Rio Tinto Zinc Corp. v. Westinghouse Electric Corp.

[1978] AC 547 (1978)

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Rio Tinto Zinc Corp. v. Westinghouse Electric Corp.

United Kingdom House of Lords
[1978] AC 547 (1978)

Facts

In a United States federal district court in Virginia, various companies brought a civil suit alleging breach of contract by Westinghouse Electric Corporation (Westinghouse) (defendant). Westinghouse sought evidence to support a defense of commercial impracticability. The district court issued letters rogatory seeking discovery of evidence from British company Rio Tinto Zinc Corporation and associated firms (RTZ companies) (plaintiffs), including testimony of the RTZ companies’ employees and production of documents. The RTZ companies were not parties to the Virginia suit. A United Kingdom high court ordered RTZ to comply with the letters rogatory. In May 1977, the United Kingdom Court of Appeal noted that the RTZ companies could claim that the requested documents were privileged if production would subject the RTZ companies to penalties under European law, and this decision was appealed to the United Kingdom House of Lords. After the appeal was filed, the RTZ companies claimed in a proceeding at the United States Embassy that most of the requested documents were privileged. In July 1977, the United Kingdom Court of Appeal upheld RTZ’s claim. Around this time, a United States grand jury subpoenaed Westinghouse for documents from the Virginia proceedings for use in antitrust proceedings to be brought by the United States government against British firms. The United States government stated that the discovery requests involved extraordinary circumstances important to the public interest of the United States. The House of Lords proceedings on the appeal of the May 1977 United Kingdom Court of Appeal decision took note of these further developments. In the House of Lords, the United Kingdom government intervened, declaring that far-ranging antitrust investigations initiated by the United States government against non-United States citizens living outside the United States derogated from the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the United Kingdom.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Lord Wilberforce)

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