In a case arising out of the crash of a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 in the mountains of Venezuela, the 11th Circuit of Appeals has affirmed a district court’s dismissal of the case based upon the doctrine of “forum non conveniens.” In Pierre Louis v. Newvac, the plaintiffs, all residents/citizens of Martinique (a Department of the Republic of France), filed suit against the air carrier and other defendants in federal court in Florida. The defendants asked the court to dismiss the case based upon the doctrine of forum non-conveniens which provides that a court may decline to exercise its jurisdiction when a defendant can demonstrate that: (1) that an adequate alternative forum is available; (2) that relevant public and private interests weigh in favor of dismissal; and (3) that the plaintiff can reinstate his suit in the alternative forum without undue inconvenience or prejudice. The plaintiffs argued that the international treaty that regulates the liability of air carriers to passengers on international flights, the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air (commonly referred to as the “Montreal Convention”) precluded the court application of forum non-conveniens. The court granted the motion, finding that Martinique was the more convenient forum.
On appeal, the Court observed that the Montreal Convention allows suits for damages by passengers on international flights to be filed in the domicile or the principal place of business of the air carrier and, in the case of damage resulting from the injury or death of a passenger, suit may be brought in the passenger’s permanent residence if the air carrier operates air carriage services to or from that location. Under the Montreal Convention, the Court found that the lawsuit was properly filed in Florida.
However, the Court then determined that Article 33(4) of the Montreal Convention’s statement that rules of procedure are governed by the rules of the forum state can only reasonably be interpreted to include the doctrine of forum non conveniens which is “firmly entrenched in the procedural law of the United States.” As a result, the Court held that “a district court may—where appropriate—exercise its discretion to apply forum non-conveniens, without interfering with the implementation of the Convention, so long as another Convention jurisdiction is available and can more conveniently adjudicate the claim.” The Court further concluded that the district court’s dismissal of the case based upon a finding that Martinique was a more convenient forum was appropriate and not an abuse of discretion.
This case represents the proper use of a procedural rule to reasonably limit the plaintiffs’ attempt to litigate in a forum that would likely provide a greater financial recovery than in their home forum of Martinique. Bad news for the plaintiffs, but good news for the U.S. based defendants.