Supreme Court Action: Suits Against Foreign Entities and the FSIA

The Supreme Court issued one opinion this morning.  The case is OBB Personenverkehr v. Sachs (13-1067).   The case involves a gruesome and unfortunate accident that befell Sachs as she attempted to board a train in Innsbruck, Austria. She fell on the tracks and before she could recover a moving train crushed her legs necessitating the amputation of both above the knee.  The train was operated by OBB which the parties agree is an instrumentality of Austria.  Sachs sued OBB in the Northern District of California for her injuries and alleged that jurisdiction was proper under the commercial activities exception of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.  One month before her accident she purchased a Eurail pass via the Internet from The Rail Pass Experts, a Massachusetts-based travel agent.  This was the only activity related to OBB that took place in the United States.

Sachs made five claims:

Sachs sued OBB in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, asserting five causes of action: (1) negligence; (2) strict liability for design defects in the train and platform; (3) strict liability for failure to warn of those design defects; (4) breach of an implied warranty of merchantability for providing a train and platform unsafe for their intended uses; and (5) breach of an implied warranty of fitness for providing a train and platform unfit for their intended uses.

The District Court dismissed the case stating that her claims did not fall within the commercial exception located at 28 U.S.C. §1605(a)(2).  A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed.  A rehearing en banc reversed the divided panel and said the sale of the ticket fell within the exception.  The Supreme Court reversed concluding that the sale of the ticket in the United States was too remote from the elements of Sachs’ claims to fall within the exception.

The Court’s analysis turned on whether the commercial activity was directly related to injuries she claimed in her complaint.  The Court said there was nothing wrongful about the sale of the ticket that could be the basis of a suit that survives the FSIA.  Otherwise, the Court stated, many more suits could be filed against sovereigns using creative pleading.  The Court rejected other arguments as well as they were raised for the first time in the Supreme Court hearing.  Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Mark

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