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Supreme Court rules against Berkeley woman suing over injury in Austria

A California woman who bought a Eurail pass from a Massachusetts company and was badly injured trying to board an Austrian train may not sue the state-owned company in this country, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this article misstated that the woman bought a Eurorail pass. They are more commonly known as Eurail passes.

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In a 9-0 decision, the justices said the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act generally bars lawsuits against foreign governments and their agencies in this country, and it is not waived simply because a foreign traveler bought her ticket here.

Carol Sachs, a resident of Berkeley, fell from a train platform in Innsbruck in 2007 when she tried to board a train bound for Prague and lost both of her legs. She blamed an unsafe boarding platform. The company maintained that she had tried to board a moving train.

At issue was where she could sue.

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco initially dismissed her suit against the Austrian state railway, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said in an 8-3 decision that she could sue in California. Its judges cited a portion of the law that says foreign state entities may be sued here if an accident or injury is "based upon commercial activity carried on in the United States."

The 9th Circuit said that selling a ticket qualifies as commercial activity.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that interpretation made little sense, because the accident took place abroad. "All of her claims turn on the same tragic episode in Austria, allegedly caused by wrongful conduct and dangerous conditions in Austria, which led to injuries suffered in Austria,"  he said.

Roberts said Sachs had alleged the Austrian company failed to warn her of dangerous conditions on the Innsbruck platform, but he said there is no way the sellers of the Eurail pass could be expected to have issued such a warning. "Under any theory of the case Sachs presents, there is nothing wrongful about the sale of the Eurail pass standing alone," he said in the case of OBB Personenverkehr AG vs. Sachs.

Tuesday's decision concerned only state-owned enterprises. It does not limit all lawsuits from U.S. tourists who are injured when traveling abroad.

Twitter: @DavidGSavage

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