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32.5 Cases

Forum-selection clauses

In re the Bremen

407 U.S. 1 (1972)

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to review a judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit declining to enforce a forum-selection clause governing disputes arising under an international towage contract between petitioners and respondent. The circuits have differed in their approach to such clauses. For the reasons stated hereafter, we vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

In November 1967, respondent Zapata, a Houston-based American corporation, contracted with petitioner Unterweser, a German corporation, to tow Zapata’s ocean-going, self-elevating drilling rig Chaparral from Louisiana to a point off Ravenna, Italy, in the Adriatic Sea, where Zapata had agreed to drill certain wells.

Zapata had solicited bids for the towage, and several companies including Unterweser had responded. Unterweser was the low bidder and Zapata requested it to submit a contract, which it did. The contract submitted by Unterweser contained the following provision, which is at issue in this case:

Any dispute arising must be treated before the London Court of Justice.

In addition the contract contained two clauses purporting to exculpate Unterweser from liability for damages to the towed barge. After reviewing the contract and making several changes, but without any alteration in the forum-selection or exculpatory clauses, a Zapata vice president executed the contract and forwarded it to Unterweser in Germany, where Unterweser accepted the changes, and the contract became effective.

On January 5, 1968, Unterweser’s deep sea tug Bremen departed Venice, Louisiana, with the Chaparral in tow bound for Italy. On January 9, while the flotilla was in international waters in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, a severe storm arose. The sharp roll of the Chaparral in Gulf waters caused its elevator legs, which had been raised for the voyage, to break off and fall into the sea, seriously damaging the Chaparral. In this emergency situation Zapata instructed the Bremen to tow its damaged rig to Tampa, Florida, the nearest port of refuge.

On January 12, Zapata, ignoring its contract promise to litigate “any dispute arising” in the English courts, commenced a suit in admiralty in the United States District Court at Tampa, seeking $3,500,000 damages against Unterweser in personam and the Bremen in rem, alleging negligent towage and breach of contract. Unterweser responded by invoking the forum clause of the towage contract, and moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction or on forum non conveniens grounds, or in the alternative to stay the action pending submission of the dispute to the “London Court of Justice.” Shortly thereafter, in February, before the District Court had ruled on its motion to stay or dismiss the United States action, Unterweser commenced an action against Zapata seeking damages for breach of the towage contract in the High Court of Justice in London, as the contract provided. Zapata appeared in that court to contest jurisdiction, but its challenge was rejected, the English courts holding that the contractual forum provision conferred jurisdiction.

In the meantime, Unterweser was faced with a dilemma in the pending action in the United States court at Tampa. The six-month period for filing action to limit its liability to Zapata and other potential claimants was about to expire, but the United States District Court in Tampa had not yet ruled on Unterweser’s motion to dismiss or stay Zapata’s action. On July 2, 1968, confronted with difficult alternatives, Unterweser filed an action to limit its liability in the District Court in Tampa. That court entered the customary injunction against proceedings outside the limitation court, and Zapata refiled its initial claim in the limitation action.

It was only at this juncture, on July 29, after the six-month period for filing the limitation action had run, that the District Court denied Unterweser’s January motion to dismiss or stay Zapata’s initial action. In denying the motion, that court relied on the prior decision of the Court of Appeals in Carbon Black Export, Inc. In that case the Court of Appeals had held a forum-selection clause unenforceable, reiterating the traditional view of many American courts that “agreements in advance of controversy whose object is to oust the jurisdiction of the courts are contrary to public policy and will not be enforced.”

* * *

Thereafter, on January 21, 1969, the District Court denied another motion by Unterweser to stay the limitation action pending determination of the controversy in the High Court of Justice in London and granted Zapata’s motion to restrain Unterweser from litigating further in the London court. The District Judge ruled that, having taken jurisdiction in the limitation proceeding, he had jurisdiction to determine all matters relating to the controversy. He ruled that Unterweser should be required to “do equity” by refraining from also litigating the controversy in the London court, not only for the reasons he had previously stated for denying Unterweser’s first motion to stay Zapata’s action, but also because Unterweser had invoked the United States court’s jurisdiction to obtain the benefit of the Limitation Act.

