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The Wisconsin Lawyer nominates James Barton’s summary judgment victory in a unique international dispute as one of the “Top Nine” federal court decisions of the year

December 18, 2018 / by / Events

The Wisconsin Lawyer recently listed James Barton’s victory in Société D’Amenagement et de Gestion De L’Abri Nautique v. Marine Travelift, Inc., as one of the “Top 9 Recent Wisconsin Federal Court Decisions” of 2018. The case, which was before Judge Griesbach of the Eastern District of Wisconsin, involved a novel issue of international law concerning the recognition in the United States of foreign judgments obtained in other countries; a matter of state law on which the Wisconsin Supreme Court has not directly opined.    

The client, Société D’Amenagement et de Gestion De L’Abri Nautique (“Sagan”), was a French company that purchased a boat hoist from a Wisconsin manufacturer. Sagan began experiencing problems with the product after its installation and initiated a product-liability action against the manufacturer in French Commercial Court (essentially, a trial court devoted to business disputes). The commercial court initially ruled in favor of the manufacturer, but the Versailles Court of Appeals reversed and awarded a judgment in favor of Sagan. When the manufacturer refused to satisfy the French judgment, Sagan was forced to initiate suit across the pond, so it could recognize and enforce its judgment in Wisconsin after six years of litigation in France.

The core of the dispute focused on when U.S. courts will recognize a foreign judgment as valid, which is a natural prerequisite to the judgment’s enforceability. Unlike domestic judgments rendered by sister courts in the union—in which their enforcement is generally mandated pursuant to the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution—the enforceability of foreign judgments turns on international notions of comity. Although many states have adopted the Uniform Foreign-Country Money Judgments Recognition Act (the “Act”), which codifies the relevant factors to determine whether recognition is proper, Wisconsin has neither adopted the Act nor developed a substantive body of caselaw around this issue. 

Sagan nonetheless moved for summary judgment, contending that the French judgment should be recognized as valid pursuant to the comity principles enunciated in Hilton v. Guyot—the seminal recognition of foreign judgments decision that was issued by the Supreme Court in 1895. The Hilton Court, which was also forced to grapple with the recognition of a French judgment more than a century ago, cogently explained that judgments emanating from foreign courts should generally be recognized where:

[T]here has been opportunity for a full and fair trial abroad before a court of competent jurisdiction . . . after due citation or voluntary appearance of the defendant, and under a system of jurisprudence likely to secure an impartial administration of justice between the citizens of its own country and those of other countries, and there is nothing to show either prejudice in the court, or in the system of laws under which it was sitting, or fraud in procuring the judgment, or any other special reason why the comity of this nation should not allow it full effect . . .

Applying the common-law principles enunciated in Hilton and the Restatement (Third) of Foreign Relations, the district court agreed with Sagan, concluding that the French judgment was entitled to recognition. In so holding, the court found that none of the principal bases counseling against recognition of the judgment—lack of personal jurisdiction, biased tribunals, or unfair procedural rules—were present in the underlying French case. Accordingly, because the Wisconsin manufacturer: (i) consented to jurisdiction in France; (ii) actively litigated the case; and (iii) had ample opportunity to defend itself in an established court system ran by one our nation’s closest allies, the judgment would be recognized as valid. The manufacturer was therefore precluded from attempting to collaterally attack it anew.  You can read more about the decision here.