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DiFederico v. Marriott Int’l, Inc., No. 12-1635

Decided: May 1, 2013

Reversing and remanding the decision of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the district court erred in failing to apply the heightened deference owed to a citizen plaintiff seeking suit in her home forum, as is necessary in a proper forum non conveniens inquiry.  The Fourth Circuit also ruled that when conducting the private and public factor analysis relevant to forum non conveniens, the fear and emotional trauma of the plaintiff may be considered in certain situations.

On the evening of September 20th, 2008, Albert DiFederico was serving as a civilian contractor for the State Department in Pakistan.  A large dump truck containing explosives tried unsuccessfully to ram through the gate barrier of the Marriott Islamabad Hotel. Though initially ineffective, the truck’s driver proceeded to detonate an explosion inside the cab of the vehicle that eventually ignited the explosives in the back of the truck.  A large blast ensued and a fire engulfed the Marriott, killing 56 and wounding over 250, including DiFrederico.  His widow and their three sons brought a wrongful death action and survivorship claim alleging that Marriott International (“Marriott”) was liable for its failure to adequately secure its franchise hotel. The DiFedericos brought their suit in the forum of Marriott’s principal place of business, the District of Maryland. The district court granted Marriott’s motion to dismiss on the basis of forum non conveniens, finding that Pakistan was an available, adequate, and far more convenient forum to hear the case.

At the time of the suit, Pakistan’s one year statute of limitations on the claim had run.  An expired statute of limitations is usually dispositive in a forum non conveniens analysis; however, an exception exists where it can be shown the plaintiff made a deliberate and tactical decision to run the statute of limitations for the purpose of avoiding dismissal in her preferred forum. (Compania Naviera, 569 F.3d at 202-03). Because the district court failed to point to any evidence substantiating its determination that the DiFedericos made a deliberate and tactical decision to let the statute of limitations run in Pakistan to avoid dismissal, the Fourth Circuit held it was error to conclude the Pakistani forum was available.  The Fourth Circuit then reviewed the district court’s analysis of the public and private factors relevant to a forum non conveniens analysis, noting that a citizen plaintiff’s choice of forum is entitled to even greater deference when the plaintiff chooses her “home forum.”  The court found that the district court’s failure to consider this heightened standard when conducting its analysis was an abuse of discretion.  The appellants’ main argument for convenience and justice was the avoidance of fear and emotional trauma associated with pursuing their case in Pakistan. The Fourth Circuit adopted the Second Circuit’s reasoning in Guidi, finding that the fear and emotional trauma involved in travel for a trial concerning such a politically charged event would give rise to myriad logistical complexities and expenses.  The court noted that fear and emotional trauma should be given less consideration if a plaintiff’s fear has no relationship to the events giving rise to the claim, if the level of security threat present is low, and if an alternate, third forum is available.  The Fourth Circuit additionally found that the district court mistakenly analyzed several other public and private factors, including the location of the sources of proof, the availability of compulsory process for attendance of unwilling witnesses, and the difficulty in applying foreign law.

Full Opinion

-Kara S. Grevey