One issue that arises inevitably in air disaster litigation in the United States is whether the federal court can assert jurisdiction over all cases so that they can be resolved in a single coordinated proceeding. This has been an important issue in litigation resulting from the most recent major US air disaster, the crash of Asiana flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport in July of 2013.
More than half of the passengers aboard Asiana 214 could not establish jurisdiction over Asiana in the United States because they could not meet the jurisdictional criteria under Article 33 of the Montréal Convention. However, as is typically the case, the lack of jurisdiction over Asiana did not prevent most of these passengers from filing suit in the United States. Most sued the Boeing Company in the state court in Cook County, Illinois, where Boeing maintains its headquarters. These filings divided the lawsuits ‒ with all of the cases filed against Asiana and other defendants pending in federal court in California and another group of cases filed against Boeing in Illinois state court.
Boeing attempted to remove the Cook County cases to federal court alleging, among other things, the existence of federal admiralty jurisdiction because the events that resulted in the accident occurred over navigable waters. The federal court in Illinois rejected Boeing’s removal and issued an order remanding the cases to state court. Boeing immediately requested and obtained a stay of the remand order pending the filing of an appeal.
In its appeal, Boeing relied upon a narrow exception to the general rule that remand orders are not appealable. Following a very lengthy appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the remand order issued by the district court, accepting Boeing’s contention that there exists a basis for admiralty jurisdiction because the intervening investigation established that the operative events which resulted in the accident occurred over navigable waters.
The decision is not likely to have broad effect in other U.S. air disaster cases unless there is some actual connection with admiralty jurisdiction. However, the decision is a significant development in the Asiana U.S. litigation. The federal judicial system has a procedure that provides for the transfer and assignment of all related federal cases to a single judge for coordinated proceedings. The Judicial Panel, which has responsibility for such matters, issued a transfer order early in the litigation transferring all federal lawsuits arising from this accident to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Since this recent decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals retains all of the Illinois cases in the federal court, they will now be subject to the Judicial Panel’s transfer order and will be transferred from Illinois for consolidation with the other cases already pending in the Northern District of California.