On appeal, a divided panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed, and on rehearing en banc the panel opinion was adopted, with six of the 14 en banc judges dissenting.The term en banc means that all the judges of a circuit court of appeals heard oral arguments and voted to decide the outcome of the case. As had the District Court, the majority rested on the Carbon Black decision, concluding that “at the very least” that case stood for the proposition that a forum-selection clause “will not be enforced unless the selected state would provide a more convenient forum than the state in which suit is brought.” From that premise the Court of Appeals proceeded to conclude that, apart from the forum-selection clause, the District Court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to decline jurisdiction on the basis of forum non conveniens. It noted that (1) the flotilla never “escaped the Fifth Circuit’s mare nostrum, and the casualty occurred in close proximity to the district court”; (2) a considerable number of potential witnesses, including Zapata crewmen, resided in the Gulf Coast area; (3) preparation for the voyage and inspection and repair work had been performed in the Gulf area; (4) the testimony of the Bremen crew was available by way of deposition; (5) England had no interest in or contact with the controversy other than the forum-selection clause. The Court of Appeals majority further noted that Zapata was a United States citizen and “[t]he discretion of the district court to remand the case to a foreign forum was consequently limited”—especially since it appeared likely that the English courts would enforce the exculpatory clauses. In the Court of Appeals’ view, enforcement of such clauses would be contrary to public policy in American courts under Bisso v. Inland Waterways Corp., 349 U.S. 85 (1955), and Dixilyn Drilling Corp. v. Crescent Towing & Salvage Co., 372 U.S. 697 (1963). Therefore, “[t]he district court was entitled to consider that remanding Zapata to a foreign forum, with no practical contact with the controversy, could raise a bar to recovery by a United States citizen which its own convenient courts would not countenance.”

We hold, with the six dissenting members of the Court of Appeals, that far too little weight and effect were given to the forum clause in resolving this controversy. For at least two decades we have witnessed an expansion of overseas commercial activities by business enterprises based in the United States. The barrier of distance that once tended to confine a business concern to a modest territory no longer does so. Here we see an American company with special expertise contracting with a foreign company to tow a complex machine thousands of miles across seas and oceans. The expansion of American business and industry will hardly be encouraged if, not-withstanding solemn contracts, we insist on a parochial concept that all disputes must be resolved under our laws and in our courts. Absent a contract forum, the considerations relied on by the Court of Appeals would be persuasive reasons for holding an American forum convenient in the traditional sense, but in an era of expanding world trade and commerce, the absolute aspects of the doctrine of the Carbon Black case have little place and would be a heavy hand indeed on the future development of international commercial dealings by Americans. We cannot have trade and commerce in world markets and international waters exclusively on our terms, governed by our laws, and resolved in our courts.

Forum-selection clauses have historically not been favored by American courts. Many courts, federal and state, have declined to enforce such clauses on the ground that they were “contrary to public policy,” or that their effect was to “oust the jurisdiction” of the court. Although this view apparently still has considerable acceptance, other courts are tending to adopt a more hospitable attitude toward forum-selection clauses. This view…is that such clauses are prima facie valid and should be enforced unless enforcement is shown by the resisting party to be “unreasonable” under the circumstances.

We believe this is the correct doctrine to be followed by federal district courts sitting in admiralty. It is merely the other side of the proposition recognized by this Court in National Equipment Rental, Ltd. v. Szukhent, 375 U.S. 311 (1964), holding that in federal courts a party may validly consent to be sued in a jurisdiction where he cannot be found for service of process through contractual designation of an “agent” for receipt of process in that jurisdiction. In so holding, the Court stated: “[I]t is settled…that parties to a contract may agree in advance to submit to the jurisdiction of a given court, to permit notice to be served by the opposing party, or even to waive notice altogether.”

This approach is substantially that followed in other common-law countries including England. It is the view advanced by noted scholars and that adopted by the Restatement of the Conflict of Laws. It accords with ancient concepts of freedom of contract and reflects an appreciation of the expanding horizons of American contractors who seek business in all parts of the world. Not surprisingly, foreign businessmen prefer, as do we, to have disputes resolved in their own courts, but if that choice is not available, then in a neutral forum with expertise in the subject matter. Plainly, the courts of England meet the standards of neutrality and long experience in admiralty litigation. The choice of that forum was made in an arm’s-length negotiation by experienced and sophisticated businessmen, and absent some compelling and countervailing reason it should be honored by the parties and enforced by the courts.

