Dave Dambreville
Dave Dambreville ()

As our nation’s economy continues to grow globally, lawsuits involving international parties will rise accordingly. For the courts of Pennsylvania, this means that more cases will require an inquiry as to whether a foreign forum is more appropriate for hearing a given case.

For instance, in the context of products liability, a given product is often manufactured in one country and then distributed using the channels of global commerce to countries throughout the world. Assuming that this hypothetical product is defective, plaintiffs injured by the product will typically bring lawsuits in forums most convenient to them.

Accordingly, lawsuits are regularly filed in Pennsylvania by foreign parties regarding disputes arising out of incidents that have occurred in foreign countries. At such times, Pennsylvania courts are tasked with determining whether the plaintiffs have brought these actions in the appropriate forum.

Under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, Pennsylvania courts have the discretion to dismiss actions if it is determined that another forum is more appropriate in the interest of justice. Yet the question of how Pennsylvania courts should go about making such determinations of appropriateness was recently addressed by the Superior Court.

In Bochetto v. Piper Aircraft, 2014 PA Super 120 (June 9, 2014), the Superior Court expounded on the issue of forum non conveniens with regard to international cases. Specifically, the Superior Court examined whether a trial court abused its discretion when it analyzed various forum non conveniens factors solely with respect to Pennsylvania, rather than considering the factors in relation to the United States as a whole.

By way of background, the dispute in Bochetto arose after an aircraft, which was engaged in nighttime training exercises, broke up in midflight and crashed in Portugal, according to the opinion. All three occupants onboard were killed in the crash. The occupants included a Spanish flight instructor, a Dutch student and another student pilot who had dual Dutch and Australian citizenship. It is also important to note that the allegedly faulty aircraft was manufactured in Florida, then sold to a Belgian flight school, which later leased the plane to a school located in Portugal. Two years after the fatal crash, the parents of the victims brought a wrongful-death and survival action in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas against a number of domestic and foreign corporations involved in the production and sale of the aircraft.

The defendants subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the action, arguing that this was a textbook case for dismissal based upon the doctrine of forum non conveniens. In support of their motion, the defendants noted that the aircraft was maintained in Portugal, the pilot was trained in Portugal, and that the underlying accident occurred in Portugal. Further, they argued that all of the decedents were from Europe, and that the witnesses and relevant documents were located abroad. The trial court was persuaded by these arguments and dismissed that case, finding in favor of the defendants.

The Superior Court recently reversed the trial court’s decision and, in doing so, provided clarity regarding the relevant factors to be considered when dealing with issues involving forum non conveniens. The Superior Court’s opinion is particularly informative on dealing with forum non conveniens issues in the international context.

Pennsylvania statutory law provides that when a court finds that in the interest of substantial justice an action should be heard in another forum, the court may stay or dismiss the action. Essentially, the doctrine of forum non conveniens allows a trial court to dismiss a complaint even if all jurisdictional requirements are met.

Yet, as explained in Bochetto, there are two important forum non conveniens factors for a court to consider before dismissing an action.

First, a plaintiff’s choice of forum generally should not be disturbed unless there are “weighty reasons” for doing so, as in Plum v. Tampax, 399 Pa. 553 (1960). Secondly, an action should not be dismissed in Pennsylvania unless an alternative forum is available to the plaintiff. In its efforts to determine whether “weighty reasons” actually exist, a trial court must examine both the private and public factors involved.

The private factors potentially involved often include: the costs of attendance for willing witnesses; the access to proof; the ability to compel the attendance of unwilling witnesses; and all other issues that may make a case more difficult, prolonged and impractical. Further, the public factors potentially involved may include: any administrative difficulties due to congested court dockets; the burden of jury duty on the public; and, generally, the appropriateness of conducting trial in a forum that has no relation to the underlying dispute. Courts also consider issues regarding the enforceability of a judgment. Ultimately, the goal for any court is to ensure that the parties are afforded a fair trial.

In light of this goal, cases involving incidents that have occurred in foreign lands and that involve international litigants require that trial courts more intently weigh all factors related to the appropriateness of a given forum. This is precisely where the trial court in Bochetto erred, according to the Superior Court’s opinion.

In attempting to determine whether dismissal on the grounds of forum non conveniens was appropriate, the Bochetto trial court weighed the pros and cons of litigating the case in Pennsylvania versus Portugal. As part of its analysis, the trial court considered all factors and evidence connecting the case to Pennsylvania courts versus the courts of Portugal. In the end, the trial court determined that the case was more connected to Portugal than Pennsylvania and therefore dismissed the case.

On appeal, the Superior Court made clear that the Bochetto trial court’s analysis was too narrowly focused. The Superior Court explained that the trial court improperly weighed the private and public factors by limiting its analysis to the case’s connections to Portugal and Pennsylvania only. Instead, the proper analysis should have properly included all factors and evidence indicating connections to the United States as a whole. The court further noted that many of the Bochetto witnesses and parties were located in the United States. For this reason, although connections to Pennsylvania courts were slim, there were sufficient connections to the United States, as a whole, to allow this case to proceed in Pennsylvania.

The takeaway of Bochetto is that international forum non conveniens cases require a broader weighing of all relevant private and public factors. And although a foreign jurisdiction may have greater connections to a case than Pennsylvania, the proper lens with which to evaluate the factors is to compare the connections between the case and our country as a whole, versus that of the foreign jurisdiction. Given this broader approach, Pennsylvania courts have greater latitude to draw connections with international cases, allowing for more of them to be heard in the state. 

Dave Dambreville is an associate with Kimmel & Silverman, where he concentrates on financial services practices, business-related torts and consumer protection litigation.