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Supremes Boot Suit Over Austria Train Tragedy

WASHINGTON (CN) - Austria's national railroad need not face a lawsuit here from a California woman who lost both of her legs in a train mishap, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Carol Sachs, of Berkeley, had been trying to board a Prague-bound train in Innsbruck, Austria, over eight years ago when she fell through a gap in a platform.

The OBB Personenverkehr train moved, crushing Sachs' legs so that they had to both be amputated above her knees.

Sachs sued OBB in San Francisco, alleging negligence, strict liability and breach of implied warranties. While sovereign nations generally escape such claims in U.S. courts, Sachs argued that her case met the commercial-activity exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, as she had used the Internet to buy the Eurail pass for the Austrian train from Massachusetts-based Rail Pass Experts.

Though a federal judge dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, and divided three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit, the federal appeals court later reversed after rehearing the case en banc.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court was unanimous that sovereign immunity bars Sachs' lawsuit.

The 13-page ruling hinges on the statute's withdrawal of sovereign immunity if "the action is based upon a commercial activity" in which a foreign state engaged in the United States.

Though Sachs said her suit is "based upon" OBB's sale of her rail pass in the United States, the court found that the action is indeed "based upon" OBB's conduct in Innsbruck.

"The conduct constituting the gravamen of Sachs's suit plainly occurred abroad," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. "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.

Roberts and his colleagues' rejected the contention that the U.S. ticket sale was wrongful since OBB allegedly had a duty to alert Sachs to the dangerous conditions at the Innsbruck train station when it sold her the Eurail pass.

"Without the existence of the unsafe boarding conditions in Innsbruck, there would have been nothing to warn Sachs about when she bought the Eurail pass," the opinion states. "However Sachs frames her suit, the incident in Innsbruck remains at its foundation."

Roberts added: "Regardless of whether Sachs seeks relief under claims for negligence, strict liability for failure to warn, or breach of implied warranty, the 'essentials' of her suit for purposes of §1605(a)(2) are found in Austria."

OBB's lead attorney Juan Basombrio praised the reversal.

"In a world that has become increasingly connected by international commercial transactions, and where there is also increasing friction in the relations between the United States and other nations, this is a seminal and important decision that will foster harmony between the United States and other nations at least in the commercial context," Basombrio, a partner with Dorsey & Whiney in Costa Mesa, Calif., said in a statement.

If other nations adopt similar rulings, U.S. businesses likewise will be protected "from being dragged into court overseas," Basombrio added.

Aside from two summary orders, the Sachs ruling represents the court's first of the term.

Sachs was represented by Daniel Becker with Becker & Becker in Lafayette, Calif.

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