Gulf Oil Corporation v. Gilbert

Decision Date10 March 1947
Docket NumberNo. 93,93
Citation330 U.S. 501,67 S.Ct. 839,91 L.Ed. 1055
PartiesGULF OIL CORPORATION v. GILBERT
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Bernard A. Golding and Archie D. Gray, both of Houston, Tex., for petitioner.

Mr. Max J. Gwertzman, of New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

The questions are whether the United States District Court has inherent power to dismiss a suit pursuant to the doctrine of forum non conveniens and, if so, whether that power was abused in this case.

The respondent-plaintiff brought this action in the Southern District of New York, but resides at Lynchburg, Virginia, where he operated a public warehouse. He alleges that the petitioner-defendant, in violation of the ordinances of Lynchburg, so carelessly handled a delivery of gasoline to his warehouse tanks and pumps as to cause an explosion and fire which consumed the warehouse building to his damage of $41,889.10, destroyed merchandise and fixtures to his damage of $3,602.40, caused injury to his business and profits of $20,038.27, and burned the property of customers in his custody under warehousing agreements to the extent of $300,000. He asks judgment of $365,529.77 with costs and disbursements, and interest from the date of fire. The action clearly is one in tort.

The petitioner-defendant is a corporation organized under the laws of Pennsylvania, qualified to do business in both Virginia and New York, and it has designated officials of each state as agents to receive service of process. When sued in New York, the defendant, invoking the doctrine of forum non conveniens, claimed that the appropriate place for trial is Virginia where the plaintiff lives and defendant does business, where all events in litigation took place, where most of the witnesses reside, and where both state and federal courts are available to plaintiff and are able to obtain jurisdiction of the defendant.

The case, on its merits, involves no federal question and was brought in the United States District Court solely because of diversity in citizenship of the parties. Because of the charact r of its jurisdiction and the holdings of and under Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188, 114 A.L.R. 1487, the District Court considered that the law of New York as to forum non conveniens applied and that it required the case to be left to Virginia courts.1 It therefore dismissed.

The Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed as to the applicability of New York law, took a restrictive view of the application of the entire doctrine in federal courts and, one judge dissenting, reversed.2 The case is here on certiorari. 328 U.S. 830, 66 S.Ct. 1123.

I.

It is conceded that the venue statutes of the United States permitted the plaintiff to commence his action in the Southern District of New York and empower that court to entertain it.3 But that does not settle the question whether it must do so. Indeed the doctrine of forum non conveniens can never apply if there is absence of jurisdiction or mistake of venue.

This Court, in one form of words or another, has repeatedly recognized the existence of the power to decline jurisdiction in exceptional circumstances. As formulated by Mr. Justice Brandeis the rule is: 'Obviously, the proposition that a court having jurisdiction must exercise it, is not universally true; else the admiralty court could never decline jurisdiction on the ground that the litigation is between foreigners. Nor is it true of courts administering other systems of our law. Courts of equity and of law also occasionally decline, in the interest of justice, to exercise jurisdiction, where the suit is between aliens or nonresidents, or where for kindred reasons the litigation can more appropriately be conducted in a foreign tribunal.' Canada Malting Co., Ltd., v. Paterson Steamships, Ltd., 285 U.S. 413 422, 423, 52 S.Ct. 413, 415, 76 L.Ed. 837.

