Georgia courts enforce strict jurisdictional requirements when it comes to personal injury lawsuits. This means you cannot proceed with a case unless the court has both the appropriate subject-matter and geographic authority over the parties. Even when a case does satisfy all jurisdictional requirements, a court may still refuse to hear if there is another, more “convenient” forum available to resolve the dispute.
La Fontaine v. Signature Research, Inc.
This is known as the doctrine of “forum non conveniens.” Under Georgia law, a court may “decline to adjudicate” a lawsuit whenever it “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.” This rule, formalized by legislation in 2005, superseded earlier rulings by the Georgia Supreme Court on this subject.
So, when does a court apply forum non conveniens in practice? Here is a recent example from the Georgia Court of Appeals. The plaintiffs in this case are a husband and wife from Michigan who were vacationing in the Dominican Republic. During their trip, the couple participated in a zipline, a pulley suspended on a cable that is often used to traverse jungles and other remote locations.
In this case, the zipline collapsed and seriously injured the wife. The couple subsequently sued a number of corporate parties responsible for operating and maintaining the zipline. The original lawsuit was filed in a federal court in Florida, which dismissed the case on forum non conveniens grounds.
Most of the parties eventually settled, but the couple proceeded to refile their case in Georgia state court against the lone remaining defendant–the company responsible for inspecting the zipline. The plaintiffs asserted jurisdiction in this state based on the fact the defendant was incorporated here.
But just like the Florida court, the trial court in Georgia invoked forum non conveniens and declined to hear the case. The plaintiffs appealed, but the Court of Appeals said the trial judge made the right decision. The appeals court said the plaintiffs’ lawsuit should be heard in the Dominican Republic, where the defendant previously said it would not challenge jurisdiction or raise any other procedural objections. This is critical, the Court of Appeals said, because Georgia’s forum non conveniens law expressly requires a defendant to file a “written stipulation” that it will not try and defeat a “new action on the claim” by asserting the statute of limitations–i.e., arguing the legal deadline for filing a case has expired under local law.
Regarding the merits, the appeals court said the trial judge appropriately assessed all of the required factors before deciding this case was better heard by the Dominican courts. First and foremost, the plaintiff was injured and treated in the Dominican Republic, meaning the “sources of proof” are “more accessible in that country.” Indeed, Georgia courts have no authority to subpoena or compel the testimony of witnesses who live outside the United States. The Court of Appeals noted that even if the Georgia courts did exercise jurisdiction, they would “have to apply Dominican law, which would most likely be in Spanish,” and thus impose significant burden on the process.