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Jacobs v. Walt Disney World

April 01, 1998


Argued February 25, 1998

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County.

Before Judges Shebell, D'Annunzio and A.a. Rodr¡guez.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Shebell, P.j.a.d.

Plaintiffs appeal from the dismissal of their negligence complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction over defendant. We reverse and remand for further discovery.

On February 14, 1997, plaintiff, Rochelle Jacobs, individually and as guardian ad litem of her minor daughter, Heather Jacobs, filed a complaint against Walt Disney World, Co. (WDW). The complaint alleged in count one that WDW breached its duty to maintain a certain hotel facility in Orlando, Florida in a reasonably safe condition and that WDW negligently treated and handled Rochelle and Heather causing them damages. The second count alleged the negligent infliction of emotional distress upon Rochelle in advising her that the blood on the hotel sheets was human blood, but refusing to comment further or provide a copy of the lab report, as promised. WDW was served with the complaint on March 7, 1997.

On April 1, 1997, WDW filed a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Plaintiffs filed an opposition to defendant's motion to dismiss, and on May 16, 1997, the Judge heard oral argument and entered an order dismissing plaintiffs' complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 4:6-2(b). On May 19, 1997, plaintiffs moved for reconsideration of the May 16, 1997 order. Defendant opposed the motion, and on June 13, 1997, plaintiffs' motion was denied. Plaintiffs appeal.

In support of the court's jurisdiction over defendant, plaintiffs allege that during the years 1995 and 1996, they were "bombarded" with advertisements to visit Walt Disney World during its 25th Anniversary celebration. These advertisements included free promotions of the Disney Channel which contained advertisements for Walt Disney World, magazine advertisements, including advertisements in the Barney Fan Club Magazine, as well as the "standard" Disney commercials on television.

Rochelle certified that she ordered a Disney video of the movie "Aladdin" at the Disney Store in the Quakerbridge Mall in Mercer County, New Jersey. When she received the video, it included a postcard advertising a 4-day, 3-night package to Disney World. The postcard provided a toll free telephone number for Disney's Travel Company. Rochelle called the toll free number for information about a trip to Walt Disney World. In response, the travel service provided the requested information and included a videotape advertising Disney's 25th Anniversary. After reviewing the information, the family decided to visit Disney World. They charged the deposit to a credit card and the charge slip referenced the payee as WDW.

Defendant demonstrated to the satisfaction of the motion Judge that WDW does not itself market or produce "Aladdin" in theaters or on videocassette, nor does it own or operate Disney stores. Further, Disney's Travel Company is owned by Walt Disney Travel Co., Inc., not WDW.

On November 10, 1996, plaintiffs were on their vacation at Walt Disney World and were staying at the Dixie Landings Resort, owned by Lake Buena Vista Communities. During their stay, plaintiffs received the business card of Rembert Vonk, Restaurant Guest Services Manager of Dixie Landings Resort. The business card indicated that Vonk was employed by WDW, and states that Dixie Landings is "Part of the Magic of the Walt Disney World Company."

Plaintiffs' hotel room consisted of two beds, one for Rochelle and her husband, and the other for her daughter, Heather. That evening, Rochelle put her daughter, Heather, to sleep in one of the beds. Prior to going to sleep, Rochelle checked on Heather and tried to place another pillow under Rochelle's head. She found that the pillow that Heather was laying on contained a "significant amount of blood." She also discovered that the bottom sheet contained some blood. Rochelle contacted a worker from hotel housekeeping, who, after seeing the sheets, called the hotel manager. The housekeeper, at the manager's direction, stripped the bed of the sheets, and placed them in a plastic bag. Rochelle held onto the pillow case and intended to have it tested. The following morning, the evening manager came to the room and requested that Rochelle turn over the pillow case. When Rochelle said that she was keeping it to have it tested, the manager informed her that she would be guilty of stealing "Disney" property if she kept it. After Rochelle turned the pillow-case over, she was informed that Disney would have it tested and she would receive a copy of the laboratory report.

Upon returning home, Rochelle returned a message left on her answering machine from Theresa Forrest who stated that she was representing "Walt Disney World." Forrest said that the sheet and pillow case had been sent to a laboratory in another State and that once the report was received, they would contact Rochelle.