We later expressly said that a state court 'may in appropriate cases apply the doctrine of forum non conveniens.' Broderick v. Rosner, 294 U.S. 629, 643, 55 S.Ct. 589, 592, 79 l.Ed. 1100, 100 A.L.R. 1133; Williams v. State of North Carolina, 317 U.S. 287, 294, n. 5, 63 S.Ct. 207, 87 L.Ed. 279, 143 A.L.R. 1273. Even where federal rights binding on state courts under the Constitution are sought to be adjudged, this Court has sustained state courts in a refusal to entertain a litigation between a nonresident and a foreign corporation or between two foreign corporations. Douglas v. New York, N.H. & H.R. Co., 279 U.S. 377, 49 S.Ct. 355, 73 L.Ed. 747; Anglo-American Provision Co. v Davis Provision Co. No. 1, 191 U.S. 373, 24 S.Ct. 92, 48 L.Ed. 225. It has held the use of an inappropriate forum in one case an unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce. Davis v. Farmers' Co-operative Equity Co., 262 U.S. 312, 43 S.Ct. 556, 67 L.Ed. 996. On substantially forum non conveniens grounds we have required federal courts to relinquish decision of cases within their jurisdiction where the court would have to participate in the administrative policy of a state. Railroad Commission of Texas v. Rowan & Nichols Oil Co., 311 U.S. 570, 61 S.Ct. 343, 85 L.Ed. 358; Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 63 S.Ct. 1098, 87 L.Ed. 1424; but cf. Meredith v. Winter Haven, 320 U.S. 228, 64 S.Ct. 7, 88 L.Ed. 9. And most recently we decided Williams v. Green Bay & Western R. Co., 326 U.S. 549, 66 S.Ct. 284, in which the Court, without questioning the validity of the doctrine held it had been applied in that case without justification.4

It is true that in cases under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C.A. § 51 et seq., we have held that plaintiff's choice of a forum cannot be defeated on the basis of forum non conveniens. But this was because the special venue act under which those cases are brought was believed to require it. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co. v. Kepner, 314 U.S. 44, 62 S.Ct. 6, 86 L.Ed. 28, 136 A.L.R. 1222; Miles v. Illinois Central R. Co., 315 U.S. 698, 62 S.Ct. 827, 86 L.Ed. 1129, 146 A.L.R. 1104. Those decisions do not purport to modify the doctrine as to other cases governed by the general venue statutes.

But the court below says that 'The Kepner case * * * warned against refusal of jurisdiction in a particular case controlled by congressional act; here the only difference is that congressional act, plus judicial interpretation (under the Neirbo case), spells out the result.' 153 F.2d at page 885. The Federal Employers' Liability Act, however, which controlled decision in the Kepner case, specifically provides where venue may be had in any suit on a cause of action arising under that statute. What the court below refers to as 'congressional act, plus judicial interpretation,' is the general statute of venue in diversity suits, plus our decision that it gives the defendant 'a personal privilege respecting the venue, or place of suit, which he may assert, or may waive, at his election,' Neirbo Co. v. Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., Ltd., 308 U.S. 165, 168, 60 S.Ct. 153, 154, 84 L.Ed. 167, 128 A.L.R. 1437. The Federal Employers' Liability Act, as interpreted by Kepner, increases the number of places where the defendant may be sued and makes him accept the plaintiff's choice. The Neirbo case is only a declaration that if the defendant, by filing consent to be sued, waives its privilege to be sued at its place of residence, it may be sued in the federal courts at the place where it has consented to be sued. But the general venue statute plus the Neirbo interpretation do not add up to a declaration that the court must respect the choice of the plaintiff, no matter what the type of suit or issues involved. The two taken together mean only that the defendant may consent to be sued, and it is proper for the federal court to take jurisdiction, not that the plaintiff's choice cannot be questioned. The defendant's consent to be sued extends only to give the court jurisdiction of the person; it assumes that the court, having the parties before it, will apply all the applicable law, including, in those cases where it is appropriate, its discretionary judgment as to whether the suit should be entertained. In all cases in which the doctrine of forum non conveniens comes into play, it presupposes at least two forums in which the defendant is amenable to process; the doctrine furnishes criteria for choice between them.

II.

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 f rcing the trial at a most inconvenient place for an adversary, even at some inconvenience to himself.

Many of the states have met misuse of venue by investing courts with a discretion to change the place of trial on various grounds, such as the convenience of witnesses and the ends of justice.5 The federal law contains no such express criteria to guide the district court in exercising its power. But 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.6

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.7

If the combination and weight of factors requisite to given...

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