Translation Delay Can Result in Dismissal
Legal document translation services play an important role in today’s global marketplace, as any business involved in international commerce can become involved in overseas legal disputes. Whether the issue arises from a major supply chain interruption or from a product quality complaint, lawsuits occur every day between trading partners located in different countries. In Washington State, one personal injury plaintiff’s lawsuit was dismissed because the attorneys failed to have their legal documents translated into German in the time required by Washington State and international law.
The Injury to the Plaintiff
The case Broad v. Mannesmann, 141 Wn. 2d 670 (Wash. 2000) and Broad v. Mannesmann, 196 F.3d 1075 (9th Cir. 1999) involved a salesman of maintenance machinery to access the outside façade of skyscrapers, like scaffolds used by window-washers in office towers. His hand was crushed when the machine slipped as he was demonstrating the equipment to a potential buyer. The plaintiff, Gary D. Broad, and his lawyer waited until weeks before the three-year statute of limitations lapsed before filing suit against the German manufacturer of the equipment in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
The defendant, Mannesmann Anlagenbau, is subdivision of a German industrial conglomerate. The process of filing a lawsuit against a foreign defendant is governed by the Hague Convention on The Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil or Commercial Matters. The Hague Convention is a multilateral treaty among 70 countries dictating how the citizens of each country must be served with international legal process.
Error in Not Getting Documents Translated to German
The Hague Convention required the plaintiff to send the legal papers to the central authority designated by the receiving country’s government. Then, that country’s own officials were going to serve the defendant. But Washington State law required that service on the defendant be completed within 90 days of the commencement of the action, the complaint’s filing date. The plaintiff’s lawyers knew they needed to complete service in 90 days and sent the documents to the central authority in Germany shortly after filing suit.
But they failed to get every document translated into German prior to sending them off to Europe as required by the Hague Convention. German authorities returned the English language documents to the plaintiff’s lawyers with instructions to include the German translations before they would execute service. By now, two months had passed since the filing date.
The Washington lawyers hired a law firm in Germany to translate the legal documents and have them refiled with the German central authority. This process was not completed until mid-September, 125 days after the lawsuit was filed. Mannesmann Anlagenbau recognized the plaintiff’s late service and moved to dismiss the case for failure to perfect service of process required by Washington law. The federal court granted the motion to dismiss the case.
Plaintiffs Appeal the Dismissal
The case was appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The plaintiffs argued they were not at fault because they had sent the English documents to be translated to German in Germany before the lapse of the 90-day period for serving the defendant. The defendant countered by arguing the Hague Convention clearly required all documents to be translated to German, and the plaintiffs’ failure to meet the deadline was the result of the plaintiffs’ negligence. The plaintiff should have gotten the English documents translated to German before filing suit.
Since this was the first time the circuit court had the issue arise from Washington State, it sent the case down to the Washington Supreme Court with two certified questions: a) whether state law considers the foreign country’s central authority an agent of the defendant for service of process purposes; and b) whether the 90-day service of process rule is waived because the plaintiff cedes control of the process to the foreign authorities.
Court Rules Service Is Not Complete Until Translated Documents Are Provided
The Washington Supreme Court held that the foreign government’s central authority is not considered an agent for service of process. The court relied on the Hague Convention’s explicit terms indicating that the central authority will serve the defendant, not that it will accept service for the defendant.
On the second question, the court ruled that the 90-day service of process rule would be tolled only when the plaintiff provided the fully translated documents to the foreign central authority as mandated by the Hague Convention. Since Germany’s designated central authority received the documents translated from English to German 125 days after the lawsuit’s filing date, the case is dismissed without prejudice for failure to serve process. Since the statute of limitations had run, the case was lost.
The lawyers for plaintiffs did not succeed in getting the “required” translated documents to the German central authority in time.
To secure your client’s legal interests, a law firm or an attorney should not delay translating English documents to a foreign language, as required by the Hague Convention. No responsible fiduciary should wait until the documents are needed before hiring a legal translation service. All Language Alliance, Inc. can assist you with prompt legal translation of English documents to German, French, Spanish, Simplified Chinese, Portuguese, Italian, and many other foreign languages to comply with the Hague Service Convention.
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