District Court Rejects Effort To Dismiss Suit Brought by Members of the U.S. Military For Injuries Arising From Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

The World in U.S. Courts: Winter 2015 - Personal Jurisdiction

Cooper v. Tokyo Electric Power Co., U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, October 28, 2014

Plaintiffs are members of the U.S. military who allege they were injured by radiation exposure when they were deployed near the Fukushima-Daichi nuclear power plant following the earthquake and tsunami that damaged the plant. The defendant “TEPCO” owns and operates the plant. The complaint alleged that TEPCO was negligent in performing a wide variety of tasks relating to the plant’s design, construction, and operation.

After concluding that the complaint did not impermissibly require the resolution of political questions, and that many of the claimed violations of law had been adequately supported by allegations of fact, the district Court in Los Angeles considered a number of arguments by TEPCO based on its status as a non-U.S. company enmeshed in a dispute involving events that occurred in Japan.

TEPCO first argued that the case should be dismissed on grounds of the forum non conveniens doctrine because litigating the dispute in California would result in “oppressiveness and vexation” disproportionate to the plaintiffs’ general right to litigate a dispute in a forum of its choosing. The legal test required the Court to consider whether an “adequate alternative forum” for hearing the dispute exists, and whether the balance of private and public interests favored dismissal.

In concluding that TEPCO had not met this burden, the Court did agree that Japanese Courts would provide an adequate alternative forum, despite the highly sensitive subject matter. The relevant private interests, and the Court’s evaluation of them, were as follows: (i) residence of the parties and witnesses—about evenly balanced; (ii) convenience to the litigants—strongly favored the U.S., as the plaintiffs might not have the resources to litigate in Japan, while TEPCO could defend itself in the U.S., albeit at high cost; (iii) access to evidence—neutral, as TEPCO was unable to demonstrate that the cost of producing documents in U.S. litigation would be prohibitive; (iv) ability to compel testimony of unwilling witnesses—this factor favors litigation in Japan; (v) the cost of bringing witnesses to trial—this factor weighs “only slightly” in favor of litigation in Japan; (vi) enforceability of a judgment—neutral.

The Court then considered so-called “public” interests: (i) the local interest in the litigation—slightly favors retaining the case in the U.S., as Japan’s strong interest in adjudicating claims arising out of the relevant events is slightly overbalanced by the U.S. interest in seeing that members of its armed forces are compensated for injuries, and the fact that the U.S. would ultimately be responsible for the plaintiffs’ medical care; (ii) the Court’s familiarity with governing law—a factor supporting retention of the case, as TEPCO made no assertion that Japanese law would apply.

On the basis of these factors, the Court concluded that litigation in the U.S. would be more convenient, on balance, and so rejected TEPCO’s arguments.

Next the Court considered TEPCO’s motion to dismiss the claim on grounds of “international comity”—which the Court described as allowing deference to the judgment of an alternative forum where the issues are “entangled in international relations.” The Court denied the motion, finding that (i) U.S. ratification of a treaty providing for adjudication of claims by victims of a nuclear incident in the country where the incident occurred could not be considered because the treaty had not yet gone into effect; (ii) while Japan’s interest in adjudicating the dispute is strong, its interest with respect to compensating non-Japanese plaintiffs for TEPCO’s negligence is not; and (iii) Japan, while an adequate forum, is not more so than the U.S.

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