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Reyno v. Piper Aircraft Co.

decided: July 24, 1980.



Before Adams, Van Dusen and Higginbotham, Circuit Judges.

Author: Adams


This is an appeal from a dismissal of a wrongful death action on grounds of forum non conveniens. The issues include the factors to be considered in such a dismissal, the burden of persuasion on such motion, the scope of the trial judge's discretion, and the application of choice of law rules of California and Pennsylvania.

The event giving rise to this dispute was the crash of a Piper aircraft in Scotland in July 1976. The plane was owned by a Scottish air taxi service, the passengers and crew of which were Scottish. All persons aboard were killed and no witnesses survived the crash. There are indications, however, that something went wrong with the left engine for which compensatory action by the pilot was impossible, was unnecessarily difficult, or was ineptly handled by the pilot.*fn1

Gaynell Reyno, a California resident and personal representative of the estates of various Scottish decedents, sued on their behalf in a California state court. Named as defendants were Piper Aircraft Corp., a Pennsylvania corporation that manufactured the aircraft; Avco Lycoming Engine Group, which produced the engine; and Hartzell Propeller, Inc., an Ohio corporation that built the propeller. The wrongful death action is based on theories of strict liability and negligence.*fn2

On motions by Piper and Avco based on diversity of citizenship, the case was removed from the California state court to the federal district court in California. After the removal, Hartzell moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction or, in the alternative, to transfer the case to the Middle District of Pennsylvania under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a).*fn3 Piper moved to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action or, alternatively, to transfer the case to the Middle District of Pennsylvania and to strike the claim for punitive damages. The action was dismissed as to Avco with the agreement of plaintiff.

The district court in California entered an order (1) granting the motion to quash service of process as to Hartzell on the ground that personal jurisdiction over Hartzell was neither authorized by California law nor in accord with due process; and (2) transferring the case to the Middle District of Pennsylvania pursuant to § 1404(a).

Subsequent to the transfer, Hartzell was validly served with process in Pennsylvania and then moved to dismiss the case on the common law ground of forum non conveniens. Piper filed a similar motion captioned as a request for judgment on the pleadings or summary judgment. Both motions were accompanied by affidavits. On the basis of the affidavits, the trial judge granted the motions to dismiss because of forum non conveniens on condition that defendants submit to personal jurisdiction in Scotland and waive any statute of limitations there. Reyno filed a timely appeal.

In this Court, Reyno raises two major contentions: (1) The judge erred in not holding defendants equitably estopped to assert that Scotland was a more appropriate forum, inasmuch as Piper had maintained in California that Pennsylvania was the most appropriate forum. (2) The trial judge abused his discretion in dismissing the action. Subsidiary, but arguably crucial, to this second point is the claim that the district judge's order was based on a legal error as to whether Scottish or Pennsylvania law applied to most or all of the case.


Reyno argues that the district court erred in not considering whether the defendants were equitably estopped from moving to dismiss. Essentially, she contends that, by following a successful motion to transfer the case from California to Pennsylvania with a motion to dismiss so that the case would have to be filed in Scotland, the defendants are trifling with the court and wasting judicial and litigant time and resources.

The district court's opinion did, however, consider plaintiff's argument and rejected it, albeit in a somewhat summary fashion:

No cases are cited in support of that proposition and we believe that is a sufficient indicator of the merit of that argument. . . . The papers filed concerning the motion to transfer are, of course, irrelevant to the question we have decided. They were filed early on in this proceeding before many of the important facts of this case were uncovered. Also, Defendants should not be punished for their failure to file a motion to dismiss for forum non conveniens first, instead of the motion to transfer. If they would have filed such a motion we feel sure that the California district court would have likewise dismissed this action.*fn4

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has reversed the dismissal of an admiralty claim on forum non conveniens grounds for the reasons now pressed by Reyno. It declared that the defendant should not be permitted, after securing a statutory transfer from Louisiana to Georgia, to contend that Georgia was not really an appropriate forum; the defendant "may not "so trifle with the judicial process.' "*fn5

Defendants here urge, and the district court seemed to accept, that they did not take inconsistent positions before the district court in California and that in Pennsylvania. The motion in California, defendants claim, simply represented that Pennsylvania was a better forum than California, whereas the present motion contends that Scotland is better yet. Furthermore, they aver, any inconsistencies are a result of fuller knowledge of the relevant facts.