* * *

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Vacated and remanded.

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, dissenting.

* * *

The Limitation Court is a court of equity and traditionally an equity court may enjoin litigation in another court where equitable considerations indicate that the other litigation might prejudice the proceedings in the Limitation Court. Petitioners’ petition for limitation [407 U.S. 1, 23] subjects them to the full equitable powers of the Limitation Court.

Respondent is a citizen of this country. Moreover, if it were remitted to the English court, its substantive rights would be adversely affected. Exculpatory provisions in the towage control provide (1) that petitioners, the masters and the crews “are not responsible for defaults and/or errors in the navigation of the tow” and (2) that “[d]amages suffered by the towed object are in any case for account of its Owners.” Under our decision in Dixilyn Drilling Corp v. Crescent Towing & Salvage Co., 372 U.S. 697, 698, “a contract which exempts the tower from liability for its own negligence” is not enforceable, though there is evidence in the present record that it is enforceable in England. That policy was first announced in Bisso v. Inland Waterways Corp., 349 U.S. 85; and followed in Boston Metals Co. v. The Winding Gulf, 349 U.S. 122.

* * *

Moreover, the casualty occurred close to the District Court, a number of potential witnesses, including respondent’s crewmen, reside in that area, and the inspection and repair work were done there. The testimony of the tower’s crewmen, residing in Germany, is already available by way of depositions taken in the proceedings. [407 U.S. 1, 24]

All in all, the District Court judge exercised his discretion wisely in enjoining petitioners from pursuing the litigation in England.

I would affirm the judgment below.

Case Questions

  1. Without a forum-selection clause, would the court in England have personal jurisdiction over either party?
  2. Under forum non conveniens, there will be two courts, both of which have subject matter and personal jurisdiction—and the court will defer jurisdiction to the more “convenient” forum. If there were no forum-selection clause here, could the US court defer jurisdiction to the court in London?
  3. Will Zapata recover anything if the case is heard in London?
  4. Is it “fair” to let Unterweser excuse itself from liability? If not, under what ethical perspective does it “make sense” or “seem reasonable” for the court to allow Zapata to go to London and recover very little or nothing?

Due process in the enforcement of judgments

Koster v. Automark

640 F.2d 77 (N.D. Ill. 1980)

MARVIN E. ASPEN, District Judge:

On November 23, 1970, plaintiff Koster and defendant Automark Industries Incorporated (“Automark”) consummated a five-month course of negotiation by entering into an agreement whereby Automark promised to purchase 600,000 valve cap gauges during 1971. As a result of Automark’s alleged breach of this agreement, plaintiff brought an action for damages in the District Court in Amsterdam, 3rd Lower Chamber A. On October 16, 1974, plaintiff obtained a default judgment in the amount of Dutch Florins 214,747,50—$66,000 in American currency at the rate of exchange prevailing on December 31, 1971—plus costs and interest. Plaintiff filed this diversity action on January 27, 1978, to enforce that foreign judgment.

The case now is before the Court on plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Fed.R.Civ.P) 56(a). Defendant contests this motion on three grounds: (1) that service was inadequate, (2) that defendant lacked the minimum contacts necessary to render it subject to in personam jurisdiction in Amsterdam, and (3) that defendant has meritorious defenses to the action which it could not present in the foreign proceeding. For the reasons that follow, however, the Court finds defendant’s contentions unavailing.

[Note: The discussion on inadequate service has been omitted from what follows.]

As the court noted in Walters…service of process cannot confer personal jurisdiction upon a court in the absence of minimum contacts. The requirement of minimum contacts is designed to ensure that it is reasonable to compel a party to appear in a particular forum to defend against an action. Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186 (1977); International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 317 (1945). Here, it is undisputed that Automark initiated the negotiations by a letter to plaintiff dated June 25, 1970. The five-month period of negotiations, during which time defendant sent several letters and telegrams to plaintiff in Amsterdam, led to the agreement of November 23, 1970. Moreover, although there is no evidence as to the contemplated place of performance, plaintiff attests—without contradiction—that the payment was to be made in Amsterdam.

