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In matter of first impression, Rhode Island Supreme Court formally recognizes forum non conveniens doctrine and rules that its state courts are not proper courts to decide this asbestos case filed by Canadian plaintiffs.

Thirty-nine Canadians (Plaintiffs) filed lawsuits in the Rhode Island courts against various companies (Defendants) that do business there (including General Electric Company), alleging their injurious Canadian workplace exposure to asbestos-containing products. The Defendants moved to dismiss all cases. In May 2005, the Superior Court denied the motions to dismiss. The Judge noted that Rhode Island had not yet recognized the forum non conveniens (FNC) principle (except in child custody matters).

The Defendants successfully petitioned the Rhode Island Supreme Court (RISC) to review the denial of their motions to dismiss the 39 cases. They raised two issues. The first was whether Rhode Island should expressly recognize FNC and set a standard for the same. Secondly, assuming FNC does apply, whether the Superior Court had erroneously "exercised jurisdiction" over the 39 Canadian Defendants.

In a matter of local first impression, the RISC now joins 46 states and the federal courts by formally recognizing the FNC doctrine. The Court first recaps the fundamentals of the doctrine. In general, it says that a court may decline to exercise subject matter jurisdiction when the Plaintiff's chosen forum is significantly inconvenient for Defendants and where litigation in a more convenient forum would better serve the ends of justice.

"Under the [FNC] doctrine 'when an alternative forum has jurisdiction to hear [a] case, and when trial in the chosen forum would 'establish ... oppressiveness and vexation to a Defendant ... out of all proportion to Plaintiff's convenience,' or when the 'chosen forum [is] inappropriate because of considerations affecting the court's own administrative and legal problems,' the court may, in the exercise of its sound discretion, dismiss the case on FNC grounds 'even if jurisdiction and proper venue are established.' American Dredging Co. v. Miller, 510 U.S. 443, 447-48 (1994) (quoting Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235, 241 (1981))." [Slip op. 12-13]

"Before embarking on an FNC inquiry, a court must determine the existence of proper jurisdiction and venue. See [Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501, 504 (1947)]. A court should never apply [FNC] once it determines that jurisdiction is lacking. Sinochem International Co. Ltd. v. Malaysia International Shipping Corp., 127 S. Ct. 1184, 1193 (2007)."

"Nevertheless, a court may 'dispose of an action by an [FNC] dismissal, bypassing questions of subject-matter and personal jurisdiction, when considerations of convenience, fairness, and judicial economy so warrant.' ... Such a scenario occurs, for example, when discovery concerning personal jurisdiction would burden a defendant with expense and delay for 'scant purpose' because a court would inevitably dismiss on the basis of [FNC] ... However, in most cases, when a court can 'readily determine that it lacks jurisdiction over the cause or the defendant, the proper course would be to dismiss on that ground.'"

"The [FNC] inquiry consists of a two-prong analysis. First, the court must decide whether an alternative forum exists that is both available and adequate to resolve the disputed legal issues. Piper Aircraft Co., supra, at 255 n.22. Second, the court must determine the inconvenience of continuing in the Plaintiff's chosen forum by weighing private- and public-interest factors. Id. at 255 ... 'A defendant invoking [FNC] ordinarily bears a heavy burden in opposing the plaintiff's chosen forum.' Sinochem, supra, at 1191. It is well settled that the Defendant carries the burden of persuasion at each stage of the [FNC] inquiry. Lacey v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 862 F.2d 38, 43-44 (3d Cir. 1988)." [Slip op. 13-14]

"If the alternative forum is not available, a court cannot dismiss on [FNC] [unless] Defendant is 'amenable to process' in the other jurisdiction." Piper Aircraft Co., supra at 255 n. 22 ... To guarantee availability, a court can condition [an FNC] dismissal on the defendant's consent to submit to jurisdiction in the alternative forum.""Even where the alternative forum is available, a court cannot dismiss on [FNC] grounds if the alternative forum is inadequate. In performing the adequacy calculus, '[t]he possibility of a change in substantive law should ordinarily not be given conclusive or even substantial weight,' Piper Aircraft Co., supra, at 247, ... However, 'if the remedy provided by the alternative forum is so clearly inadequate or unsatisfactory that it is no remedy at all, the unfavorable change in law may be given substantial weight ...'"

"'[T]he bar for establishing that the alternative forum is adequate historically has been quite low. Thus, according to a number of decisions, the alternative forum is adequate as long as the plaintiff will not be deprived of all remedies or subjected to unfair treatment. A mere decrease in the amount potentially recoverable or the loss of the availability of contingent fee arrangements, the absence of the right to a jury trial, or the loss of various other procedural advantages such as the alternative forum's restrictions on the scope or nature of discovery and the lack of a class action or other aggregation procedures normally will not prevent dismissal. Likewise, general accusations of corruption, delay, or other problems with the alternative forum's judicial system normally will not suffice ....' 14D Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice & Procedure Section 3828.3 at 677-82 (3d ed. 2007)." [Slip op. 14-15]

"The second prong of the [FNC] inquiry focuses on the inconvenience of continuing in the chosen forum by weighing private- and public-interest factors. It is not possible to catalogue all the circumstances that may or may not lead to a [FNC] dismissal. Gulf Oil Corp., supra at 508. Because the doctrine requires flexibility, central emphasis should not be placed on any one private- or public-interest factor. Piper Aircraft Co., supra at 249-50."

'The private interests of the litigants include the following factors:' 'Important considerations are the relative ease of access to sources of proof; availability of compulsory process for attendance of unwilling, and the cost of obtaining attendance of willing, witnesses; the possibility of a view of premises, if such a view would be appropriate to the action; and all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious and inexpensive.' Gulf Oil Corp., supra at 508."

"Other factors that may be relevant to the private-interest assessment include the enforceability of a judgment in the alternative forum, and the advantages and obstacles to a fair trial. Gulf Oil Corp., supra, at 508. Also, a 'plaintiff may not, by choice of an inconvenient forum, 'vex,' 'harass,' or 'oppress' the defendant by inflicting upon him expense or trouble not necessary to his own right to pursue his remedy.' Id. The private interest of a plaintiff should be afforded more weight when the forum choice appears to be based on legally valid reasons such as convenience and expense." [Slip op. 15-16]

The U.S. Supreme Court also has identified several public-interest factors: "Administrative difficulties follow for courts when litigation is piled up in congested centers instead of being handled at its origin. Jury duty is a burden that ought not to be imposed upon the people of a community which has no relation to the litigation. In cases which touch the affairs of many persons, there is reason for holding the trial in their view and reach rather than in remote parts of the country where they can learn of it by report only. ..." [Slip op. 16-17]

The Court then decides that the circumstances of the 39 cases require the application of the FNC doctrine here. The private and public interest factors support a Canadian forum: As for the private factors, none of the Plaintiffs or Defendants are Rhode Island residents. Much of the evidence is in Canada or other U.S. states. Most of the relevant events took place in Canada. The local court might have to subpoena unwilling Canadian witnesses with the procedural help of a Canadian court.

As for the public factors, a Rhode Island jury would have to hear a complicated case that has no meaningful connection with the state. Canadian law would likely apply and further burden the court. Here, the Court is unable to discern any significant nexus with Rhode Island interests. The Court remands with instructions to dismiss the 39 cases under the FNC doctrine upon the condition that the Defendants waive any statute of limitations defense that might be available to them in the alternative forum.

Citation: Kedy v. A. W. Chesterton Co., 2008 WL 1990252; Nos. 2005-332-M.P. & 2005-319-M.P. (RI May 9, 2008).
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Publication:International Law Update
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2008
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