February 08, 2002
FIRST ENGLAND FUNDING, L.L.C., STEPHANIE BIAGIOTTI, F/K/A STEPHANIE STINSON, TERRY BREWER, STEVEN CLARK, ROBERT CLIFFT, SR., LOUIS F. CONNI, GORDON D. CUNNINGHAM, ROY E. DECRISTOFARO, LELA DUNSTON, ROBERT G. GAUNTT, KIM GREENWOOD, BILLY JOE HENDRIX, DENISE HICKMAN, RODERICK A. JACKSON, JOHN R. JEFFS, WAYNE G. KIRKPATRICK, BRENT KRAUSE, VICKIE R. MARTIN, BILLY J. MILLER, OMAR MORALES, CORAL NAPPO, BERNADETTE RHODES, JASON E. SIMMONS, WILLIAM D. STONE, MARCELLA TATAR, CHARLES W. TUTHILL, JR. AND NANCY WILSON, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS, AND KATHERINE A. ARVANTIS AND JOSEPH POTTER, PLAINTIFFS
AETNA LIFE INSURANCE & ANNUITY CO., AETNA SERVICES, INC., AMERICAN MAYFLOWER LIFE INSURANCE CO. OF NY, CIGNA REINSURANCE CO., CONNECTICUT GENERAL LIFE INSURANCE CO., GE CAPITAL ASSURANCE CO., HARTFORD CASUALTY INSURANCE CO., HARTFORD LIFE INSURANCE CO., HARTFORD LIFE INSURANCE CO. OF THE MIDWEST, HARTFORD UNDERWRITER'S INSURANCE CO. OF NORTH AMERICA, ITT CEBSCO/HARTFORD, LIFE INSURANCE CO. OF NORTH AMERICA, MANUFACTURERS LIFE INSURANCE CO. OF THE USA, MERRILL LYNCH SETTLEMENT SERVICES, NATIONAL INDEMNITY CO., PACIFIC LIFE INSURANCE CO., SAFECO LIFE INSURANCE CO., TWIN CITY FIRE INSURANCE CO., TRAVELERS CASUALTY AND SURETY CO., TRAVELERS INDEMNITY CO., TRAVELERS INSURANCE CO., AND TRAVELERS LIFE AND ANNUITY CO.,*FN1 DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Civil Part, Bergen County, BER-L-8982-99.
Before Judges Petrella, Kestin and Steinberg.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kestin, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
This matter, as addressed in the trial court, arose on four complaints, each in multiple counts, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief respecting the assignment of benefits to structured settlements of tort claims. Plaintiff First England Funding, L.L.C. (First England) is the ultimate assignee of each individual plaintiff's structured settlement rights. According to the trial court judge, there were eighty-five individual plaintiffs in the four actions as originally filed,*fn2 each alleging specific needs for access to the funds procurable on assignment of his or her structured settlement in exchange for discounted lump sum payments. The original settlement agreements contained clauses prohibiting the assignment of the recipients' payment rights under the structures provided.
First England is a New Jersey corporation. Also according to the trial court, seventy-three defendants were named in the four complaints, some entities impleaded in more than one complaint. Each defendant was alleged to be "either the insurer for the underlying tort defendant, or the annuity company . . . selected . . . to pay the annuity over a period of time." The various counts of the complaint implicated, inter alia, construal of the law of a sister state or states respecting the assignability of structured settlement rights.
The trial court adjudicated the claims in a consolidated disposition on the return of orders to show cause. Most of the claims were dismissed because diverse causes of action had been improperly joined in a single complaint, see R. 4:29-1(a), and on forum non conveniens grounds. The dismissals, all without prejudice to the plaintiffs' rights to sue elsewhere, bore upon the claims of most of the plaintiffs, those who were residents of other states and whose settlements disposed of tort litigation pending in other states arising from events outside of New Jersey. First England's claims based on the rights of those out-of-state plaintiffs were dismissed on like grounds. The trial court reached the merits in respect of the claims of three individual plaintiffs in two of the four suits, all New Jersey residents, and held that the anti-assignment provisions of their settlement agreements were unenforceable.
First England appeals from the dismissals in only one of the cases. One of the defendants, Safeco Life Insurance Company, filed a cross-appeal which was later withdrawn.
In addressing the issues raised, Judge Guida stated in a written opinion:
Although some issues may be common to the various plaintiffs, who reside in different states, and also to the defendants who reside in different states, each claim is based on a different set of facts, involves different issues, different state statutes and choice of law questions, and the states in which the individual plaintiffs brought the underlying tort lawsuits which resulted in the structured settlements are different. * * *
The threshold questions which this court must answer are whether the court should permit the plaintiffs in each filed complaint to proceed under one docket number, and whether on forum non-conveniens grounds, any of the claims except those involving the three named New Jersey residents should proceed in this state.
He then dismissed the causes of action relating to the out-of- state plaintiffs on the basis that separate complaints should have been filed reflecting the claims of each of the respective assignors as well as those of First England derived therefrom or based thereon. See R. 4:29. The trial court's opinion continued:
While the court believes that the complaints should be dismissed for the reasons set forth above, it is constrained to also decide the issue of forum non conveniens.
Whenever the "ends of justice" suggest that a plaintiff's forum is inappropriate, a court may decline jurisdiction under the doctrine of forum non conveniens. See Mowrey v. Durion Co. Inc., 260 N.J. Super. 402, 409 (App. Div. 1992). In determining whether the chosen forum is inappropriate, the court must consider both private and public factors. These factors were ...
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