The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that accident victims seeking damages for defective products cannot always shop around for a court they think will give them favorable treatment.
The justices reversed an appeals court ruling that a lawsuit couldn't be dismissed because it would have removed the case to a jurisdicton in which the law is less favorable to the accident victims' estate than the court the estate had selected. The justices' reversal makes it more difficult for persons filing such lawsuits to shop around for a court in which they may be awarded the most money for damages, but which may be inconvenient and fail to serve the public interest.
The case involved five Scottish citizens killed when their Piper Aircraft Co. plane crashed in the Scottish Highlands five years ago. The executrix of their estate filed wrongful death and negligence lawsuits against Piper of Pennsylvania and others. The executrix chose to file the lawsuits in a U.S. federal court because "it's laws regarding liability, capacity to sue and damages are more favorable to her position than are those of Scotland," Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote for the majority.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania dismissed the case, saying Scotland was the appropriate forum, partly because evidence beneficial to the defense was in Scotland, the trial in the United States would be costly and time-consuming, Pennsylania citizens on the jury would be unfairly burdened, and Scotland has a substantial interest in the case's outcome. The fact that the victim's estate would receive less favorable treatment in Scotland because of different laws did not deserve significant weight, the lower court said.
An appeals court reversed the district court and said the case shouldn't have been dismissed because the victims would receive less favorable treatment in the Scottish courts, which have different laws.
The high court's justices sided with the district court, ruling that a court couldn't prohibit dismissing a case merely because an alternative court is less favorable than the one chosen by the person bringing the lawsuit.
"We do not hold that the possibility of an unfavorable change in law should never be a relevant consideration" in deciding which court should hear the case, Marshall said. "Of course, if the remedy provided by the alternative forum is so clearly inadequate or unsatisfactory that it is no remedy at all, the unfavorable change in law may be given substantial weight. In this case, however, the remedies that would be provided by the Scottish courts do not fall within this category."
Marshall was joined in the decision by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justices Harry A. Blackmun and William H. Rehnquist. Justice Byron R. White concurred in part and dissented in part, and Justice John Paul Stevens filed a dissent joined by Justice William J. Brennan. Justices Lewis F. Powell and Sandra D. O'Connor didn't take part in the case.