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Fontaine v. Signature Research, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

August 2, 2017

LA FONTAINE et al.
v.
SIGNATURE RESEARCH, INC.

          MILLER, P. J., DOYLE and REESE, JJ.

          Miller, Presiding Judge.

         In May 2014, Michigan residents Francis La Fontaine and her husband, Roberto Melendez, (collectively "the Appellants") took a vacation in the Dominican Republic. While participating in a zipline course, La Fontaine was injured when the line collapsed. The Appellants sued Signature Research, Inc. ("Signature"), the Georgia corporation that inspected the zipline, in the state court of Douglas County.[1]The trial court dismissed the suit under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, and this appeal followed. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         In Georgia, the doctrine of forum non conveniens is codified in OCGA § 9-10-31.1, which provides that the trial court may dismiss an action if the interests of justice and convenience of parties renders another forum more appropriate. Hawkins v. Blair, 334 Ga.App. 898, 901 (3) (780 S.E.2d 515) (2015). The party seeking dismissal bears the burden of showing dismissal is warranted. Id. "The application of the statutory standard to the peculiar circumstances of a particular case is a matter committed to the sound discretion of the trial court." (Citation omitted.) Wang v. Liu, 292 Ga. 568, 569 (1) (740 S.E.2d 136) (2013).

         For the purpose of Signature's motion to dismiss, the relevant facts are undisputed. Cumayasa Sky Adventures operated a zipline in the Dominican Republic. In December 2013, Signature inspected the line and certified that it was compliant with industry safety standards.

         In May 2014, while vacationing in the Dominican Republic, La Fontaine was injured when the zipline collapsed. She received treatment for her injuries in the Dominican Republic before returning to Michigan, where she continued to receive extensive medical care.

         The Appellants initially filed suit in the district court of the Southern District of Florida, [2] but the district court dismissed that complaint based on forum non conveniens. The Appellants then filed the instant suit.

         Signature again moved to dismiss on forum non conveniens grounds, and the trial court granted the motion. Importantly, Signature has stipulated that it will submit to jurisdiction in the Dominican Republic and will waive any statute-of-limitations defenses there, as well as in every other state in the United States in which the claim was not already barred.

         1. The Appellants first argue that the doctrine of forum non conveniens does not require that they bring their suit in a foreign country under common law or statute, and that Georgia's forum non conveniens statute unconstitutionally invades a plaintiff's right of access to the courts. They further contend that this right of access to our courts applies equally to Georgia residents and residents of other states. We conclude that Georgia law does not preclude the dismissal of this case on forum non conveniens grounds.

         OCGA § 9-10-31.1(a), which codified the common law doctrine of forum non conveniens, provides:

If a court of this state, on written motion of a party, finds that in the interest of justice and for the convenience of the parties and witnesses a claim or action would be more properly heard in a forum outside this state . . . the court shall decline to adjudicate the matter under the doctrine of forum non conveniens . . . [and] shall dismiss the claim or action. . . .

         This Court has recognized that "[t]he doctrine of forum non conveniens is unique in the law because it allows a trial court to dismiss a suit that otherwise meets all of the jurisdiction and venue requirements for access to our courts on the grounds of administrative efficiency and convenience." (Citations omitted.) Hewett v. Raytheon Aircraft Co., 273 Ga.App. 242, 248 (2) (614 S.E.2d 875) (2005), overruled on other grounds by Wang, supra, 292 Ga. at 571.

         a. Constitutionality of OCGA § 9-10-31.1

         To the extent that the Appellants argue that the statute is unconstitutional and denies access to the courts, the trial court did not rule on these arguments, and thus, we cannot review them on appeal. Pimper v. State of Ga., 274 Ga. 624, 627 (555 S.E.2d 459) (2001); Brunswick Landing, LLC v. Glynn County, 301 Ga.App. 288, 295 (4) (b) (687 S.E.2d 271) (2009).

         b. Forum non conveniens after AT&T Corp. v. Sigala

         The Appellants argue that AT&T Corp. v. Sigala, 274 Ga. 137 (549 S.E.2d 373) (2001), which was superceded by OCGA § 9-10-31.1, mandates that we reverse the trial court's order dismissing the complaint.[3] Specifically, they contend that Sigala limits the application of forum non conveniens to cases brought by nonresident aliens for injuries that occur outside the United States, and that the codification of the forum non conveniens doctrine merely reinforces this application. In other words, they argue that neither Siga ...


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