Home / Issues / Volume 6, Number 1 (Fall 2013) / A Study of Sanlian v. Robinson
VOLUME 6, NUMBER 1 (Fall 2013)
The Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Judgments between the United States and China: A Study of Sanlian v. Robinson
By HE Qisheng | Article | 6 Tsinghua China L. Rev. 23 (2013) | Download Full Article PDF


Sanlian v. Robinson is the first Chinese judgment recognized and enforced by U.S. courts. Sanlian is a breakthrough in the recognition and enforcement of judgments between China and the United States. However, there are still many issues that need to be overcome in order to establish a future reciprocity arrangement with regards to recognition and enforcement of judgments between the two countries as a whole, or even just between Chinese and Californian courts. To improve transnational justice, the courts of both countries should adopt a presumed reciprocity approach. In the long run, a bilateral treaty is the ideal solution to improve mutual enforcement of judgments between the United States and China.

I. Introduction

On March 22, 1994, a Model R44 helicopter crashed in the Yangtze River. Three people died and significant damages were incurred. Hubei Gezhouba Sanlian Indus. Co. v. Robinson Helicopter Co. (hereinafter Sanlian) resulted from that accident. The helicopter was manufactured by California-based Robinson Helicopter Co. (Robinson), which was owned by Hubei Gezhouba Sanlian Indus. Co. (Sanlian) and operated by Hubei Pinghu Cruise Co., Ltd. (Pinghu). In March 1995, Sanlian and Pinghu sued Robinson in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County for damages based on negligence, strict liability and breach of implied warranty. The action was dismissed in November 1995 on the grounds of forum non conveniens (FNC). The plaintiffs then filed a lawsuit in the Chinese High People’s Court of Hubei Province (Hubei high court). In 2004, that Court issued a default judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. In 2006, Sanlian and Pinghu filed their complaint against Robinson in the United States District Court for the Central District of California (California district court) requesting enforcement of the Chinese judgment.

On March 29, 2011, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (ninth circuit court) affirmed the decision of the California district court, which had recognized the Hubei high court’s judgment. Chinese and U.S. scholars and lawyers have paid much attention to the ninth circuit court’s judgment. Scholars have evaluated Sanlian as “breaking the ice,” “the first Chinese judgment recognized and enforced by the United States courts” and “the first landmark decision.”

However, the Sanlian litigation process was an expensive, 17-year ordeal for both parties. The FNC proceedings alone took the parties almost three years to complete. The trial proceedings in the Hubei high court took four more years, from 2001 to 2005, and the plaintiffs’ request for enforcement of the Chinese judgment involved proceedings that lasted another five years.

Owing to the lengthy delays and high costs, Sanlian is not an effective precedent to follow for the reciprocal enforcement of foreign judgments. It is unclear if Sanlian should really be considered a milestone or breakthrough in the recognition and enforcement of judgments between China and the United States. The major objective of this paper is to identify to what degree Sanlian actually represents a breakthrough between the two countries. I also identify and explore paths to improving transnational cooperation in enforcement of judgments.

This paper is divided into five parts. Part I introduces general background information to Sanlian. Part II discusses the Sanlian judgment and UFMJRA standards. Part III analyzes the possibility of Chinese courts recognizing and enforcing U.S. judgments following Sanlian. Part IV briefly compares FMRA and Chinese laws regarding recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments and explores the possibility of concluding a bilateral treaty in this area. Part V concludes that in the interim, adopting an approach of presumed reciprocity would be an effective first step, although a bilateral treaty would be ideal in the long-term.
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