On facts not dissimilar from these, the Illinois courts have found the existence of minimum contacts sufficient to justify long-arm personal jurisdiction under the Illinois statute. Ill.Rev.Stat. Ch. 110, § 17(a)(1). In Colony Press, Inc. v. Fleeman, 17 Ill.App.3d 14, 308 N.E.2d 78 (1st Dist. 1974), the court found that minimum contacts existed where the defendant had initiated the negotiations by submitting a purchase order to an Illinois company and the contract was to be performed in Illinois. And in Cook Associates, Inc. v. Colonial Broach & Machine Co., 14 Ill.App.3d 965, 304 N.E.2d 27 (1st Dist. 1973), the court found that a single telephone call into Illinois initiating a business transaction that was to be performed in Illinois by an Illinois agency was enough to establish personal jurisdiction in Illinois. Thus, the Court finds that the Amsterdam court had personal jurisdiction over Automark.

Finally, defendant suggests that it has meritorious defenses which it could not present because of its absence at the judicial proceeding in Amsterdam; specifically, that there was no binding agreement and, alternatively, that its breach was justified by plaintiff’s failure to perform his end of the bargain. It is established beyond question, however, that a default judgment is a conclusive and final determination that is accorded the same res judicata effect as a judgment after a trial on the merits. Such a judgment may be attacked collaterally only on jurisdictional grounds, or upon a showing that the judgment was obtained by fraud or collusion. Thus, defendant is foreclosed from challenging the underlying merits of the judgment obtained in Amsterdam.

[In a footnote, the court says:] “Again, even assuming that defendant could attack the judgment on the merits, it has failed to raise any genuine issue of material fact.…An affidavit by defendant’s secretary states only that “to the best of [his] knowledge” there was no contract with anyone in Amsterdam. Yet, there is no affidavit from the party who negotiated and allegedly contracted with plaintiff; nor is there any explanation why such an affidavit was not filed. In the face of the copy of a letter of agreement provided by plaintiff, this allegation is insufficient to create a factual question. Moreover, defendant offers no extrinsic material in support of its allegation of non-performance by plaintiff. Thus, even were the Court to consider defendant’s alleged defenses to the contract action, it would grant summary judgment for plaintiff on the merits.”

Accordingly, the Court finds that plaintiff is entitled to enforcement of the foreign judgment. Thus, plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment is granted. It is so ordered.

Case Questions

  1. Why do you think Automark did not go to Amsterdam to contest this claim by Koster?
  2. Why does the Illinois court engage in a due process analysis of personal jurisdiction?
  3. What if the letter of agreement had an arbitration clause? Would the court in Amsterdam have personal jurisdiction over Automark?

Forum non conveniens

Gonzalez v. Chrysler Corporation

301 F.3d 377 (5th Cir. 2002)

[Note: Although the court’s opinion was appealed to the Supreme Court, no writ of certiorari was issued, so the following decision stands as good precedent in forum non conveniens cases.]

Opinion by E. GRADY JOLLY, Circuit Judge.

In this forum non conveniens case, we first consider whether the cap imposed by Mexican law on the recovery of tort damages renders Mexico an inadequate forum for resolving a tort suit by a Mexican citizen against an American manufacturer and an American designer of an air bag. Holding that Mexico—despite its cap on damages—represents an adequate alternative forum, we next consider whether the district court committed reversible error when it concluded that the private and public interest factors so strongly pointed to Mexico that Mexico, instead of Texas, was the appropriate forum in which to try this case. Finding no reversible error, we affirm the district court’s judgment dismissing this case on the ground of forum non conveniens.

In 1995, while in Houston, the plaintiff, Jorge Luis Machuca Gonzalez (“Gonzalez”) saw several magazine and television advertisements for the Chrysler LHS. The advertisements sparked his interest. So, Gonzalez decided to visit a couple of Houston car dealerships. Convinced by these visits that the Chrysler LHS was a high quality and safe car, Gonzalez purchased a Chrysler LHS upon returning to Mexico.

On May 21, 1996, the wife of the plaintiff was involved in a collision with another moving vehicle while driving the Chrysler LHS in Atizapan de Zaragoza, Mexico. The accident triggered the passenger-side air bag. The force of the air bag’s deployment instantaneously killed Gonzalez’s three-year-old son, Pablo.

