Georgia Supreme Court Revives Lawsuit Arising From Dominican Vacation

Back in 2017, we discussed a personal injury lawsuit dismissed by the Georgia Court of Appeals. The case involved a Georgia defendant and Michigan plaintiffs, but the underlying subject of the plaintiffs’ personal claim arose during their vacation in the Dominican Republic. The Court of Appeals determined the Dominican courts were the proper venue to resolve the plaintiffs’ allegations. But the plaintiffs appealed that decision to the Supreme Court of Georgia, which reversed the Court of Appeals in a judgment issued on February 4 of this year.

La Fontaine v. Signature Research, Inc.

To briefly review the facts of the case. The plaintiffs are a married couple. During their Dominican vacation, the wife was injured during a fall from a collapsed zip-line operated by a company known as CSA. The plaintiffs’ subsequently filed a personal injury claim in Georgia state court against a second company, Signature Research, that was responsible for inspecting and certifying CSA’s zip lines.

Signature moved to dismiss the lawsuit under a legal rule known as forum non conveniens. This rule is incorporated into Georgia law under OCGA § 9-10-31.1. Basically, the rule states that a Georgia trial judge “shall decline to adjudicate” a lawsuit if it “would be more properly heard in a forum outside this state.” The statute goes on to list seven separate factors the trial court needs to consider before invoking forum non conveniens, such as the court’s ability to subpoena witnesses or the potential for “unnecessary expense or trouble to the defendant.”

In this case, the trial court and the Court of Appeals determined the Georgia rule required dismissal, as it would be more convenient to decide this case in the courts of the Dominican Republic. But the Supreme Court said that was not an option under Georgia law. The language of the statute itself provides that forum non conveniens is only an option when the defendants “waive the right to assert a statute of limitations defense in all other states of the United States,” assuming such a limitations period did not apply when the plaintiff filed her original claim in Georgia. This provision exists to ensure the plaintiff still has some forum available to pursue her claim.

The Georgia Supreme Court noted that based on a strict reading of the statutory language, which only refers to the United States, it therefore stood to reason that “dismissing a claim via statutory forum non conveniens when the alternative forum is a foreign country is not an action the trial court may take.” That is to say, to the extent a Georgia court may dismiss a lawsuit in favor of a “forum from outside this state,” that “can only be referring to forums in sister states,” and not foreign countries.

Although the Court therefore determined the plaintiffs’ lawsuit here was not subject to the forum non conveniens rule, two justices wrote separately to note that they were “uncertain that the majority’s reading of the statute is the most reasonable construction, but it is certainly–at least–not unreasonable.”

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