In December 1996, Rochelle placed a call to Forrest, who returned the call and informed Rochelle that the results showed it was human blood on the pillow case and sheets. Forrest said that she could not tell Rochelle anything else about the report. Forrest refused Rochelle's request for a copy of the report. Several days later, Rochelle again contacted Forrest, who informed her that the matter was now in the hands of "Disney's legal department." Rochelle certified that her conversations with Forrest caused her great concern about the contents of the lab report, why the case was turned over to Disney's legal department, and whether her daughter had contracted a disease. It appears from defendant's certification that WDW, a Delaware Corporation, is a subsidiary of Walt Disney Company, as is the Disney Channel and Lake Buena Vista Communities. WDW is not qualified to do business in the State of New Jersey and has neither incurred nor paid taxes to this State. WDW has not appointed an agent for service of process in New Jersey and is not listed in any New Jersey telephone directories. It has no officers, agents or employees in New Jersey. WDW maintains no bank accounts, owns no property, and has no assets here. Defendant avers that WDW neither owned nor operated Disney's Dixie Landings Resort and that WDW does not pay for the expenses of advertising initiated and controlled by licensees who have been granted permission to refer to the Walt Disney World Resort in the promotion of their goods and services.

The Judge held that plaintiffs did not satisfy their burden of demonstrating contacts with the forum state sufficient to give the Court in personam jurisdiction. The Judge ruled that the motion be denied without prejudice so that limited discovery on the relationship of WDW and Lake Buena Vista Communities, Inc. could be accomplished. However, counsel for plaintiffs stated that such discovery would not establish jurisdiction, because the issue would still remain whether either entity possessed sufficient contacts to establish jurisdiction. Instead, he requested discovery on the advertising efforts of defendant. The Judge denied the request and granted the motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.

On appeal, the Judge's findings will not be disturbed unless "they are so wholly insupportable as to result in a denial of Justice." Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974) (quoting Greenfield v. Dusseault, 60 N.J. Super. 436, 444 (App. Div. 1960), aff'd o.b., 33 N.J. 78 (1960)). We will not disturb "the factual findings and legal Conclusions of the trial Judge unless...they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of Justice." Ibid. (quoting Fagliarone v. Township of North Bergen, 78 N.J. Super. 154, 155 (App. Div. 1963)).

New Jersey's long-arm statute permits service on nonresident defendants subject only to "due process of law." R. 4:4-4(b)(1). Out-of-state service may be stretched to the "uttermost limits permitted by the United States Constitution." Avdel Corp. v. Mecure, 58 N.J. 264, 268 (1971).

There are two types of personal jurisdiction: specific and general. Accura Zeisel Machinery Corp. v. Timco, Inc., 305 N.J. Super. 559, 565 (App. Div. 1997); Giangola v. Walt Disney World Co., 753 F. Supp. 148, 154 (D.N.J. 1990). Specific jurisdiction is established when a defendant's acts within the forum-state give rise to the cause of action. Accura, supra, 305 N.J. Super. at 565; Waste Management, Inc. v. Admiral Ins. Co., 138 N.J. 106, 119 (1994); Lebel v. Everglades Marina, Inc., 115 N.J. 317, 322 (1989). In contrast, when the defendant's presence in the state is unrelated to the subject matter of the lawsuit, general jurisdiction may be obtained based on the defendant*s "continuous and substantial" contacts with the forum. Accura, supra, 305 N.J. Super. at 565; Waste Management, supra, 138 N.J. at 119; Lebel, supra, 115 N.J. at 322.

A review of the case law pertaining to specific jurisdiction is instructive for an application of general jurisdiction requirements. To satisfy due process, specific jurisdiction can be asserted by the forum state only if the defendant has "minimal contacts" with the forum. Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 251, 78 S.Ct. 1228, 1238, 2 L.Ed.2d 1283, 1296 (1958); International Shoe v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 66 S.Ct. 154, 90 L.Ed. 95 (1945); Waste Management, supra, 138 N.J. at 119-20; Lebel, supra, 115 N.J. at 322. Under a specific jurisdiction analysis, the minimum contacts inquiry must focus on "the relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation." Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 204, 97 S.Ct. 2569, 2579, 53 L.Ed.2d 683, 698 (1977). The minimal contacts that are sufficient to establish specific jurisdiction consist of "purposeful acts by that party, directed toward a state, which make it reasonable for the defendant to anticipate being haled into court there." Giangola, supra, 753 F. Supp. at 148 (D.N.J. 1990) (citing Wide World Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 297, 100 S.Ct. 559, 567, 62 L.Ed.2d 490 (1980)). Unilateral actions of "those who claim some relationship with a non-resident defendant cannot satisfy the requirement of contact with the forum State." Hanson, supra, 357 U.S. at 253, 78 S.Ct. at 1239-40, 2 L.Ed.2d at 1298. Thus, the defendant must have purposely availed itself "of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State, thus invoking the benefits and protections of ...

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