Terra Intern., Inc. v. Mississippi Chemical Corp.

Decision Date05 April 1996
Docket NumberNo. C 95-4088.,C 95-4088.
Citation922 F. Supp. 1334
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of West Virginia
PartiesTERRA INTERNATIONAL, INC., a Delaware corporation, Plaintiff, v. MISSISSIPPI CHEMICAL CORPORATION, a Mississippi corporation, Defendant.

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George Zelcs and Dean S. Rauchwerger of Clausen Miller, P.C., Chicago, Illinois, Terrence C. McRea of Zelle & Larson, Dallas, Texas, Gregg Williams of Heidman, Redmond, Fredregill, Patterson, Schatz & Plaza, L.L.P., Sioux City, Iowa, for Terra International.

Steve Eckley and Randy Duncan of Duncan, Green, Brown, Langeness & Eckley, P.C., Des Moines, Iowa, Jay Brumfield, Jackson, Mississippi, William L. Smith, of Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes, Jackson, Mississippi, for MCC.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR PERMANENT INJUNCTION AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO TRANSFER OR STAY

BENNETT, District Judge.

                                       TABLE OF CONTENTS
                  I. INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND ........................................................1340
                     A. Procedural Background............................................................1340
                        1. The lawsuits..................................................................1340
                        2. The TRO and the venue motions.................................................1341
                        3. Further briefing and discovery disputes.......................................1341
                     B. Findings Of Fact.................................................................1343
                
                        1. "Bad faith" and "surprise" ...................................................1343
                        2. The forum selection clause ...................................................1344
                 II. LEGAL ANALYSIS .....................................................................1345
                     A. Intertwining Of The "First-Filed" And "Transfer" Analyses .......................1345
                        1. The "first-filed rule" .......................................................1345
                        2. Exceptions to the rule .......................................................1346
                           a. The "compelling circumstances" exception ..................................1346
                           b. "Balance of convenience" exception ........................................1348
                           c. The "dead heat" exception .................................................1350
                     B. The "Transfer" Analysis .........................................................1354
                        1. The "transfer" statute and its purpose .......................................1355
                        2. Factors in the "transfer" analysis ...........................................1357
                           a. "Balance of convenience" ..................................................1358
                           b. The "interest of justice" .................................................1362
                           c. Other "relevant factors" ..................................................1364
                        3. Forum selection clauses ......................................................1365
                           a. The weight to be given the clause in a "transfer" analysis ................1365
                                i. Stewart and its progeny ..............................................1366
                               ii. "Mandatory" and "permissive" forum selection clauses .................1370
                              iii. Is this clause entitled to "significant" weight or "no weight"? ......1373
                           b. Applicability of the forum selection clause ...............................1375
                                i. The syntactical knot .................................................1375
                               ii. General scope of forum selection clauses .............................1377
                              iii. The forum selection clause in this case ..............................1381
                     C. Certification For Interlocutory Appeal...........................................1382
                III. CONCLUSION .........................................................................1385
                

Alexander the Great's simple solution is unavailable to this court as it confronts the Gordian knot1 of tangled interests and venue questions in litigation stemming from the catastrophic explosion of a fertilizer plant in northwest Iowa on December 13, 1994. The explosion which caused deaths, injuries, and enormous damage. The plaintiff corporation is the operator of the fertilizer plant. The defendant corporation is the inventor, designer, and licensor of the ammonium nitrate neutralizer technology that allegedly precipitated the explosion. The roles of the parties are reversed in parallel litigation brought by the present defendant in federal court in Mississippi.