Seeking redress, Gonzalez brought suit in Texas district court against (1) Chrysler, as the manufacturer of the automobile; (2) TRW,, Inc. and TRW Vehicle Safety Systems, Inc., as the designers of the front sensor for the air bag; and (3) Morton International, Inc., as designer of the air bag module. Gonzalez asserted claims based on products liability, negligence, gross negligence, and breach of warranty. As noted, Gonzalez chose to file his suit in Texas. Texas, however, has a tenuous connection to the underlying dispute. Neither the car nor the air bag module was designed or manufactured in Texas. The accident took place in Mexico, involved Mexican citizens, and only Mexican citizens witnessed the accident. Moreover, Gonzalez purchased the Chrysler LHS in Mexico (although he shopped for the car in Houston, Texas). Because of these factors, the district court granted the defendants’ identical motions for dismissal on the ground of forum non conveniens. Gonzalez now appeals.


The primary question we address today involves the threshold inquiry in the forum non conveniens analysis: Whether the limitation imposed by Mexican law on the award of damages renders Mexico an inadequate alternative forum for resolving a tort suit brought by a Mexican citizen against a United States manufacturer.

We should note at the outset that we may reverse the grant or denial of a motion to dismiss on the ground of forum non conveniens only “where there has been a clear abuse of discretion.” Baumgart v. Fairchild Aircraft Corp., 981 F.2d 824, 835 (5th Cir. 1993).

The forum non conveniens inquiry consists of four considerations. First, the district court must assess whether an alternative forum is available. See Alpine View Co. Ltd. v. Atlas Copco AB, 205 F.3d 208, 221 (5th Cir. 2000). An alternative forum is available if “the entire case and all parties can come within the jurisdiction of that forum.” In re Air Crash Disaster Near New Orleans, La. on July 9, 1982, 821 F.2d 1147, 1165 (5th Cir. 1987) (en banc), vacated on other grounds sub nom., Pan Am. World Airways, Inc. v. Lopez, 490 U.S. 1032, 104 L. Ed. 2d 400, 109 S. Ct. 1928 (1989). Second, the district court must decide if the alternative forum is adequate. See Alpine View, 205 F.3d at 221. An alternative forum is adequate if “the parties will not be deprived of all remedies or treated unfairly, even though they may not enjoy the same benefits as they might receive in an American court.” In re Air Crash, 821 F.2d at 1165 (internal citation omitted).

If the district court decides that an alternative forum is both available and adequate, it next must weigh various private interest factors. See Baumgart, 981 F.2d at 835-36. If consideration of these private interest factors counsels against dismissal, the district court moves to the fourth consideration in the analysis. At this stage, the district court must weigh numerous public interest factors. If these factors weigh in the moving party’s favor, the district court may dismiss the case. Id. at 837.

B. 1

The heart of this appeal is whether the alternative forum, Mexico, is adequate. (The court here explains that Mexico is an amenable forum because the defendants have agreed to submit to the jurisdiction of the Mexican courts.) The jurisprudential root of the adequacy requirement is the Supreme Court’s decision in Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235, 70 L. Ed. 2d 419, 102 S. Ct. 252 (1981). The dispute in Piper Aircraft arose after several Scottish citizens were killed in a plane crash in Scotland. A representative for the decedents filed a wrongful death suit against two American aircraft manufacturers. The Court noted that the plaintiff filed suit in the United States because “[US] laws regarding liability, capacity to sue, and damages are more favorable to her position than are those of Scotland.” Id. The Court further noted that “Scottish law does not recognize strict liability in tort.” Id. This fact, however, did not deter the Court from reversing the Third Circuit. In so doing, the Court held that “although the relatives of the decedent may not be able to rely on a strict liability theory, and although their potential damage award may be smaller, there is no danger that they will be deprived of any remedy or treated unfairly [in Scotland].” Thus, the Court held that Scotland provided an adequate alternative forum for resolving the dispute, even though its forum provided a significantly lesser remedy. In a footnote, however, Justice Marshall observed that on rare occasions this may not be true:

At the outset of any forum non conveniens inquiry, the court must determine whether there exists an alternative forum. Ordinarily, this requirement will be satisfied when the defendant is “amenable to process” in the other jurisdiction. In rare circumstances, however, where the remedy offered by the other forum is clearly unsatisfactory, the other forum may not be an adequate alternative, and the initial requirement may not be satisfied. Thus, for example, dismissal would not be appropriate where the alternative forum does not permit litigation of the subject matter of the dispute.


