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Seales v. Panamanian Aviation Co. Limited

February 25, 2008

CARLOS A. SEALES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
PANAMANIAN AVIATION COMPANY LIMITED A/K/A COPA AIRLINE, "JANE DOE" AND "JOHN DOE" 1 THROUGH 10 INCLUSIVE, THE NAMES OF THE LAST DEFENDANTS BEING FICTITIOUS, THE TRUE NAMES OF THE DEFENDANTS BEING UNKNOWN TO THE PLAINTIFF, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sifton, Senior Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Carlos Seales ("plaintiff") commenced this action against Panamanian Aviation Company, Ltd., also known as Copa Airline ("COPA"), and "Jane Doe" and "John Doe" 1 through 10, unidentified COPA employees, on July 12, 2007. Plaintiff brings claims of willful and/or negligent misrepresentation, gross negligence, willful misconducts, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and seeks damages, alleging that based on the actions and representations of COPA and its employees, plaintiff, following a flight on COPA from Panama City to Jamaica, was arrested at Norman Manley Airport, Jamaica, detained eighteen days, and prohibited from leaving Jamaica for several months while criminal charges were pending. Now before the Court is defendant COPA's motion to dismiss for forum non conveniens.*fn1

For the reasons set forth below, defendant COPA's motion is denied.

Background

The following facts are taken from plaintiff's Complaint, the affidavits and the exhibits submitted by the parties in connection with these motions. See Alcoa S.S. Co. v. M/V Nordic Regent, 654 F.2d 147, 158-59 (2d Cir. 1980) (en banc) ("[I]t is the well established practice . . .to decide [forum non conveniens] motions on affidavits"), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 890 (1980). Disputes are noted.

Plaintiff is an individual residing in Brooklyn. He is a United States citizen and resident of the State of New York.*fn2 He receives a disability pension from the Department of Veteran Affairs and Social Security benefits from the Social Security Administration. Nnebe Aff. ¶ 20. These funds are deposited into plaintiff's bank account in New York. Id. Defendant COPA is a business corporation organized and existing under the laws of Panama, with its principal place of business located in Panama. Defendants "John Doe" and "Jane Doe" 1-10 are unknown employees of COPA.

Plaintiff is a consultant who travels between the United States, Panama, and Jamaica. Prior to one trip from Panama City to Jamaica, plaintiff contacted COPA to inquire whether he could legally take his firearm, licensed in Panama, into Jamaica and, if so, what the relevant procedures were. Plaintiff alleges that he was informed by COPA employees that he could legally take his firearm into Jamaica if he declared his intention to transport the firearm at check-in, provided evidence and verification of the firearm license, had the firearm inventoried and handed over to the defendants for transportation, and, finally, upon arrival in Jamaica, applied for and obtained a permit from the relevant Jamaican authority to re-possess his firearm.

On October 3, 2005, plaintiff boarded a COPA flight from Panama to Jamaica. He duly declared his firearm and produced his license. COPA employees accepted the firearm and provided plaintiff with his boarding pass and baggage claim receipt. Upon boarding the aircraft, plaintiff was summoned to the cockpit by the pilot, who presented the firearm case to plaintiff. Plaintiff opened the case and the pilot separated the ammunition from the firearm, inventoried the firearm and the ammunition, issued plaintiff with a receipt, and took possession of the firearm. The pilot allegedly informed plaintiff that defendants would deliver the firearm to the proper Jamaican authority upon arrival and advised plaintiff that he could claim the ammunition from Jamaican customs with the receipt.

When plaintiff's flight landed in Jamaica, plaintiff went to claim his regular baggage and saw his firearm lying next to the conveyor belt, unattended. He retrieved the firearm and took it directly to Jamaican customs. He informed Customs Officer Delroy Allen of the circumstances and his desire to obtain permit to bring the firearm into Jamaica. Customs officers tried to confirm plaintiff's account with the COPA pilot, but the aircraft was already on its return trip to Panama.

Plaintiff was arrested and detained by the Jamaican authorities for (a) illegal possession of a firearm, (b) illegal possession of ammunition, (c) importing a firearm without a license, and (d) breach of the Customs Act. The offenses allegedly carry a penalty of life imprisonment.

Plaintiff was subsequently charged with illegal possession of a firearm, illegal possession of ammunition, and illegal importation of firearms and ammunition in the High Court Division of the Gun Court for the Island of Jamaica. At a hearing of the charges against plaintiff on October 5, 2005, the presiding Judge requested a written statement from COPA attesting to the fact that plaintiff declared his firearm and that it was transported with the knowledge of defendants. Plaintiff was remanded into custody pending receipt of this statement.

Plaintiff repeatedly tried to contact defendants, either directly or through the Panamanian Embassy in Jamaica, to request such a statement. By letter dated November 9, 2005, COPA stated that plaintiff and COPA followed the procedure established in COPA's security manual regarding the transport of a firearm and that the firearm had been dissembled and, together with the separated ammunition, placed inside plaintiff's checked luggage. Pl. Ex. 1. COPA did not state that plaintiff had handed over his firearm to the COPA pilot for transportation to the Jamaican authorities.

The criminal charges against plaintiff were eventually dismissed on April 18, 2006. During their pendency, plaintiff had been incarcerated for eighteen days and thereafter prohibited from leaving Jamaica.

Discussion

I. Forum Non Conveniens

The doctrine of forum non conveniens permits a court, in its discretion, "to resist the imposition upon its jurisdiction," even though jurisdiction may be lawfully exercised and venue is technically proper,*fn3 where the convenience of the parties and interests of justice favor trial in another forum. Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501, 507 ...


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