Ferens v. John Deere Company

Decision Date05 March 1990
Docket NumberNo. 88-1512,88-1512
Citation494 U.S. 516,108 L.Ed.2d 443,110 S.Ct. 1274
PartiesAlbert J. FERENS, et ux., Petitioners v. JOHN DEERE COMPANY, aka Deere & Company
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Petitioner husband lost a hand in Pennsylvania when it allegedly became caught in a harvester manufactured by respondent Deere, a Delaware corporation. Petitioners, Pennsylvania residents, delayed taking legal action against Deere until after Pennsylvania's 2-year tort limitations period expired. In the third year, they filed proper diversity suits (1) in a Federal District Court in Pennsylvania, raising contract and warranty claims as to which the applicable Pennsylvania limitations period had not yet run, and (2) in a Federal District Court in Mississippi, where Deere did business, alleging tort causes of action. As to the latter suit, petitioners knew that the federal court had to apply the Mississippi state courts' choice-of-law rules, Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Electric Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496, 61 S.Ct. 1020, 1021, 85 L.Ed. 1477 under which Mississippi's 6-year tort statute of limitations would apply. The Mississippi court then granted petitioners' motion to transfer the tort action to the Pennsylvania court under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), which allows such transfers "[f]or the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice." However, the Pennsylvania court declined to honor the Mississippi tort statute of limitations, ruling that, since petitioners had moved for transfer as plaintiffs, the rule in Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 84 S.Ct. 805, 11 L.Ed.2d 945—that, following a defendant-initiated § 1404(a) transfer, the transferee court must follow the choice-of-law rules prevailing in the transferor court—was inapplicable. The court therefore dismissed the tort action under Pennsylvania's tort statute of limitations, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The policies underlying Van Dusen, as well as other considerations, require a transferee forum to apply the law of the transferor court, regardless of who initiated the transfer. Pp. 521-532.

(a) The Van Dusen policy that § 1404(a) should not deprive parties of state-law advantages that exist absent diversity jurisdiction is not violated by applying that case's rule to transfers initiated by plaintiffs. Applying the transferor law will not deprive plaintiffs of any state-law advantages. Moreover, although a defendant may lose a nonlegal advantage if the transferor law controls—e.g., Deere would lose whatever advantage inheres in forcing petitioners to litigate in Mississippi or not at all—that loss is slight, since a plaintiff always can sue in the favorable state court or in diversity and not seek a transfer. Section 1404(a) exists to eliminate inconvenience without altering permissible choices under the federal venue statutes, and it is not its purpose to protect a party's ability to use inconvenience as a shield to discourage or hinder litigation otherwise proper. Applying the transferor law in these circumstances is in full accord with the rule in Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188, whereas applying the transferee law would seriously undermine Erie, since it would mean that initiating a § 1404(a) transfer changes the state law applicable in a diversity case, a result disapproved generally by this Court. See Van Dusen, supra, 376 U.S., at 636-637, 84 S.Ct., at 819. Pp. 524-527.

(b) Applying the transferor State's law with respect to plaintiff-initiated § 1404(a) transfers does not contravene Van Dusen's policy against forum shopping, since, even without § 1404(a), a plaintiff already has the option of shopping for a forum with the most favorable law. Applying the transferee law, by contrast, might create opportunities for forum shopping in an indirect way, since such application, to the extent that it discourages plaintiff-initiated transfers, might give States incentives to enact laws similar to Mississippi's long tort statute of limitations in order to bring in out-of-state business that would not be moved at the instance of the plaintiff. Pp. 527-528.

(c) The Van Dusen policy mandating that the § 1404(a) transfer decision turn upon considerations of convenience rather than on the possibility of prejudice resulting from a change in the applicable law requires application of the transferor law when a plaintiff initiates the transfer. If a law change were to occur following such a transfer, a district court would be at least reluctant, despite convenience considerations, to grant a transfer that would prejudice the defendant. Hardship might occur because plaintiffs may find as many opportunities to exploit application of the transferee law as they would the transferor law. If the transferee law were to apply, moreover, the plaintiff simply would not move to transfer unless the benefits of convenience outweighed the loss of favorable law. The desire to punish the plaintiff who has chosen an inconvenient forum overlooks the facts that § 1404(a) exists for the benefit of witnesses and courts as well as the moving party, and that litigation in an inconvenient forum harms the entire judicial system. Pp. 528-530.