Citing the language from this footnote, Gonzalez contends that a Mexican forum would provide a clearly unsatisfactory remedy because (1) Mexican tort law does not provide for a strict liability theory of recovery for the manufacture or design of an unreasonably dangerous product and (2) Mexican law caps the maximum award for the loss of a child’s life at approximately $ 2,500 (730 days’ worth of wages at the Mexican minimum wage rate). Thus, according to Gonzalez, Mexico provides an inadequate alternative forum for this dispute.


(a) Gonzalez’s first contention may be quickly dismissed based on the explicit principle stated in Piper Aircraft. As noted, there the Supreme Court held that Scotland’s failure to recognize strict liability did not render Scotland an inadequate alternative forum. Id. at 255. There is no basis to distinguish the absence of a strict products liability cause of action under Mexican law from that of Scotland. Piper Aircraft therefore controls. Accordingly, we hold that the failure of Mexican law to allow for strict liability on the facts of this case does not render Mexico an inadequate forum.

(b) Gonzalez’s second contention—that the damage cap renders the remedy available in a Mexican forum “clearly unsatisfactory”—is slightly more problematic. Underlying this contention are two distinct arguments: First, Gonzalez argues that if he brings suit in Mexico, the cap on damages will entitle him to a de minimis recovery only—a clearly unsatisfactory award for the loss of a child. Second, Gonzalez argues that because of the damage cap, the cost of litigating this case in Mexico will exceed the potential recovery. As a consequence, the lawsuit will never be brought in Mexico. Stated differently, the lawsuit is not economically viable in Mexico. It follows, therefore, that Mexico offers no forum (much less an adequate forum) through which Gonzalez can (or will) seek redress. We address each argument in turn.


In addressing Gonzalez’s first argument, we start from basic principles of comity. Mexico, as a sovereign nation, has made a deliberate choice in providing a specific remedy for this tort cause of action. In making this policy choice, the Mexican government has resolved a trade-off among the competing objectives and costs of tort law, involving interests of victims, of consumers, of manufacturers, and of various other economic and cultural values. In resolving this trade-off, the Mexican people, through their duly-elected lawmakers, have decided to limit tort damages with respect to a child’s death. It would be inappropriate—even patronizing—for us to denounce this legitimate policy choice by holding that Mexico provides an inadequate forum for Mexican tort victims. In another forum non conveniens case, the District Court for the Southern District of New York made this same point observing (perhaps in a hyperbolic choice of words) that “to retain the litigation in this forum, as plaintiffs request, would be yet another example of imperialism, another situation in which an established sovereign inflicted its rules, its standards and values on a developing nation.” In re Union Carbide Corp. Gas Plant Disaster at Bhopal, India in December, 1984, 634 F. Supp. 842, 867 (S.D.N.Y. 1986), aff’d as modified, 809 F.2d 195 (2d Cir. 1987). In short, we see no warrant for us, a United States court, to replace the policy preference of the Mexican government with our own view of what is a good policy for the citizens of Mexico.

Based on the considerations mentioned above, we hold that the district court did not err when it found that the cap on damages did not render the remedy available in the Mexican forum clearly unsatisfactory.

(b) (ii) We now turn our attention to Gonzalez’s “economic viability” argument—that is, because there is no economic incentive to file suit in the alternative forum, there is effectively no alternative forum.

The practical and economic realities lying at the base of this dispute are clear. At oral argument, the parties agreed that this case would never be filed in Mexico. In short, a dismissal on the ground of forum non conveniens will determine the outcome of this litigation in Chrysler’s favor. We nevertheless are unwilling to hold as a legal principle that Mexico offers an inadequate forum simply because it does not make economic sense for Gonzalez to file this lawsuit in Mexico. Our reluctance arises out of two practical considerations.

