Today, the United States Supreme Court issued a seminal decision in the area of international law. The Supreme Court unanimously held that Dorsey & Whitney LLP’s client, OBB Personenverkehr AG (“OBB”), the national railway of the Republic of Austria, is entitled to foreign sovereign immunity in a lawsuit filed against it in federal court by a United States resident who was injured while boarding OBB’s train in Innsbruck, Austria.
The decision, authored by Chief Justice Roberts, has broad application and is significant in confirming that there are limits to the reach of American courts. It establishes that, in the commercial context, in order for a United States court to exercise jurisdiction over a foreign state, or an agency or instrumentality of a foreign state, the claims must be “based upon” commercial activity that occurred within the territorial limits of the United States. In reversing the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court rejected the notion that a foreign state-owned railway could be sued in the United States, simply based upon the purchase of a Eurail pass on the Internet from a United State travel agency, curtailing the impact of the Internet on the jurisdictional reach of United States courts. Instead, the Supreme Court held that courts must focus on what is “the ‘particular conduct’ that constitutes the ‘gravamen’ of the suit,” or its “essentials,” which here, was the accident that took place in Austria. In this case, the injured passenger could have sued in Austria instead, which forum afforded adequate legal remedies.
Dorsey partner Juan Basombrio, who argued the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of OBB, notes that the decision is significant from an international business and legal perspective: “Whereas the Ninth Circuit’s decision would have dragged foreign states and their agencies into United States court, the Supreme Court’s decision recognizes the importance of international comity; that is, the respect that nations afford to the courts of other nations with respect to matters that occur within their territory.”
Mr. Basombrio further notes that, “In a world that has become increasingly connected by international commercial transactions, and where there is also increasing friction in the relations between the United States and other nations, this is a seminal and important decision that will foster harmony between the United States and other nations at least in the commercial context.” Mr. Basombrio explains that, “From the perspective of American business, this decision also will incentivize other nations to adopt similar rulings, which will protect American businesses from being dragged into court overseas.”
Finally, “The unanimous decision of the Supreme Court,” according to Mr. Basombrio, “also underscores that the Supreme Court is not a fractured Court, as it has been recently criticized, but instead can and has spoken with one voice in this important area of the law, which involves the foreign relations of the United States.”
Dorsey & Whitney LLP, represented OBB at all stages of the litigation. Dorsey partner Juan Basombrio was lead counsel on the case from the trial court through the Supreme Court argument, and was joined on the Supreme Court briefs by Dorsey partner Steven Wells and Dorsey attorney Timothy Droske.