The Deepwater Horizon platform explosion and oil spill took place in the Gulf of Mexico, about 250 miles southeast of Houston. The environmental damage took place in the Gulf and along the Gulf shore in the Southeastern United States. When BP’s shareholders tried to sue the board of directors of BP -- a corporation organized under the laws of England -- in a derivative suit filed in federal court in the U.S. alleging breaches of fiduciary duty, they clearly hoped their suit would do better in a court closer to the site of the disaster and ensuing spill. But the district court dismissed the suit on forum non conveniens grounds. In a January 16, 2013 opinion (here), a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal.
As discussed here, plaintiffs filed the first of several derivative lawsuits in connection with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in May 2010. Though many of the lawsuits were first filed in the Eastern District of Louisiana, the cases were ultimately consolidated through the multidistrict litigation process in the Southern District of Texas. However, while the lawsuits were filed in U.S. courts, they asserted claims under the U.K. Companies Act 2006 (about which refer here). The defendants moved to dismiss the consolidated derivative litigation in the grounds of forum non conveniens.
In a September 15, 2011 ruling, Judge Keith Ellison of the Southern District of Texas determined that, notwithstanding the fact that the Deepwater Horizon disaster took place in the U.S. and caused extensive environmental damage here, “the English High Court is a far more appropriate forum for this litigation,” and accordingly he granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the cases. Judge Ellison’s decision can be found here. My prior post discussing Judge Ellison’s opinion can be found here.
In its January 16 per curiam opinion, the Fifth Circuit panel affirmed the district court’s decision, concluding that the lower court had not abused its discretion in granting the dismissal on forum non conveniens grounds.
Among other things, the Fifth Circuit reviewed the multipart analysis a district court must use in order to determine whether or not to dismiss a case on forum non conveniens grounds. Among the most important of considerations is whether or not there is an alternative forum where the matter can be heard. In order to satisfy the availability requirement, the district court had conditioned its dismissal on the Defendants filing a stipulation that they would submit to the jurisdiction of the English courts, which the Defendants had done. The Fifth Circuit concluded that the stipulation satisfies the availability requirements.
Another important consideration a district court must consider in connection with a motion to dismiss on forum non conveniens grounds is the existence of a local interest in the dispute. The Fifth Circuit concluded that the district court had not abused its discretion in determining that, because this dispute was not intended to redress the impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the United States but rather was intended to compensate the British company BP for its financial and reputational harm, England had the greater local interest in the matter.
The Fifth Circuit also concluded that the district court had “reasonably” determined that public interest factors weighed heavily in favor of England as a more convenient forum, given that the English statute on which the plaintiffs sought to rely had only recently been enacted leaving the U.S. courts with little jurisprudence to use to try to apply the statute properly.
The plaintiffs chose to file their suit in the U.S. rather than in the U.K. undoubtedly had something to do with a perception that a court in closer proximity to the damages caused by the spill might prove to be a more receptive forum. The selection of a U.S. court over an English one also reflects the more general advantages a plaintiff enjoys here by comparison to English courts – for example, the absence in the U.S. of a “loser pays” model, among other things.
These kinds of advantages often encourage plaintiffs with claims involving non-U.S. companies to try to pursue their claims in U.S. courts. But the outcome of the dismissal motion in the BP derivative suit represents just one more example of the many ways prospective litigants are finding it increasingly more difficult to pursue corporate and securities claims against non-U.S. companies in U.S. courts. Courts interpreting the U.S. Supreme Court’s Morrison decision have significantly narrowed the circumstances in which securities claims involving foreign companies can go forward in U.S. courts. The Fifth Circuit’s affirmance of the dismissal of the BP derivative suit underscores the difficulties prospective claimants may fact in pursuing derivative suits involving non-U.S. companies here as well.
Among the many other lawsuits filed in connection with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, there also was, in addition to this shareholders’ derivative suit, a securities class action lawsuit. Though the separate securities class action lawsuit will be going forward at least in part, the preliminary motions in the securities suit also demonstrate some of the challenges plaintiffs now face in trying to pursue claims in the U.S. against non-U.S. companies. As discussed here, in a February 2012 ruling, Judge Ellison denied in part the motions of defendants to dismiss the securities class action lawsuit that BP shareholders had filed in connection with the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Though Judge Ellison denied the motions to dismiss with respect to the claims asserted by securities class action plaintiffs who had purchased BP ADRs on the U.S. securities exchanges, he granted the motion to dismiss all of the claims – including claims asserted under New York state law and English common law – of U.S.-domiciled investors who purchased their BP shares on the London Stock Exchange. Judge Ellison specifically concluded that because the federal securities laws do not apply to the securities transactions on LSE, he also lacked supplemental jurisdiction to consider the English common law claims. By shaving off the claims of the shareholders who purchased their shares, Judge Ellison dramatically narrowed the scope and range of potential damages in the securities class action lawsuit.
Jan Wolfe’s detailed January 18, 2013 Am Law Litigation Daily article about the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in the BP derivative suit can be found here.