First, the plaintiff’s willingness to maintain suit in the alternative (foreign) forum will usually depend on, inter alia, (1) whether the plaintiff’s particular injuries are compensable (and to what extent) in that forum; (2) not whether the forum recognizes some cause of action among those applicable to the plaintiff’s case, but whether it recognizes his most provable and compensable action; (3) similarly, whether the alternative forum recognizes defenses that might bar or diminish recovery; and (4) the litigation costs (i.e., the number of experts, the amount of discovery, geographic distances, attorney’s fees, etc.) associated with bringing that particular case to trial. These factors will vary from plaintiff to plaintiff, from case to case. Thus, the forum of a foreign country might be deemed inadequate in one case but not another, even though the only difference between the two cases might be the cost of litigation or the recovery for the plaintiff’s particular type of injuries. In sum, we find troublesome and lacking in guiding principle the fact that the adequacy determination could hinge on constantly varying and arbitrary differences underlying the “economic viability” of a lawsuit.

Second, if we allow the economic viability of a lawsuit to decide the adequacy of an alternative forum, we are further forced to engage in a rudderless exercise of line drawing with respect to a cap on damages: At what point does a cap on damages transform a forum from adequate to inadequate? Is it, as here, $2,500? Is it $50,000? Or is it $100,000? Any recovery cap may, in a given case, make the lawsuit economically unviable. We therefore hold that the adequacy inquiry under Piper Aircraft does not include an evaluation of whether it makes economic sense for Gonzalez to file this lawsuit in Mexico.


Having concluded that Mexico provides an adequate forum, we now consider whether the private and public interest factors nonetheless weigh in favor of maintaining this suit in Texas. As noted, the district court concluded that the public and the private interest factors weighed in favor of Mexico and dismissed the case on the ground of forum non conveniens. Our review of this conclusion is restricted to abuse of discretion. See Alpine View, 205 F.3d at 220.

The district court found that almost all of the private and public interest factors pointed away from Texas and toward Mexico as the appropriate forum. It is clear to us that this finding does not represent an abuse of discretion. After all, the tort victim was a Mexican citizen, the driver of the Chrysler LHS (Gonzalez’s wife) is a Mexican citizen, and the plaintiff is a Mexican citizen. The accident took place in Mexico. Gonzalez purchased the car in Mexico. Neither the car nor the air bag was designed or manufactured in Texas. In short, there are no public or private interest factors that would suggest that Texas is the appropriate forum for the trial of this case.


For the foregoing reasons, the district court’s dismissal of this case on the ground of forum non conveniens is


Case Questions

  1. How can an alternative forum be “adequate” if no rational lawyer would take Gonzalez’s case to file in a Mexican state court?
  2. To what extent does it strike you as “imperialism” for a US court to make a judgment that a Mexican court is not “adequate”?

Act of State

W. S. Kirkpatrick Co., Inc. v. Environmental Tectonics Co.

493 U.S. 400 (1990)

Justice Scalia delivered the Court’s opinion.

In 1981, Harry Carpenter, who was then Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of petitioner W. S. Kirkpatrick & Co., Inc. (Kirkpatrick) learned that the Republic of Nigeria was interested in contracting for the construction and equipment of an aeromedical center at Kaduna Air Force Base in Nigeria. He made arrangements with Benson “Tunde” Akindele, a Nigerian Citizen, whereby Akindele would endeavor to secure the contract for Kirkpatrick. It was agreed that in the event the contract was awarded to Kirkpatrick, Kirkpatrick would pay to two Panamanian entities controlled by Akindele an amount equal to 20% of the contract price, which would in turn be given as a bribe to officials of the Nigerian government. In accordance with this plan, the contract was awarded to petitioner W. S. Kirkpatrick & Co., International (Kirkpatrick International), a wholly owned subsidiary of Kirkpatrick; Kirkpatrick paid the promised “commission” to the appointed Panamanian entities; and those funds were disbursed as bribes. All parties agree that Nigerian law prohibits both the payment and the receipt of bribes in connection with the award of a government contract.

Respondent Environmental Tectonics Corporation, International, an unsuccessful bidder for the Kaduna contract, learned of the 20% “commission” and brought the matter to the attention of the Nigerian Air Force and the United States Embassy in Lagos. Following an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey brought charges against both Kirkpatrick and Carpenter for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 and both pleaded guilty.

Respondent then brought this civil action in the United States District Court of the District of New Jersey against Carpenter, Akindele, petitioners, and others, seeking damages under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the Robinson-Patman Act, and the New Jersey Anti-Racketeering Act. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on the ground that the action was barred by the act of state doctrine.