Presently before the court is the question of where these lawsuits should be litigated. The plaintiff seeks to enjoin permanently the lawsuit brought by the defendant in Mississippi, while the defendant seeks to transfer this lawsuit to Mississippi federal court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404 or, failing that, to stay the present litigation. Each of the parties at first asserted its own "Alexandrian" solution to cut through the tangle: the plaintiff asserted that the question of the proper forum for this lawsuit could be resolved simply by application of the "first-filed rule," requiring the enjoining of the defendant's second-filed action in Mississippi, while the defendant initially asserted, with equal certainty and vehemence, that the venue question could be resolved simply by invoking the forum selection clause in the licensing agreement between the parties. Following filing of many briefs, an evidentiary hearing, and oral arguments, the court still lacks a simple "Alexandrian" solution, yet it must nevertheless unravel the tangled web of complex venue issues assisted by the parties' excellent briefs and spirited oral arguments.

I. INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

The court has twice considered the factual and some of the procedural background to this litigation in published rulings. See Terra Int'l, Inc. v. Mississippi Chem. Corp., 913 F.Supp. 1306, 1308-13 (N.D.Iowa 1996) (ruling on motion for discovery guidance as to ex parte contacts with current and former employees after same hearing in which the present motions were argued); Terra Int'l, Inc. v. Mississippi Chem. Corp., 896 F.Supp. 1468, 1469-72 (N.D.Iowa 1995) (granting TRO to enjoin MCC from seeking to enjoin or restrain Terra's lawsuit in Iowa). The court will therefore recite only the portions of the procedural history and the facts necessary to provide the background to its consideration of the present venue questions.

A. Procedural Background
1. The lawsuits

This lawsuit, filed on August 31, 1995, at 12:35 p.m., arises from the explosion of plaintiff Terra International's fertilizer plant in Port Neal, Iowa, on December 13, 1994, which caused deaths, injuries, and devastation of the plant.2 Later on the afternoon of August 31, 1995, MCC also filed suit against Terra in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Western Division, in a case captioned Mississippi Chem. Corp. v. Terra Int'l, Inc., No. 5:95CV127 (S.D.Miss.). The lawsuits are not mirror images of each other, but do involve overlapping claims as well as similar factual and legal issues. Count I of the present lawsuit, filed by Terra against MCC, states a negligence cause of action. It alleges that MCC breached a duty of care and caution in designing the MCC technology for use by Terra and in providing guidance and services to ensure that the technology would be reasonably safe.3 Count II alleges strict liability of MCC on the grounds that the design of the MCC technology was unreasonably dangerous and defective, that these conditions were unknown to Terra, and that these conditions were the proximate cause of the December 13, 1994, explosion. On both counts, Terra seeks damages in an unspecified amount in excess of $50,000, an award of all costs, prejudgment and post-judgment interest, and such other and further relief as the court may deem just and proper. Jurisdiction in this lawsuit is founded on diversity of citizenship of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332, and venue is alleged under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(a) and (c) in that a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claims occurred in Woodbury County, Iowa, or a substantial part of the property that is the subject of this action is situated in this judicial district, and the defendant is subject to personal jurisdiction and/or resides in this judicial district.

In MCC's lawsuit against Terra, filed in Mississippi federal court, Count I seeks declaratory relief that MCC "did not defectively design the neutralizer at the center of the Port Neal explosion ... and is not liable to Terra for damages arising from the explosion under any theory of recovery." In Count II, MCC seeks damages for a tort, alleging that Terra's incident investigation committee report, a July 17, 1995, press release, and an address given by Mark Rosenbury, a Terra vice president, were defamatory of MCC. MCC alleges significant loss of business as the result of Terra's allegedly defamatory communications.

2. The TRO and the venue motions

Once both lawsuits had been filed, Terra notified the court of its intention to file a motion for an emergency temporary restraining order (TRO) in this court to enjoin the prosecution of the litigation between the parties brought by MCC in the Mississippi federal court. A written copy of the motion for an emergency TRO was ultimately filed on September 6, 1995, although the court had previously received a written courtesy copy. After preliminary telephone conferences on Labor Day, September 4, 1995, and a hearing on September 5, 1995, the court entered a TRO much more limited in scope than Terra had originally requested. The TRO enjoined MCC from seeking to enjoin or restrain Terra's lawsuit in Iowa for a period of up to 120 days. The court also directed that...

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