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Piper Aircraft v. Reyno | 454 U.S. 235 (1981)
In early stages of litigation, lawyers must decide where to try a lawsuit. Plaintiffs’ lawyers file lawsuits where laws and sympathetic juries will favor their clients. Defense lawyers try to move litigation to jurisdictions more favorable to them. The process sometimes resembles a game of musical courtrooms. And in Piper Aircraft Company versus Reyno, the music didn’t stop until the litigants reached the United States Supreme Court.
In 1976, a Piper Aztec airplane crashed in Scotland. The airplane was owned by a British company, operated by a Scottish air-taxi service, flown by a Scottish pilot, and carried five Scottish passengers. All aboard died. A British investigation couldn’t determine why the plane crashed, but considered mechanical failure and pilot error the most likely causes.
The plane was built by Piper Aircraft Company in Pennsylvania, and its propellers were manufactured in Ohio by Hartzell Propeller, Incorporated.
Reyno, the administrator of the passengers’ estates, sued Piper and Hartzell in California state court. The case was later removed to California federal court, and then transferred to federal court in Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania federal district court, Piper and Hartzell moved to dismiss based on forum non conveniens. The court granted the motion, noting the case’s significant connections to Scotland. Reyno and her lawyers admitted that they filed the lawsuit in the United States due to its more liberal tort rules. Although Reyno would have a harder time with her case in Scotland, the court ruled that the case was overwhelmingly connected to Scotland.
The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed, reasoning that forum non conveniens is inappropriate if the alternative forum’s law would be less favorable to the plaintiff. The United States Supreme Court granted cert.
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