Forum Non Conveniens – US Court Declines Jurisdiction

In Eldeeb v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 2018 WL 6435739, the District Court of Minnesota recently granted a motion to dismiss (on the basis of forum non conveniens) an action brought pursuant to the Montreal Convention.  Forum non conveniens is a legal doctrine by which a court may decline to hear a case where another court is more suitable or appropriate.

Mr. Eldeeb (who suffered from pancreatic cancer) was travelling home from Minnesota to Egypt, with a layover in Paris, France.  At the time he booked his itinerary, he requested a wheelchair to assist him with disembarking the aircraft in Paris.

Upon arrival of his Air France flight from Minneapolis to Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris, Mr. Eldeeb was initially denied use of a wheelchair.  He was eventually provided wheelchair assistance to disembark the aircraft but was left in the seating area of the arrival gate rather than being brought to the gate for his connecting flight to Egypt.  He sat in the waiting area for approximately 12 hours and missed his connecting flight.  He eventually re-booked a later flight and upon arrival in Cairo, he discovered that his luggage (containing his medication) had not yet arrived.  He did not receive his luggage until one week later.

Mr. Eldeeb died one month later.  The plaintiff trustee for his next of kin brought an action in Minnesota on his behalf against Delta Airlines (who sold the ticket but did not operate the flight) and Air France, alleging that Mr. Eldeeb’s death was hastened by the events at the Charles de Gaulle Airport.  The plaintiff discovered that the lack of wheelchair service was caused by the wheelchair vendor at the airport going on strike.  The plaintiff alleged that the lack of wheelchair service caused Mr. Eldeeb to suffer injuries and his eventual death and that the defendant airlines were strictly liable under the Montreal Convention.

The defendants brought a motion seeking to dismiss the claim on the basis of forum non conveniens. The defendants argued that the principle of forum non conveniens should apply as the case turned on events that occurred solely in France and involved French parties (the wheelchair vendor company) that were not subject to the court’s jurisdiction or subpoena power.

While the plaintiff conceded that France was an available forum, she suggested that a decision of the French Supreme Court (Cour de Cassation) held that French courts lack jurisdiction over Montreal Convention cases that have been dismissed by another court on the basis of forum non conveniens.  The District Court did not accept this argument and found that the Cour De Cassation decision did not foreclose French jurisdiction in any and all Montreal Convention cases initially filed in another appropriate forum.

The court found that France was an alternative available forum as the defendants consented to the jurisdiction of France and agreed to service there.  The court then weighed factors including access to sources of proof, availability of witnesses, and enforceability of judgment to determine whether to dismiss the action on the basis of forum non conveniens.  The courts noted that most, if not all, of the facts underlying the case occurred in France as Mr. Eldeeb flew to Paris on an Air France flight and sustained alleged injuries at the Charles de Gaulle Airport, likely due to conduct or inaction of a French wheelchair vendor company.  In contrast, Minnesota had little relation to the case and none of the facts related to Minnesota (the plaintiff’s state of residence, the flight’s departure city, and Delta’s place of business) were materially relevant to the claim raised.  The court stated that in these circumstances, maintaining the case in Minnesota would not only be inconvenient, it would substantially prejudice the defendants. The court found that although France would be an inconvenient forum for the plaintiff, other factors outweighed that inconvenience and granted the motion to dismiss.

In cases involving international air travel, there are often a number of potential venues for passengers to bring claims under the Montreal Convention, as Article 33 of the Montreal Convention provides five different places where courts have presumptive jurisdiction to hear the action.  This decision confirms that even where plaintiffs bring lawsuits in their home jurisdiction, courts in the United States may be willing to dismiss the lawsuits where there would be significant inconvenience to the defendants, or where the facts related to the jurisdiction where the suit is brought are not materially relevant to the claim raised.  Very similar forum non conveniens principles apply to cases brought in Canadian jurisdictions.