On March 4, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean. The flight, which was coming from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was heading to Beijing, China. Following the Boeing 777’s disappearance, a search and rescue and search and recovery occurred. While wreckage has washed up on shores over the years, no bodies were ever found. This international tragedy sparked debate about determining jurisdiction for litigation.
There were 227 passengers and 12 crew members on the plane. While the crew members were all from Malaysia, the passengers came from 14 different countries. On January 28, 2015, all individuals on the flight were presumed dead. As a result in the United States, legal action was taken in California, the District of Columbia, Illinois, New York, South Carolina, and Washington. The proceedings were centralized to Washington, D.C.
The judge dismissed the cases because of the forum non conveniens doctrine, which says courts are allowed to refuse jurisdiction over matters when more appropriate forums are available. In this case, that forum was Malaysia.
In many cases, claims were brought against Boeing for wrongful death and product liability. Even though Boeing manufactured the plane, is an American corporation, and three of the decedents from the plane crash were U.S. citizens, the U.S. courts still found Malaysia to be an adequate forum for litigation. As such, the court considered the balance of public and private interests and ultimately decided to dismiss again based on forum non conveniens.
The U.S. courts also decided Malaysia was the proper forum because no wreckage was found, and a defect could not be identified. The court noted that Boeing could not pursue legal action against corporate entities that were controlled by the Malaysian government because of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
In addition to the product liability claims, a number of plaintiffs pursued claims to the Montreal Convention. This is a multilateral treaty that discusses compensation for victims after air disasters. Once again, under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, it was decided that the Malaysian courts were a more appropriate forum for the lawsuits.
The ramifications of Malaysia Airline’s Flight 370’s disappearance brought to question how legal matters should be handled when country borders are not clear. There are a number of public and private interest factors that courts need to consider before determining how the matter should be dealt with. If, in fact, an accident occurs off of U.S. soil and it is determined that there is a strong defect theory against a U.S. manufacturer, the issue could be within United States jurisdiction.