Supreme Court rules on Berkeley resident’s suit against Austrian company

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In its first decision of its new term, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a Berkeley resident could not sue a foreign state-owned company in U.S. court over an incident that occurred outside the United States.

Ruling against Carol Sachs, who was injured while attempting to board a train in Austria in 2007, the Court said that Sachs’ purchase of a Eurail ticket online from a Massachusetts company while in the United States was not sufficient to warrant a suit in U.S. court.

Sachs lost her legs after she tried to board a train in Innsbruck, Austria, and fell from the platform while the train was moving. She blamed the incident on an unsafe boarding platform and tried to sue the Austrian state-owned railroad company, OBB Personenverkehr, in federal court in California, arguing that when she bought her Eurail pass online from the Rail Pass Experts, based in Massachusetts, she was dealing with an agent of the Austrian company.

The district judge in San Francisco dismissed her suit on the grounds that the commercial activity of buying a Eurail pass was not responsible for her accident, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overruled the dismissal in an 8-3 decision.

The Court of Appeals cited the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which shields foreign states and their agencies from from lawsuits in U.S. courts, except in special circumstances, such as when commercial activity involving foreign states occurs in the United States. Sachs claimed that buying the ticket online from the Rail Pass Experts constituted such commercial activity.

OBB appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard the case. The court disagreed with Sachs and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing in line with the San Francisco district judge’s initial ruling that because the commercial activity was not responsible for the incident occurring, the commercial activity exception should not apply.

“However Sachs frames her suit, the incident in Innsbruck, Austria, remains at its foundation,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts on behalf of the unanimous court.

Contact Maxwell Jenkins-Goetz at [email protected].