"Forum non conveniens" is a legal doctrine stating that a court can dismiss a lawsuit because the forum is unnecessarily inconvenient, even if the suit is within the court's jurisdiction. The doctrine is used most often in the United States, probably because of the complexity of American court systems, but it has also been recognized in many common law and civil law countries, including the United Kingdom and much of the Commonwealth. (The European Union, however, has refused to recognize the doctrine.)

U.S. federal law gets its definition of forum non conveniens from the United States Supreme Court case of Gulf Oil Corporation v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501 (1947). In that case, a Virginia man sued Gulf Oil in a federal court in New York City, claiming that the company had mishandled a tanker full of fuel, which exploded, burned down his warehouse, and destroyed his customers' property. The court clearly had jurisdiction under federal law, because Gulf Oil had offices in New York and could easily receive process and respond to a lawsuit there. However, the company wanted the suit dismissed because all of the witnesses and evidence were located in Virginia, and because the plaintiff was located in Virginia and the company had offices there. Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote for the majority:

The principle of forum non conveniens is simply that a court may resist imposition upon its jurisdiction even when jurisdiction is authorized by the letter of a general venue statute. These statutes are drawn with a necessary generality and usually give a plaintiff a choice of courts, so that he may be quite sure of some place in which to pursue his remedy. But the open door may admit those who seek not simply justice but perhaps justice blended with some harassment. A plaintiff sometimes is under temptation to resort to a strategy of forcing the trial at a most inconvenient place for an adversary, even at some inconvenience to himself.

...The problem is a very old one affecting the administration of the courts as well as the rights of litigants, and both in England and in this country the common law worked out techniques and criteria for dealing with it. Wisely, it has not been attempted to catalogue the circumstances which will justify or require either grant or denial of remedy. The doctrine leaves much to the discretion of the court to which plaintiff resorts, and experience has not shown a judicial tendency to renounce one's own jurisdiction so strong as to result in many abuses.

If the combination and weight of factors requisite to given results are difficult to forecast or state, those to be considered are not difficult to name. An interest to be considered, and the one likely to be most pressed, is the private interest of the litigant. Important considerations are the relative ease of access to sources of proof; availability of compulsory process for attendance of unwilling, and the cost of obtaining attendance of willing, witnesses; possibility of view of premises, if view would be appropriate to the action; and all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious and inexpensive. There may also be questions as to the enforcibility of a judgment if one is obtained. The court will weigh relative advantages and obstacles to fair trial. It is often said that the plaintiff may not, by choice of an inconvenient forum, 'vex,' 'harass,' or 'oppress' the defendant by inflicting upon him expense or trouble not necessary to his own right to pursue his remedy. But unless the balance is strongly in favor of the defendant, the plaintiff's choice of forum should rarely be disturbed.

So forum non conveniens can be thought of as something of a "fudge" doctrine. Rather than provide hard and fast criteria, as personal jurisdiction and venue laws would, forum non conveniens allows a judge to scratch their head for a moment and decide whether they think the plaintiff is bringing the suit in an unnecessarily inconvenient court. In this case, the Supreme Court ultimately decided to uphold the New York court's dismissal, and had the plaintiff refile in Virginia.

Generally speaking, though, judges are expected to respect the plaintiff's choice of venue, as long as it doesn't present an unnecessarily heavy burden on the parties and the court. Some examples of cases that have been kicked out of court on forum non conveniens grounds:

  • Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235 (1981): American law students usually read and argue about this case. A Piper Aztec airplane crashed in Scotland, en route from Blackpool to Perth, and all six people on board were killed. The pilot and passengers were all Scottish, and the wreckage of the airplane ended up in a hangar at Farnsborough, England, so British authorities could examine it. The owner and operator of the airplane, as well as the pilot's estate, were sued in a British court. It appeared that mechanical failure caused the crash, and either the airframe (made by Piper Aircraft in Pennsylvania) or the propeller (made by Hartzell Propeller in Ohio) was responsible. A court in California agreed to appoint a legal secretary, Ms. Reyno, to represent the estates of the passengers, and she sued Piper and Hartzell in the U.S. They had the case dismissed on forum non conveniens, but a Court of Appeals ruled that the case should proceed in American court because Scottish law would be less favorable to Reyno (specifically, they don't have the same rule of strict liability there). The Supreme Court decided this was an invalid reason for keeping the case in America and overruled the Court of Appeals, establishing that choice of law is not a valid criterion for supporting or defeating a forum non conveniens dismissal.
  • Islamic Republic of Iran v. Pahlavi, 467 N.E.2d 245 (N.Y. 1984): This one is my personal favorite. The Iranian government tracked down the exiled Shah in a hospital in New York and sued him to recover $35 billion of assets which were allegedly stolen from the Iranian people. The Iranians chose to press their suit in state court in New York, even though only a small fraction of the $35 billion was located in New York, and even though the Shah wasn't really a New Yorker. After two lower courts agreed that the case should be dismissed on forum non conveniens grounds, the case went to the New York Court of Appeals. The Iranian government argued that there was no better forum available anywhere in the world, because of Iran's internal situation and because the Shah had been kicked out. The court nodded politely at this argument but upheld the dismissal, stating that an alternative forum was not necessary, and that New York had no interest in reviewing the management of the Iranian government over decades of history.

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