State-Owned Railway Is Protected by Sovereign Immunity, Supreme Court Decides

In a recent decision, the United States Supreme Court decided that a railway owned and operated by the government of Austria cannot be sued in the United States for an accident that occurred at one of the railway’s stations in Austria. The plaintiff in the case, a resident of California, sued the state-owned railway for injuries she suffered after falling onto the tracks while boarding a train at the railway’s Innsbruck, Austria station. When she fell, the train ran over her legs, requiring that both legs be amputated above the knee.

railroads-1554513Under federal law, foreign governments cannot be sued for damages in U.S. courts except under limited circumstances. This protection is known as sovereign immunity, and it was codified by Congress in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act includes several limited exceptions, one of which permits a lawsuit against a foreign government when an injury is based upon commercial activity conducted in the United States. In her lawsuit, the injured American alleged that this exception applied in her case — and thus that her suit for damages should proceed — because her injuries were based upon the purchase of a train pass that occurred in the United States.

Prior to her travels, the plaintiff purchased her train pass on the Internet from a travel agency based in Massachusetts. The pass, called a Eurail pass, permits non-European residents unlimited travel on nearly 30 different European railways for a set period of time. When she fell from the tracks, the injured woman was using her Eurail pass for travel from Innsbruck to Prague.

The woman sued the railway for negligence, or a failure to take reasonable care while operating the train. She also alleged that the train and platform were defectively designed and that the state-owned railway failed to warn her of these defects, which ultimately caused her to lose her legs. The latter allegations are based on what is called strict liability, as opposed to negligence, and would not have required that she prove fault on the part of the railroad in order to prevail in court.

In ruling against the plaintiff, the Supreme Court decided that the exception to foreign immunity for commercial activity did not apply to her accident because her injuries were not sufficiently rooted in the purchase of her Eurail pass in the United States. Instead, the Court concluded, the real basis of her lawsuit was the accident at the Innsbruck train station, which occurred in Austria, not the United States.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, there are some instances in which injured parties may still prevail against foreign-owned entities. For instance, a state-owned airline may still be liable under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act if a passenger is injured while boarding one of the airline’s planes at an airport in the United States, like O’Hare International. In addition, privately owned foreign corporations, as opposed to state-owned entities, are not shielded by immunity in U.S. courts. In fact, cases against foreign corporations are not uncommon, especially in the automobile industry, where class action lawsuits against foreign car companies like Toyota, Hyundai, and Kia have resulted in large settlements for U.S. consumers.

Have You Been Injured By a Foreign Company?

If you have been injured and are not sure if you can file a lawsuit against the person or company that caused your injuries, you should ask a lawyer for help. The lawyers at Moll Law Group know who can and cannot be sued, and how to maximize the compensation you deserve. Most foreign companies operating in the United States are not state-owned, so with the right lawyers, you should be compensated for your injuries. We have successfully represented clients against companies incorporated at home and abroad, so we understand how to succeed in negligence cases, no matter the defendant. For a free consultation, call Moll Law Group at (312) 462-1700.

See More Posts:

Child Birth Injuries and Medical Malpractice Claims, Illinois Injury Lawyer Blog, December 8, 2015.

Public Schools Enjoy Some Level of Immunity for Injuries to Students, Illinois Injury Lawyer Blog, December 16, 2015.

Doctors and Drug Companies May Be Liable for Medication Side Effects, Illinois Injury Lawyer Blog, December 22, 2015.