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Can I Bring a Personal Injury Lawsuit Against a Foreign Country?

Thousands of Tennessee residents travel abroad every year. But if you suffer a serious injury due to negligence while in another country, can you seek damages in a United States court? The Supreme Court recently addressed such a case, holding there is a high bar to personal injury lawsuits against business entities owned by foreign governments.

Chief Justice Bars Double Amputee’s Lawsuit Against Austrian Company

In 2007, a California woman purchased a Eurail pass from a United States-based travel agent. The Eurail pass is sponsored by a group of 30 European railroads and allows non-European visitors to enjoy “unlimited passage” for a specified period of time on the participating railways. One of the sponsoring railways is a company known as OBB, a railroad owned entirely by the government of Austria.

The month after purchasing her Eurail pass, the woman attempted to board an OBB train at a station in Innsbruck, Austria. In doing so, she “fell from the platform onto the tracks.” The moving train on the track crushed both of her legs, which had to be amputated.

The victim subsequently sued OBB in a federal court back home in California. Among other claims, the victim accused OBB of negligence and “strict liability” for the defective design of the train and the tracks. OBB moved to dismiss the complaint, citing its immunity from lawsuits under United States federal law.

The law in question is the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). Adopted by Congress in 1976, the FSIA provides no foreign government—or agency of said government—can be sued in the United States without its consent. There is an exception, however, for lawsuits where “the action is based upon a commercial activity carried on in the United States by the foreign state.” The victim in this case argued this exception applied because her lawsuit was based on the fact she purchased her Eurail pass in the United States.

A federal appeals court agreed the victim could proceed with her lawsuit under this exception. But the Supreme Court disagreed. In a unanimous opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts said the victim’s claims were not “based upon” any domestic commercial activity, but rather her “tragic episode in Austria.” Indeed, the chief justice noted, OBB did not directly sell the Eurail pass to the victim. As this was the only “commercial activity” cited in the victim’s lawsuit, she could not sustain her claim against OBB.

The Supreme Court further rejected the victim’s argument OBB could be held liable for “failure to warn” her of the “dangerous conditions at the Innsbruck train station” when she purchased her pass. Chief Justice Roberts said allowing such a claim would “allow plaintiffs to evade the [FSIA’s] restrictions through artful pleading.” Accordingly, the Court dismissed the victim’s lawsuit in its entirety.

Have You Been Injured While Traveling?

If you are injured while traveling, it is important you speak with a qualified Tennessee personal injury attorney who can advise you of your rights and potential legal remedies. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Clinton or Knoxville today if you need to speak with someone right away.

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