analysis requires a determination of the existence of an available and adequate alternative forum. Second, the court must determine the inconvenience of continuing in the plaintiff's chosen forum by weighing private- and public-interest factors. The private interests of the litigants include the following factors: relative ease of access to sources of proof; availability of compulsory process for attendance of unwilling, and the cost of obtaining attendance of willing, witnesses; possibility of view of premises, if view would be appropriate to the action; and all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious and inexpensive. (Citing Gulf Oil Corp., 330 U.S. at 508.)

Other factors that may be relevant to the private-interest assessment include the enforceability of a judgment in the alternative forum, and the advantages and obstacles to a fair trial. A plaintiff may not, by choice of an inconvenient forum, vex, harass, or oppress the defendant by inflicting upon him expense or trouble not necessary to his own right to pursue his remedy. The private interest of a plaintiff should be afforded more weight when the forum choice appears to be based on legally valid reasons such as convenience and expense. Conversely, the private interest of a defendant should be afforded more weight when a plaintiff's choice of forum seems motivated by forum-shopping objectives such as tactical attempts to harness more favorable laws and damages remedies, taking advantage of jurisdictions with generous jury verdicts, or causing inconvenience and expense to a defendant.

Public interest factors include administrative difficulties for courts, that jury duty is a burden that ought not be imposed upon the people of a community which has no relation to the litigation; the local interest in having localized controversies decided at home; and the court in some other forum dealing with problems in conflicts of laws, and in law foreign to itself.

Application of the New Test
Applied here, the court noted that differences in discovery standards are not enough to establish the inadequacy of the forum. Although damages may be smaller in Canada, it was important that neither plaintiffs nor defendants in the underlying cases were residents of Rhode Island or domiciled there. Much of the evidence necessarily is in Canada; the injuries and treatment alleged occurred in Canada, where plaintiffs are residents. No witnesses, workplace sites, or any other relevant evidence appear to be situated in the state. Access to proof is clearly less convenient. Only Canadian courts have the legal power to compel the testimony of Canadian potential witnesses who are not under the control of any party. Furthermore, the likelihood that Canadian law would apply in these cases would place additional burdens upon the state court. Accordingly the foreign claims were dismissed.