Examination of the motions made by defendants in California reveals that their prior allegations are indeed at variance with their present contentions. A statutory transfer, as well as a common law dismissal, must be shown to be not only more convenient, but also in the interest of justice. In meeting that burden, Hartzell asserted in California that "the plaintiffs would easily have their interests herein protected and adjudicated by application to the courts located in the State of Pennsylvania, and in fact such would be overwhelmingly fair to all the parties herein."*fn6 Similarly, Piper argued that "(t)he propriety of transferring the within action to Pennsylvania for the convenience of the witnesses appears to overwhelm other factors, in view of the apparent theories of liability as against the defendants."*fn7

Both defendants asserted that, because the claim was based on strict liability, virtually all the evidence and material witnesses as to production and design would be in Pennsylvania or Ohio.*fn8 Furthermore, they argue that new facts bearing on forum non conveniens were discovered after motions were filed in California.

At the time of the transfer motion critical facts such as where various witnesses are, where the crash occurred, where the wreckage was located, and who owned the plane, were known. All that seems new was that a British administrative agency would investigate and report on the accident and that the decedents' estates would institute a separate action against the air taxi service in Scotland. Although these last facts are indeed relevant to a forum non conveniens motion, they are hardly surprising or significant.

Nevertheless, two factors weigh against an absolute preclusion to raise a forum non conveniens motion in this case: (1) The thrust of Hartzell's motion in the California court, and the contention accepted by that tribunal, was lack of personal jurisdiction. Arguably, then, it is not fair to make Hartzell responsible for proceedings there, even if it would be fair and proper as against Piper. (2) Forum non conveniens entails important considerations of public interest, in addition to those of the private litigants themselves. If defendants are correct in their proposition that trial in Pennsylvania would be unduly burdensome to the court and the juror community, it might be self-defeating to raise an absolute barrier to pleading forum non conveniens. Hence, although a party who moves for transfer under § 1404(a) will not be automatically estopped to assert forum non conveniens after a transfer is accomplished, the fact that a party previously succeeded in a statutory transfer ought to be weighed against dismissing for forum non conveniens and as adding to a defendant's already substantial burden on the later motion.


The doctrine that an otherwise validly brought claim may be dismissed because the forum chosen was inconvenient for trial originated in the common law of Scotland,*fn9 became part of the common law of many states,*fn10 and has a long history of use in federal admiralty actions.*fn11 It was introduced into federal diversity jurisdiction by Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert*fn12 and Koster v. (American) Lumbermens Mutual Casualty Co.,*fn13 decided in 1947.

Simple in enunciation but complex in application, the principle of the doctrine is that a court may resist imposition upon its jurisdiction even when neither jurisdiction nor venue is defective.*fn14 As a result of the passage of 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), soon after the two seminal Supreme Court cases,*fn15 forum non conveniens as a common law doctrine has been dormant for purposes of interstate dismissals within the federal system. That statute is similar to the common law doctrine, but authorizes transfers within the federal court system with a lesser burden both substantively and procedurally than a motion to dismiss.*fn16

The question whether federal or state law of forum non conveniens applies in a diversity case was left open by the Supreme Court and has not definitively been decided by any court of appeals.*fn17 In this case, as in many brought before the federal courts, federal law has been argued at all stages in the litigation.*fn18 Upon specific request for supplementary briefing in this Court, all three parties agree that if a choice is necessary, federal law should be followed, and cite numerous district court opinions and commentaries in support of that position.*fn19 They assert, nevertheless, that it is probably not necessary to decide between federal and state law because the cases dealing with forum non conveniens in both California and Pennsylvania have mirrored federal law in all essential respects. We agree.*fn20

A. Comparative Burdens, Trial Court Discretion, and Standard of Review

A plaintiff is generally conceded the choice of forum so long as the requirements of personal and subject matter jurisdiction, as well as venue, are satisfied. He should not be deprived of the advantages presumed to come from that choice unless the defendant clearly adduces facts that "either (1) establish such oppressiveness and vexation to a defendant as to be out of all proportion to plaintiff's convenience . . . or (2) make trial in the chosen forum inappropriate because of considerations affecting the court's own administrative and legal problems."*fn21 A court must balance these private and public interest factors, "(b)ut unless the balance is strongly in favor of the defendant, the plaintiff's choice of forum should rarely be disturbed."*fn22

The district judge believed that the plaintiff's choice of forum is of diminished significance, and the defendants' burden of showing inconvenience correspondingly less, when the plaintiff more precisely, the real party in interest is foreign or when the forum chosen is not the plaintiff's home ground.*fn23 But neither of these burden-shifting principles may be found in opinions of the Supreme Court or this Court.

In support of the proposition that less solicitude is due a foreign plaintiff's choice of forum, the district court relied on a decision of the District Court for the Southern District of New York which stated that a foreign plaintiff's "choice of forum should be given less weight than the choice of an American plaintiff."*fn24 The court of appeals affirmed the judgment in that case, but disapproved of the district court's characterization of the forum non conveniens doctrine applicable to noncitizens.*fn25 Indeed, as the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has recently held, the citizenship of the plaintiff does not affect the defendant's ...

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