Federal Court Dismisses Montreal Convention Claims to Germany on Forum Non-Conveniens Grounds

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia recently dismissed to Germany a plaintiff’s Montreal Convention suit against Delta Airlines and KLM on grounds of forum non conveniens.1 The plaintiff in this action purchased a ticket for travel in Germany through Delta’s website. His roundtrip travel was to Atlanta, and then to Amsterdam and finally Munich, Germany. The flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam was operated by a joint venture of Delta on KLM. On that flight, a beverage cart hit plaintiff’s knee, causing him injury. He brought suit against Delta and KLM in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. Both Delta and KLM brought motions to dismiss arguing that the case should be heard in Germany rather than the U.S. on the grounds of forum non conveniens, which readers will recall is a doctrine that allows defendants to dismiss cases to alternative forums on grounds that the plaintiff’s chosen forum is too inconvenient given the location of the parties, the evidence and other factors set forth below.

Forum non conveniens is an equitable doctrine that allows a defendant to obtain dismissal of a case for an alternate forum “when trial in the chosen forum would establish . . . oppressiveness and vexation to a defendant . . . out of all proportion to plaintiff’s convenience, or when the chosen forum [is] inappropriate because of considerations affecting the court’s own administrative and legal problems, the court may, in the exercise of its sound discretion, dismiss the case.”2 Typically, the defendant must show that: (1) an adequate alternative forum is available; (2) the public and private factors weigh in favor of dismissal, and (3) the plaintiff can reinstate his suit in the alternative forum without undue inconvenience or prejudice. The Court addressed these three factors in that order.

In this case, with respect to the adequacy of an alternative forum, Germany, the Court held that Germany is an adequate alternative forum despite its more restrictive discovery processes largely because other courts have routinely done so. It noted that adequacy test does not examine whether there is less favorable law in the alternative forum, but whether the alternative forum would leave the plaintiff with no remedy at all. Here, that was not the case. Turning to the availability of Germany as a forum, the Court held that Delta and KLM’s willingness to submit to jurisdiction in Germany eliminated any concern regarding the availability of Germany as a forum even though neither is a Germany resident especially because Germany is a signatory to the Montreal Convention and the Convention permits the plaintiff’s suit to be brought in Germany, the final destination of his travel.

The Court next examined the public and private interest factors concerning potential dismissal.  It began by noting that the assessment of the private interest factors begins with giving deference to the plaintiff’s choice of forum, but such deference is not dispositive, particularly when, as here, the plaintiff himself is foreign to the U.S. Accordingly, the plaintiff’s choice of forum in this instance was given little deference.

The public interest factors to be weighed include: (1) administrative difficulties for courts when litigation is piled up in congested centers instead of being handled at its origin; (2) burden jury duty poses on the people of a community that has no relationship to the litigation; (3) interest of holding the trial in the view and reach of the people touched by the case, rather than forcing them to learn of it by report only; (4) local interest in having localized controversies decided at home; and (5) appropriateness in having a trial of a diversity case in a forum that is at home with the law that must govern the case, rather than having a court in some other forum untangle problems in conflicts of laws, and in law foreign to itself. The Court spent most of its analysis of these factors examining whether foreign law would need to be applied. The Montreal Convention, as an international treaty, could be applied equally competently by German or U.S. courts. But German law would be applied to the amount of Plaintiff’s compensatory damages, meaning that the public interest factors favored German courts applying German law. The balance of the remaining factors also weighed toward the case proceeding in Germany, the Court found, even if all potential forums had a potential interest in the suit and those factors were roughly equal.

The private interest factors courts examine include: (1) relative ease of access to sources of proof; (2) availability of compulsory process for the attendance of unwilling witnesses; (3) the cost of obtaining the attendance of willing witnesses; (4) possibility of viewing the relevant premises, if appropriate to the action; and (5) all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious, and inexpensive. In this case, the Plaintiff’s medical records were located in Germany, records for the flight and incident reports from KLM were located in The Netherlands, and the records of the purchase of the ticket from Delta appear to be located in Georgia. In short, the most significant evidence was located in Europe, not the Northern District of Georgia, where the Plaintiff filed suit. That meant that if the case was to proceed in the U.S., most evidence would have to be transported to the U.S. and translated into English. Equally as important, almost all of the relevant witnesses – including the Plaintiff himself – reside in Europe. In sum, the private interest factors weighed dismissing the suit to Germany.

Finally, the Court examined the Plaintiff’s ability to reinstate his suit in Germany, which it held he could without any difficultly because both Delta and KLM consented to German jurisdiction and to accept service there. Accordingly, because Germany was an adequate and available alternative forum, the public and private interest factors weighed in favor of suit in Germany,  and suit could be reinstated there, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s claims to Germany on forum non conveniens grounds.

 


1 Bintu v. Delta Airlines et al., 1:19-cv-04775-SDG (N.D. Ga. June 12, 2020).
2 Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235, 241 (1981).

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