Societe Nationale Industrielle Aerospatiale v. U.S. District Court for the S. District of Iowa

Decision Date15 June 1987
Docket NumberNo. 85-1695,85-1695
PartiesSOCIETE NATIONALE INDUSTRIELLE AEROSPATIALE and Societe de Construction d'Avions de Tourisme, Petitioners v.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

The United States, France, and 15 other countries have acceded to the Hague Evidence Convention, which prescribes procedures by which a judicial authority in one contracting state may request evidence located in another. Plaintiffs brought suits (later consolidated) in Federal District Court for personal injuries resulting from the crash of an aircraft built and sold by petitioners, two corporations owned by France. Petitioners answered the complaints without questioning the court's jurisdiction, and engaged in initial discovery without objection. However, when plaintiffs served subsequent discovery requests under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, petitioners filed a motion for a protective order, alleging that the Convention dictated the exclusive procedures that must be followed since petitioners are French and the discovery sought could only be had in France. A Magistrate denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals denied petitioners' mandamus petition, holding, inter alia, that when a district court has jurisdiction over a foreign litigant, the Convention does not apply even though the information sought may be physically located within the territory of a foreign signatory to the Convention.

Held:

1. The Convention does not provide exclusive or mandatory procedures for obtaining documents and information located in a foreign signatory's territory. The Convention's plain language, as well as the history of its proposal and ratification by the United States, unambiguously supports the conclusion that it was intended to establish optional procedures for obtaining evidence abroad. Its preamble speaks in nonmandatory terms, specifying its purpose to "facilitate" discovery and to "improve mutual judicial co-operation." Similarly, its text uses permissive language, and does not expressly modify the law of contracting states or require them to use the specified procedures or change their own procedures. The Convention does not deprive the District Court of its jurisdiction to order, under the Federal Rules, a foreign national party to produce evidence physically located within a signatory nation. Pp. 529-540.

2. The Court of Appeals erred in concluding that the Convention "does not apply" to discovery sought from a foreign litigant that is subject to an American court's jurisdiction. Although they are not mandatory, the Convention's procedures are available whenever they will facilitate the gathering of evidence, and "apply" in the sense that they are one method of seeking evidence that a court may elect to employ. Pp. 540—541.

3. International comity does not require in all instances that American litigants first resort to Convention procedures before initiating discovery under the Federal Rules. In many situations, Convention procedures would be unduly time consuming and expensive, and less likely to produce needed evidence than direct use of the Federal Rules. The concept of comity requires in this context a more particularized analysis of the respective interests of the foreign and requesting nations than a blanket "first resort" rule would generate. Thus, the determination whether to resort to the Convention requires prior scrutiny in each case of the particular facts, sovereign interests, and likelihood that such resort will prove effective. Pp. 541-546.

782 F.2d 120 (CA8 1986), vacated and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 547.

John W. Ford, for petitioners.

Jeffrey P. Minear, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Richard H. Doyle, IV, Des Moines, Iowa, for respondent.

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The United States, the Republic of France, and 15 other Nations have acceded to the Hague Convention on the Taking of Evidence Abroad in Civil or Commercial Matters, opened for signature, Mar. 18, 1970, 23 U.S.T. 2555, T.I.A.S. No. 7444.1 This Convention—sometimes referred to as the "Hague Convention" or the "Evidence Convention"—prescribes certain procedures by which a judicial authority in one contracting state may request evidence located in another contracting state. The question presented in this case concerns the extent to which a federal district court must employ the procedures set forth in the Convention when litigants seek answers to interrogatories, the production of documents, and admissions from a French adversary over whom the court has personal jurisdiction.

I

The two petitioners are corporations owned by the Republic of France.2 They are engaged in the business of design- ing, manufacturing, and marketing aircraft. One of their planes, the "Rallye," was allegedly advertised in American aviation publications as "the World's safest and most economical STOL plane."3 On August 19, 1980, a Rallye crashed in Iowa, injuring the pilot and a passenger. Dennis Jones, John George, and Rosa George brought separate suits based upon this accident in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, alleging that petitioners had manufactured and sold a defective plane and that they were guilty of negligence and breach of warranty. Petitioners answered the complaints, apparently without questioning the jurisdiction of the District Court. With the parties' consent, the cases were consolidated and referred to a Magistrate. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1).

Initial discovery was conducted by both sides pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure without objection.4 When plaintiffs5 served a second request for the production of documents pursuant to Rule 34, a set of interrogatories pursuant to Rule 33, and requests for admission pursuant to Rule 36, however, petitioners filed a motion for a protective order. App. 27-37. The motion alleged that because petitioners are "French corporations, and the discovery sought can only be found in a foreign state, namely France," the Hague Convention dictated the exclusive procedures that must be followed for pretrial discovery. App. 2. In addition, the motion stated that under French penal law, the petitioners could not respond to discovery requests that did not comply with the Convention. Ibid.6

The Magistrate denied the motion insofar as it related to answering interrogatories, producing documents, and making admissions.7 After reviewing the relevant cases, the Magistrate explained:

"To permit the Hague Evidence Convention to override the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure would frustrate the courts' interests, which particularly arise in products li- ability cases, in protecting United States citizens from harmful products and in compensating them for injuries arising from use of such products." App. to Pet. for Cert. 25a.

The Magistrate made two responses to petitioners' argument that they could not comply with the discovery requests without violating French penal law. Noting that the law was originally " 'inspired to impede enforcement of United States antitrust laws,' " 8 and that it did not appear to have been strictly enforced in France, he first questioned whether it would be construed to apply to the pretrial discovery requests at issue.9 Id., at 22a-24a. Second, he balanced the interests in the "protection of United States citizens from harmful foreign products and compensation for injuries caused by such products" against France's interest in protecting its citizens "from intrusive foreign discovery procedures." The Magistrate concluded that the former interests were stronger, particularly because compliance with the requested discovery will "not have to take place in France" and will not be greatly intrusive or abusive. Id., at 23a-25a.

Petitioners sought a writ of mandamus from the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 21(a). Although immediate appellate review of an interlocutory discovery order is not ordinarily available, see Kerr v. United States District Court, 426 U.S. 394 402-403, 96 S.Ct. 2119, 2123-2124, 48 L.Ed.2d 725 (1976), the Court of Appeals considered that the novelty and the importance of the question presented, and the likelihood of its recurrence, made consideration of the merits of the petition appropriate. 782 F.2d 120 (1986). It then held that "when the district court has jurisdiction over a foreign litigant the Hague Convention does not apply to the production of evidence in that litigant's possession, even though the documents and information sought may physically be located within the territory of a foreign signatory to the Convention." Id., at 124. The Court of Appeals disagreed with petitioners' argument that this construction would render the entire Hague Convention "meaningless," noting that it would still serve the purpose of providing an improved procedure for obtaining evidence from nonparties. Id., at 125. The court also rejected petitioners' contention that considerations of international comity required plaintiffs to resort to Hague Convention procedures as an initial matter ("first use"), and correspondingly to invoke the federal discovery rules only if the treaty procedures turned out to be futile. The Court of Appeals believed that the potential overruling of foreign tribunals' denial of discovery would do more to defeat than to promote international comity. Id., at 125-126. Finally, the Court of Appeals concluded that objections based on the French penal statute should be considered in two stages: first, whether the discovery order was proper even though compliance may require petitioners to violate...

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