Kedy v. A.W. Chesterton Co.

Decision Date09 May 2008
Docket NumberNo. 2005-319-M.P.,No. 2005-332-M.P.,2005-332-M.P.,2005-319-M.P.
Citation946 A.2d 1171
PartiesDeborah L. KEDY, Legal Representative for the Estate of Brian Scallion et al. v. A.W. CHESTERTON CO. et al. In re Asbestos Litigation.
CourtRhode Island Supreme Court

Gerald Petros, Esq., Providence, for General Electric, petitioner.

Robert J. Quigley, Esq., Providence, for Lincoln Electric and Hobart Bros., petitioners.

Garland Cassada, Esq., Charlotte, NC, for Garlock Sealing Technologies, LLC., petitioner.

Donald A. Migliori, Esq., Providence, for respondents.



Justice SUTTELL, for the Court.

We issued a writ of certiorari to consider the applicability of the doctrine of forum non conveniens in Rhode Island jurisprudence. The petitioners/defendants sought review of Superior Court orders denying their motions to dismiss in thirty-nine civil actions filed in Rhode Island by Canadian residents. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we join forty-six of our sister states and the federal courts by formally recognizing the doctrine of forum non conveniens. We vacate, therefore, the orders of the Superior Court.

I Facts and Procedural History

The issue before us arises out of thirty-nine cases filed in the Superior Court that allege personal injury and wrongful death caused by workplace exposure to products containing asbestos.1 The plaintiffs are all Canadian residents,2 and their employment, exposure, injuries, and treatment occurred in Canada. The several actions were filed against various corporations, all of which conduct business in Rhode Island. None of the remaining3 corporate defendants, however, either is incorporated in Rhode Island or has its principal place of business in the state.

On October 27, 2004, defendant General Electric Company moved to dismiss the twenty-three asbestos actions then before the Superior Court based on the doctrine of forum non conveniens. Several other defendants joined General Electric's motion to dismiss.4 Subsequently, sixteen additional similarly situated plaintiffs filed asbestos actions in Rhode Island, after which defendants moved to dismiss those cases as well.

On May 27, 2005, the Superior Court filed a consolidated decision that denied defendants' motions to dismiss. Defining the doctrine of forum non conveniens as "allow[ing] a court to dismiss a case when a chosen forum—despite the existence of jurisdiction and venue—is so inconvenient that it would be unfair to the defendant to conduct its defense of the claim in that location," the trial justice explained that Rhode Island was one of the few states in which neither its Legislature nor the state's highest court had recognized the doctrine of forum non conveniens generally. She noted, however, that the General Assembly had adopted the doctrine for the specific circumstance of child-custody cases when it enacted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA) in 1978. The trial justice began her analysis by noting that the court had jurisdiction over the case and that venue was proper. The trial justice also discussed the status of asbestos litigation in Rhode Island, finding that "no litigation crisis exists" at present, that the court was not "mired in asbestos litigation," and that there had been no deluge of asbestos cases over the last two decades. To the contrary, the court found that the asbestos docket had been neither unmanageable nor unwieldy. The trial justice reasoned that it was of "paramount importance" that the parties have their cases heard as promptly as possible and that asbestos-related litigation defied containment by boundaries. Although the court denied the defendants' motions to dismiss, the trial justice stated that the issue might be revisited if the asbestos docket became too burdensome or inefficient or if the management of the docket changed.

On October 12, 2005, the court entered thirty-nine orders denying defendants' motions to dismiss.5 General Electric Company, Garlock Sealing Technologies LLC, The Lincoln Electric Company, Hobart Brothers Company, and The Anchor Packing Company filed petitions for writs of certiorari in this Court in the thirty-nine cases, each of which were opposed by the various plaintiffs. The petitions presented two questions. First, whether this Court should expressly recognize the common-law doctrine of forum non conveniens and set the standard for its application. Second, if the doctrine does exist, whether the Superior Court erred by exercising jurisdiction over the thirty-nine Canadian-resident plaintiffs' claims alleging injuries that occurred in Canada. This Court consolidated the defendants' petitions, and we granted certiorari on May 18, 2006.

II Standard of Review

As this Court often has stated, our review "on writ of certiorari is limited `to examining the record to determine if an error of law has been committed.'" Crowe Countryside Realty Associates Co., LLC v. Novare Engineers, Inc., 891 A.2d 838, 840 (R.I.2006) (Crowe) (quoting State v. Santiago, 799 A.2d 285, 287 (R.I.2002)). "Questions of law * * * are not binding upon the court and may be reviewed to determine what the law is and its applicability to the facts." Hometown Properties, Inc. v. Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, 592 A.2d 841, 843 (R.I. 1991) (quoting Narragansett Wire Co. v. Norberg, 118 R.I. 596, 607, 376 A.2d 1, 6 (1977)). We review questions of law de novo. Crowe, 891 A.2d at 840 (citing Carnevale v. Dupee, 783 A.2d 404, 408 (R.I.2001)).

