North Carolina Business Litigation Report

Fourth Circuit Enforces Forum Selection Clause Requiring Litigation In Amsterdam

The Fourth Circuit today affirmed the dismissal of a personal injury action based on a forum selection provision requiring that any claims would be resolved in the courts of Amsterdam.  The case is Baker v. Adidas America, Inc.

Plaintiff, who had sued in federal court in North Carolina, argued that she was a college student without the financial means to fund a lawsuit in Amsterdam, that contingency fee arrangements were not permitted in Amsterdam, and that she wouldn't be able to pursue her claim if the forum selection clause was enforced.

The Fourth Circuit, relying on the Supreme Court's decision in The Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1 (1972), held that the inconvenience of litigating in a foreign forum doesn't warrant setting aside a selection clause "where it can be said with reasonable assurance" that at the time the contract was made the parties contemplated the claimed inconvenience.  The party seeking to avoid a forum selection clause also must show that a trial in the specified forum "will be so gravely difficult and inconvenient that he will for all practical purposes be deprived of his day in court." 

The Fourth Circuit found the clause to be valid, ruling that the claimed burden of a trial in Amsterdam should have been foreseeable when Plaintiff accepted the benefits of the agreement, and that she had presumably been compensated for those burdens.

The North Carolina Business Court rejected an attack earlier this year on a forum selection clause specifying litigation in the Commercial Court of Paris, in Speedway Motorsports International Ltd. v. Bronwen Energy Trading, Ltd., 2009 NCBC 3 (N.C. Super. Ct., February 18, 2009).  The party objecting to the application of that clause said that litigation in France would deprive it "of the full scope of discovery that would otherwise be available in" the North Carolina Courts. 

In the Speedway case, Judge Diaz held that there was "no authority . . . for the proposition that merely requiring a party to litigate in a forum with substantially different discovery rules than those applied in a U.S. court is sufficient cause to override the parties' choice of forum."  He ruled that the party forced to fight its claim in France was neither "deprive[d] of its day in court" nor "without an adequate remedy."

Another issue in the Fourth Circuit decision today concerned whether Plaintiff, a professional tennis player who was a minor when the contract with Adidas was signed by her agent, had acted promptly enough to disaffirm the agreement after she attained the age of majority.  The Fourth Circuit said that she hadn't, because her agent had accepted payments from Adidas after she turned 18, and she didn't inform Adidas that she was voiding the contract until 32 months after her 18th birthday.

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Mack Sperling
Brooks Pierce, LLP
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