On April 16, 2016, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled for the first time that Oregon law included the doctrine of forum non conveniens. Espinoza v. Evergreen Helicopters, Inc., 359 Or. 63 (2016). The opinion illustrates how state standards for dismissal based on forum non conveniens vary, even though most state courts adhere to the framework generally set out in Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501 (1947), and discussed in Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235 (1981), and cases since.
On March 11, 2008, a ten passenger 2007 Bell 412EP crashed into remote mountainous terrain near Santa Cruz, Cajamarca, Peru. Impact forces and a post-crash fire killed the United States certificated airline transport pilot, the Peruvian co-pilot and eight Peruvian miners. The helicopter was owned by Evergreen Helicopters, Inc., and leased to Helinka S.A.C., a Peruvian commercial aviation services provider. Evergreen provided the helicopter, pilots, mechanics, parts, and an on-site contract administrator.
In its motion to dismiss the wrongful death lawsuits filed by relatives of the deceased Peruvian miners, Evergreen argued:
- The majority of evidence was in Peru.
- Third-party witnesses were in Peru.
- A crash site view would only be possible in Peru.
- There were practical difficulties in Oregon such as a need for interpreters.
- Evergreen would be unable to implead Helinka as a third-party defendant in Oregon.
- The crash occurred in Peru, plaintiffs were Peruvian nationals, and Peru had the strongest interest in the controversy.
In response, plaintiffs argued:
- The doctrine of forum non conveniens had never been expressly recognized in Oregon.
- Oregon courts are barred from dismissing an action based on forum non conveniens whenever there is jurisdiction and venue in Oregon.
- Evergreen was headquartered and had its principal place of business in Oregon and evidence was located in Oregon.
- A factor in the cause of the crash may have been defects in avionics installed by Evergreen in Oregon.
359 Or. at 71-72.
The trial judge granted Evergreen’s motion to dismiss based on forum non conveniens. The Oregon Court of Appeals reversed, based in part on the trial court’s failure to make sufficient findings on the availability of evidence in Peru.
The Oregon Supreme Court granted Evergreen’s petition for review and considered two issues: (1) whether the doctrine of forum non conveniens is available under Oregon law, and (2) what standards guide its application.
Plaintiffs argued that the doctrine of forum non conveniens should be rejected entirely, contending its origin was “dubious” and that it “is a parochial, xenophobic and outcome-determinative doctrine that permits reverse forum shopping by powerful corporations seeking to altogether avoid accountability in their home forum for transnational torts.” 359 Or. at 76.
Evergreen argued (in part) that the Oregon Court of Appeals gave too much deference to plaintiffs’ choice of Oregon as their chosen forum. In support of its argument, Evergreen relied on one aspect of the holding in Piper Aircraft Co., that the ordinary presumption in favor of the plaintiff’s forum choice applies with less force where the plaintiff is not a resident of that forum. 359 Or. at 75 (citations omitted).
The Oregon Supreme Court rejected Evergreen’s argument and agreed with the Washington Supreme Court that there “is no principled reason to vary the degree of deference afforded to the plaintiff’s choice of forum…we defer to a plaintiff’s choice…because it is the plaintiff’s right to choose from those forums that are available to it.” 359 Or. at 105.
The court ruled that the trial judge did not err when it found that Peru was an adequate alternative forum. However, the court was critical of the trial judge for ruling that a trial in Peru would “best serve” the convenience of the parties. The court concluded that the trial judge applied the “wrong substantive standard” and abused its discretion when it ruled that a trial in Peru would be “more convenient” rather than “so inconvenient as to be contrary to the ends of justice”. 359 Or. at 119-120.
The Oregon Supreme Court adopted a strict standard, ruling that a trial court may dismiss an action based on forum non conveniens only when
“…the relevant private-and public-interest considerations weigh so heavily in favor of litigating in that alternative form that it would be contrary to the ends of justice to allow the action to proceed in the plaintiff’s chosen forum.”
359 Or. at 102.