Tang v. Synutra Int’l, Inc., No. 10-1487

Decided: Sept. 6, 2011

On September 16, 2008, Synutra issued a recall of its U-Smart infant formula. The formula, produced and consumed exclusively in China, was contaminated with melamine and potentially harmful to children in utero. The Chinese government set up a compensation fund for the children and families affected by the contaminated formula but some families chose to forgo this remedy and sue directly in Chinese courts. As time passed, and though the Supreme People’s Court expressed its readiness to handle the claims, reports mounted that local and provincial authorities were thwarting the suits, seeking to suppress what they saw as a movement toward “social unrest.” Eventually, several plaintiffs decided to sue Synutra in the District of Maryland, the defendant’s principal place of business. Finding China an adequate and available forum, the district court dismissed the complaint for forum non conveniens.

A dismissal for forum non conveniens is evaluated on an abuse of discretion standard. However, the Supreme Court in Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235 (1981) laid down three factors when deciding the motion: (1) the alternative forum’s availability, (2) adequacy, and (3) convenience in light of public and private interests. The burden is on the party seeking dismissal to show another forum is more appropriate. Synutra satisfied the first element, availability, by demonstrating that the plaintiffs had not run afoul any statutes of limitation and that the company would not contest service of process in China. The remedies available in China were held adequate because the judicial courts had shown an ability to handle contaminated formula cases, even if they discouraged them. Also, the plaintiffs were still able to access the compensation fund. Remedies in other forums do not have to be judicial, nor must they be as beneficial as what may be available to plaintiffs in United States courts. Finally, the Fourth Circuit held that the primary consideration in a forum non conveniens analysis is convenience. As such, the availability of evidence and witnesses in the locus of injury were more important to achieving judicial public and private interests than where corporate decisions were ultimately made. Since all three factors pointed toward China being the proper forum for recourse, the court affirmed dismissal based on forum non conveniens.

Full Opinion

-C. Alexander Cable

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