The District Court concluded that the act of state doctrine applies “if the inquiry presented for judicial determination includes the motivation of a sovereign act which would result in embarrassment to the sovereign or constitute interference in the conduct of foreign policy of the United States.” Applying that principle to the facts at hand, the court held that respondents suit had to be dismissed because in order to prevail respondents would have to show that “the defendants or certain other than intended to wrongfully influenced the decision to award the Nigerian contract by payment of a bribe, that the government of Nigeria, its officials or other representatives knew of the offered consideration forewarning the Nigerian contract to Kirkpatrick, that the bribe was actually received or anticipated and that but for the payment or anticipation of the payment of the bribed, ETC would have been awarded the Nigerian contract.”

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed.

This Courts’ description of the jurisprudential foundation for the act of state doctrine has undergone some evolution over the years. We once viewed the doctrine as an expression of international law, resting upon “the highest considerations of international comity and expediency,” Oetjen v. Central Leather Co., 246 U.S. 297, 303-304 (1918). We have more recently described it, however, as a consequence of domestic separation of powers, reflecting “the strong sense of the Judicial Branch that its engagement in the task of passing on the validity of foreign acts of state may hinder” the conduct of foreign affairs, Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino, 376 U.S. 398, 423 (1964). Some Justices have suggested possible exceptions to application of the doctrine, where one or both of the foregoing policies would seemingly not be served: an exception, for example, for acts of state that consist of commercial transactions, since neither modern international comity nor the current position of our Executive Branch accorded sovereign immunity to such acts…or an exception for cases in which the executive branch has represented that it has no objection to denying validity to the foreign sovereign act, since then the court should be impeding no foreign-policy goals.

We find it unnecessary, however, to pursue those inquiries, since the factual predicate for application of the act of state doctrine does not exist. Nothing in the present suit requires the court to declare invalid, and thus ineffective as “a rule of decision for the courts of this country,” the official act of a foreign sovereign.

In every case in which we have held the act of state doctrine applicable, the relief sought or the defense interposed would have required a court in the United States to declare invalid the official acts of a foreign sovereign performed within its own territory.…In Sabbatino, upholding the defendant’s claim to the funds would have required a holding that Cuba’s expropriation of goods located in Havana was null and void. In the present case, by contrast, neither the claim nor any asserted defense requires a determination that Nigeria’s contract with Kirkpatrick International was, or, was not effective.

Petitioners point out, however, that the facts necessary to establish respondent’s claim will also establish that the contract was unlawful. Specifically, they note that in order to prevail respondent must prove that petitioner Kirkpatrick made, and Nigerian officials received, payments that violate Nigerian law, which would, they assert, support a finding that the contract is invalid under Nigerian law. Assuming that to be true, it still does not suffice. The act of state doctrine is not some vague doctrine of abstention but a “principle of decision binding on federal and state courts alike.” As we said in Ricaud, “the act within its own boundaries of one sovereign State…becomes a rule of decision for the courts of this country.” Act of state issues only arise when a court must decide—that is, when the outcome of the case turns upon—the effect of official action by a foreign sovereign. When that question is not in the case, neither is the act of state doctrine. This is the situation here. Regardless of what the court’s factual findings may suggest as to the legality of the Nigerian contract, its legality is simply not a question to be decided in the present suit, and there is thus no occasion to apply the rule of decision that the act of state doctrine requires.

* * *

The short of the matter is this: Courts in the United States have the Power, and ordinarily the obligation, to decide cases and controversies properly presented to them. The act of state doctrine does not establish an exception for cases and controversies that may embarrass foreign governments, but merely requires that; in the process of deciding, the acts of foreign sovereigns taken within their own jurisdictions shall be deemed valid: That doctrine has no application to the present case because the validity of no foreign sovereign act is at issue.

The judgment of the Court for the Third Circuit is affirmed.

Case Questions

  1. Why is this case not about sovereign immunity?
  2. On what basis does the US court take jurisdiction over an event or series of events that takes place in Nigeria?
  3. If the court goes on to the merits of the case and determines that an unlawful bribe took place in Nigeria, is it likely that diplomatic relations between the United States and Nigeria will be adversely affected?