(d) Foresight and judicial economy also favor the simple rule that the transferor law should apply regardless of who makes the § 1404(a) motion. While applying the transferee law to plaintiff-initiated transfers would eliminate cases such as this in the future, that rule would produce undesirable complications and would result in litigation and uncertainty in cases presenting other situations—e.g., a transfer at the request of both parties or by the court on its own motion. Pp. 530-531.

(e) Although requiring a district court in Pennsylvania to apply a Mississippi statute of limitations to a Pennsylvania cause of action might seem to be too generous to petitioners and even to reward them for manipulative conduct, that does not affect the outcome of this case, since Congress gave them the power to seek a § 1404(a) transfer, and Van Dusen already could require the same result. Moreover, no alternative rule would be more acceptable. Applying the transferee law would, in effect, tell petitioners that they should have continued litigating their separate actions in Pennsylvania and Mississippi, thereby causing the wastefulness of time, energy, and money that § 1404(a) was designed to prevent. Allowing them simply to file in the convenient forum and then to request application of the law of the inconvenient forum would ignore the fact that § 1404(a) does not provide for an automatic transfer, but requires a showing of convenience and that the transfer is "in the interest of justice." And there is no need to develop more sophisticated federal choice-of-law rules to cover all diversity actions involving transfers, since state conflicts rules already ensure generally that appropriate laws will apply, and, even if more elaborate federal rules would not run afoul of Klaxon and Erie, applying the transferor law effects the appropriate balance between fairness and simplicity. Pp. 531-532.

862 F.2d 31 (CA 3 1988), reversed and remanded.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 533.

Richard B. Tucker, III, Pittsburgh, Pa., for petitioners.

David P. Helwig, Pittsburgh, Pa., for respondent.

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 1404(a) of Title 28 states: "For the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice, a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought." 28 U.S.C § 1404(a) (1982 ed.). In Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 84 S.Ct. 805, 11 L.Ed.2d 945 (1964), we held that, following a transfer under § 1404(a) initiated by a defendant, the transferee court must follow the choice-of-law rules that prevailed in the transferor court. We now decide that, when a plaintiff moves for the transfer, the same rule applies.


Albert Ferens lost his right hand when, the allegation is, it became caught in his combine harvester, manufactured by Deere & Company. The accident occurred while Ferens was working with the combine on his farm in Pennsylvania. For reasons not explained in the record, Ferens delayed filing a tort suit, and Pennsylvania's 2-year limitations period expired. In the third year, he and his wife sued Deere in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, raising contract and warranty claims as to which the Pennsylvania limitations period had not yet run. The District Court had diversity jurisdiction, as Ferens and his wife are Pennsylvania residents, and Deere is incorporated in Delaware with its principal place of business in Illinois.

Not to be deprived of a tort action, the Ferenses in the same year filed a second diversity suit against Deere in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, alleging negligence and products liability. Diversity jurisdiction and venue were proper. The Ferenses sued Deere in the District Court in Mississippi because they knew that, under Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Electric Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496, 61 S.Ct. 1020, 1021, 85 L.Ed. 1477 (1941), the federal court in the exercise of diversity jurisdiction must apply the same choice-of-law rules that Mississippi state courts would apply if they were deciding the case. A Mississippi court would rule that Pennsylvania substantive law controls the personal injury claim but that Mississippi's own law governs the limitation period.

Although Mississippi has a borrowing statute which, on its face, would seem to enable its courts to apply statutes of limi- tations from other jurisdictions, see Miss.Code Ann. § 15-1-65 (1972), the State Supreme Court has said that the borrowing statute ...

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