Civil and Human Rights

Supreme Court limits international reach of U.S. courts

By Richard Wolf

Page 2A


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court limited the international reach of U.S. courts Tuesday, refusing to let a California woman who lost her legs in an Austrian national railway accident sue for damages nearly 6,000 miles away in San Francisco.


The 9-0 ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, was the first of the high court’s 2015 term.


The woman, Carol Sachs, fell off a train platform in Innsbruck in 2007 and needed both her legs amputated above the knee. Because she had purchased her four-day Eurail pass from a Massachusetts-based travel agency, she sued in federal district court in California rather than navigating Austria’s legal system.


The district court ruled against her, reasoning that the injury did not have a sufficient connection to the United States. But a federal appeals court later reversed and said the railway could be liable for the sale of the Eurail pass, along with any defects in its platform or loading protocol.


The key to the case: whether Sachs’ claim was “based upon” her ticket purchase, and whether the travel agency could be considered an agent of the Austrian railway. During oral arguments in October, the justices expressed doubt that U.S. courts were the place to file suit, and Roberts confirmed those doubts Tuesday.


“There was nothing wrongful about the sale of the pass standing alone,” the chief justice said from the bench. Rather, “what happened in Austria” represented the heart of the case, and therefore any lawsuit should have been brought there.


“All of her claims turn on the same tragic episode in Austria, allegedly caused by wrongful conduct and dangerous conditions in Austria, which led to injuries in Austria,” Roberts wrote.


While basing his opinion on a 1993 high court ruling that granted Saudi Arabia immunity from a U.S.-based lawsuit, Roberts also drew from a century-old letter penned by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to Felix Frankfurter, a professor who later would join the court. In it, Holmes wrote that the key to a personal injury case is at the point of contact — “the place where the boy got his fingers pinched.”


“At least in this case, that insight holds true,” Roberts said.


Stanford University law professor Jeffrey Fisher, who represented Sachs at the high court, had warned that protecting the Austrian railway from lawsuits in U.S. courts could have broad consequences for other types of lawsuits against foreign governments that involve employment, education, financial services and the like. Modern transportation contracts have clauses stipulating where lawsuits can and cannot be filed, he said, “so you’ll never see this kind of case again.”


The case hinged on the court’s interpretation of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a 1976 law passed by Congress that limits the reach of U.S. courts. Foreign companies have no such immunity, but the justices ruled last year that even companies can sidestep U.S. lawsuits if their actions took place entirely outside the country.


The court under Roberts has tended to limit access to U.S. courts. A study by the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center earlier this year found the court has made it more difficult for individuals to sue and has favored arbitration to legal action. Roberts, the group found, has favored “closing the courthouse doors as much as possible.”




This piece appeared in at least the following additional outlets:


* Arizona Republic (12/2/2015 page 22)

* Dayton (OH) Daily News (12/2/2015)

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