Van Dusen v. Barrack
376 U.S. 612 (1964)

  • An airplane was headed to Philadelphia, but crashed into Boston harbor. Some injured parties sued in a Massachusetts Federal Court, and some sued in Pennsylvania Federal Court.
  • The defendants filed to transfer all the suits to Massachusetts based on convenience (28 USC § 1404). The Trial judge granted the transfer. It was appealed to the US Supreme Court.
    • The defendants made the motion because the suits were for the tort of “wrongful death.” The defendants knew that a lot of States put a damages cap on these suits. Massachusetts has a $10k cap, Pennsylvania had no cap, so they could be liable for unlimited damages.
  • The US Supreme Court allowed the transfer, but…
    • The US Supreme Court found that according to §1404, the judge can determine the forum. However, transfer is simply for the convenience of the parties. When there is a transfer under §1404, the transferee court will act as the transferor court, and apply the same laws that would have applied in the judicial district where it was originally filed.
      • This means that the Massachusetts Court should apply the laws of Pennsylvania!
      • So basically, a party can use §1404 to move the case to a courtroom that is more convenient for the parties and witnesses to get to, but they cannot use §1404 to move the case to a State with laws favorable to them.
      • Conflict of laws has a principle called lex loci delicti (aka “law of the place where the tort was committed”).
  • This case ended up even more complicated. Since the US was one of the defendants, and suits against the US use the laws of the place where the negligent act occurred. The Court found that the fault for the crash was the air control tower in Rhode Island, so they had to apply Rhode Island law!