We do not weigh the evidence on certiorari. Crowe, 891 A.2d at 840. "`If legally competent evidence exists to support th[e] determination, we will affirm it unless one or more errors of law have so infected the validity of the proceedings as to warrant reversal.'" Cullen v. Town Council of Lincoln, 893 A.2d 239, 244 (R.I. 2006) (quoting Cullen v. Town Council of Lincoln, 850 A.2d 900, 903 (R.I.2004)).

III Discussion
A. The Doctrine of Forum Non Conveniens

We granted certiorari to review what appears to be a question of first impression in Rhode Island and one upon which our trial courts have split. Compare Goelet v. Goelet, C.A. No. 03-496 (R.I.Super. Ct. June 14, 2006) (hearing justice dismissed the petition on the grounds of forum non conveniens) with Perusse v. AC & S, Inc., No. C.A. 00-5768, slip op. at 4, 2001 WL 668548, at *2 (R.I.Super.Ct. May 31, 2001) (declining to apply forum non conveniens because neither the Rhode Island Supreme Court nor the Legislature had formally recognized the doctrine). We undertake to clarify this uncertainty fully cognizant of Justice Frankfurter's instruction that "the highest court of a State * * *, [a]ccording to its own notions of procedural policy, * * * may reject, as it may accept, the doctrine [of forum non conveniens] for all causes of action begun in its courts." State of Missouri ex rel. Southern Ry. Co. v. Mayfield, 340 U.S. 1, 3, 71 S.Ct. 1, 95 L.Ed. 3 (1950).

The doctrine of forum non conveniens is "an equitable principle by which `a court having jurisdiction may decline to exercise it on considerations of convenience, efficiency, and justice.'" AT & T Corp. v. Sigala, 274 Ga. 137, 549 S.E.2d 373, 375 (2001). The doctrine derives, in the absence of statutory authority, from the courts' inherent judicial powers, id. at 376, powers "which are incontestably necessary to the effective performance of judicial functions." Paxton Blair, The Doctrine of Forum Non Conveniens in Anglo-American Law, 29 Colum. L.Rev. 1, 1 (1929).

The doctrine of forum non conveniens stands for the simple proposition that "a court may resist imposition upon its jurisdiction even when jurisdiction is authorized by the letter of a general venue statute." Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501, 507, 67 S.Ct. 839, 91 L.Ed. 1055 (1947). The principle allows a court to decline to exercise jurisdiction when the plaintiff's chosen forum is significantly inconvenient and the ends of justice would be better served if the action were brought and tried in another forum. See, e.g., Howe v. Goldcorp Investments, Ltd., 946 F.2d 944, 947 (1st Cir.1991); Volt Delta Resources, Inc. v. Devine, 241 Kan. 775, 740 P.2d 1089, 1094 (1987); Qualley v. Chrysler Credit Corp., 191 Neb. 787, 217 N.W.2d 914, 915 (1974). Before this Court, defendants acknowledge, and we agree, that the trial justice correctly found that the thirty-nine underlying cases meet the jurisdictional requirements of G.L. 1956 § 8-2-146 and the venue provisions of G.L. 1956 § 9-4-5.7 Thus the only issue before this Court is the vitality and scope of the doctrine of forum non conveniens in Rhode Island.

The plaintiffs contend that forum non conveniens has not existed in Rhode Island for more than two centuries, and that it is not part of the common law of this state. They allege that forum non conveniens is a flawed doctrine that has led to confusion and inconsistency in federal and state courts. They further argue that the General Assembly is the appropriate body to adopt the doctrine, and they point out that it has not enacted the doctrine in any form, except for child-custody cases. See G.L. 1956 § 15-14.1-19. The plaintiffs allege that if forum non conveniens is an inherent part of Rhode Island's common law, there would have been no need to specifically enumerate the doctrine in the UCCJA.

The defendants argue that forum non conveniens is a doctrine developed at common law that is recognized by the federal courts and the other forty-nine states. The defendants allege that the common law encompasses the inherent judicial power to "protect defendants and the public from injurious and unnecessary forum choices by plaintiffs." They dispute plaintiffs' contention that the forum non conveniens doctrine lacks uniformity throughout the states, contending that there are only minor variations among the states and at the federal level.

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