On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket Nos. L-6827-07 and L-6874-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Fisher and Espinosa.
In this appeal, we consider whether New Jersey is an inappropriate forum for the personal injury claims asserted by New Jersey residents against a Florida resident and an American corporation resulting from a South African motor vehicle accident. Because plaintiffs' choice of a New Jersey forum was not "demonstrably inappropriate," D'Agostino v. Johnson & Johnson, Inc., 225 N.J. Super. 250, 262 (App. Div. 1988), aff'd, 115 N.J. 491 (1989), the judge did not abuse his discretion in denying the motion to dismiss on forum non conveniens grounds notwithstanding the difficulties that may be encountered in accessing evidence in South Africa and notwithstanding defendants' apparent inability to assert a claim against the municipality in which the accident occurred.
Plaintiffs Amin Yousef and Crane Robinson (plaintiffs*fn2 ), residents of New Jersey, were injured on September 16, 2006 in a motor vehicle accident in the Republic of South Africa. Plaintiffs were passengers in a vehicle rented by defendant General Dynamics-Ordinance and Tactical Systems, Inc. (GDOTS) and operated by GDOTS's employee, defendant David Edmonds, a Florida resident. Plaintiffs were employed by the Armament Research, Development & Engineering Center of the United States Army, and were traveling with Edmonds on business. Plaintiffs allege that Edmonds negligently failed to heed a stop sign, causing the rented vehicle to be broadsided by another vehicle traveling through the intersection.
Plaintiffs filed separate complaints in the trial court on September 14, 2007. Alleging diversity of citizenship and an amount in controversy in excess of $75,000, defendants GDOTS, General Dynamics Corporation and Edmonds removed both suits to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, where they were consolidated; those defendants then moved, on May 29, 2008, to dismiss the consolidated actions based on the doctrine of forum non conveniens.*fn3 In November 2008, the district court remanded the actions to the superior court due to the lack of subject matter jurisdiction; the district court declined to rule on the motion to dismiss.
Defendants moved on February 4, 2009 in the trial court for a dismissal on forum non conveniens grounds.*fn4 Judge Joseph S. Conte denied the motion on March 20, 2009. GDOTS and Edmonds moved for leave to appeal. After we denied that motion, GDOTS and Edmonds moved in the Supreme Court for leave to appeal. The Court granted the motion and remanded for our consideration of the merits of the appeal. 200 N.J. 363 (2009).
GDOTS and Edmonds (collectively referred to as defendants) argue that the action should have been dismissed in order that the claims could be pursued in what they claim is the only appropriate venue -- the Republic of South Africa. They claim that Judge Conte's balancing of the necessary factors was flawed and that a proper weighing would reveal that New Jersey is a demonstrably inappropriate forum based upon what defendants claim is the extreme prejudice they will suffer if forced to litigate in New Jersey. We disagree and affirm.
Our Supreme Court has observed that the essence of the doctrine of forum non conveniens "'is that a court may decline jurisdiction whenever the ends of justice indicate a trial in the forum selected by the plaintiff would be inappropriate.'" Kurzke v. Nissan Motor Corp., 164 N.J. 159, 164 (2000) (quoting D'Agostino, supra, 225 N.J. Super. at 259). Its application is left to the trial judge's sound discretion. Id. at 165. As a result, our appellate courts will not disturb a trial judge's decision "'unless there is a showing of clear abuse of that discretion.'" Ibid. (quoting Civic S. Factors Corp. v. Bonat, 65 N.J. 329, 333 (1974)).
In guiding the trial courts' exercise of discretion in such matters, the Court has adopted the analytical framework developed by the Supreme Court of the United States in Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501, 67 S.Ct. 839, 91 L.Ed. 1055 (1947). This framework includes both public-interest and private-interest factors. The public-interest factors call for a consideration of whether it is fair or appropriate to burden the forum with the litigation:
Administrative difficulties follow for courts when litigation is piled up in congested centers instead of being handled at its origin. Jury duty is a burden that ought not to be imposed upon the people of a community which has no relation to the litigation. In cases which touch the affairs of many persons, there is reason for holding the trial in their view and reach rather than in remote parts of the country where they can learn of it by report only. There is a local interest in having localized controversies decided at home. There is an appropriateness, too, in having the trial of a diversity case in a forum that is at home with the state law that must govern the case, rather than having a court in some other forum untangle problems in conflict of laws, and in law foreign to itself. [Id. at 508-09, 67 S.Ct. at 843, 91 L.Ed. at 1062-63; see also Kurzke, supra, 164 N.J. at 165.]
The private-interest factors require analysis of the relative burdens imposed on the parties and the forum court's ability to fairly and expeditiously adjudicate the particular disputes:
[T]he relative ease of access to sources of proof; availability of compulsory process for attendance of unwilling, and the cost of obtaining attendance of willing, witnesses; possibility of view of premises, if view would be appropriate to the action; and all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious and inexpensive. There may also be questions as to the enforceability of a judgment if one is obtained. The court will weigh relative advantages and obstacles to fair trial. It is often said that the plaintiff may not, by choice of an inconvenient forum, "vex," "harass," or "oppress" the defendant by inflicting upon him expense or ...