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Georgia’s trial judges now can dismiss cases brought by nonresident aliens over injuries that occurred on foreign soil, according to a state supreme court opinion issued Monday. The justices, in a 5-2 decision, adopted the doctrine of forum non conveniens, which allows trial judges to dismiss cases that would be tried best elsewhere on grounds of convenience, efficiency and justice. The ruling means that a Fulton County judge now can dismiss a suit filed in Atlanta against AT&T and its Atlanta employees in connection with a 1993 gas pipeline explosion in Venezuela that killed more than 50 people. Fulton State Judge John R. Mather previously had concluded that he had no authority to decline jurisdiction over the case because Georgia statutes contained no provision for him to do so. In other decisions released Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court: � Concluded that, in determining liability in defective design cases, a product does not have to be in use at the time of an injury. � Reversed a Fayette County judge’s ruling in a divorce case that a father cannot visit with his children in the presence of his live-in lover, even if the father and lover marry. � Found that a 51-month delay between arrest and a trial date was “egregious,” but the defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial was not violated since both the defense and prosecution contributed to the delay. JUSTICES FILL IN VOID In the AT&T case, the justices did judicially what the Georgia Legislature declined to do in 1999: adopt the doctrine of forum non conveniens. Courts in 47 states currently allow judges to move cases to forums they deem more appropriate. Georgia legislators considered, but failed to pass, a forum non conveniens law in 1999. AT&T, represented by Troutman Sanders partner Norman A. Underwood, told the justices earlier this year that the courts are obligated to step in with solutions if the Legislature leaves a vacuum in judicial policy. Failing to do so, he argued, would mean Georgia could be a magnet for international tort litigation. But the plaintiffs, represented by Frank C. Dudenhefer of New Orleans’ Cummings, Cummings & Dudenhefer, contended that adopting the doctrine would make it hard to try cases against Georgia defendants who injure others in foreign countries. The Venezuelan plaintiffs sued after AT&T workers in Tejerias, Venezuela, ruptured a gas pipeline while digging a trench for a fiber-optic cable line. The resulting explosion and fire killed 50 people and injured many more. Chief Justice Norman S. Fletcher wrote for the majority, noting first that the court has power to maintain an efficient and orderly court system that provides for administering justice. The court should step in, Fletcher wrote, only “when established methods do not address a situation and courts are compelled to provide solutions that enable the litigative process to proceed smoothly.” AT&T v. Sigala, AT&T v. Perez, Nos. S01A0464 and S01A0465 (Sup. Ct. Ga. July 16, 2001). Trial courts, he concluded, should have the discretion to determine whether a tort action “should remain on their dockets when it involves foreign plaintiffs.” Adopting the doctrine, he added would allow trial courts to preserve resources for “controversies that have a reasonable connection to their jurisdiction.” It also would align Georgia with most other states and discourage foreign plaintiffs from using Georgia as a way to litigate their claims in an American court, where, Fletcher wrote, jury trials are available, discovery is extensive, most states offer strict liability and contingency fees are permitted. The majority rejected arguments by the plaintiffs that Georgia law gives Venezuelan citizens equal access to Georgia courts. “Neither the United States Constitution nor the Georgia Constitution guarantees the same protections to aliens living outside this country that it gives citizens and aliens living within the borders of the United States,” Fletcher wrote. Justices Robert Benham and George H. Carley dissented. The majority uses the inherent power of the court, Benham wrote, “to pare away the constitutional and statutory jurisdiction of Georgia trial courts and to cut off from access to our courts persons who are entitled by statute to sue and be sued in this State.” The state constitution and statutes, Benham wrote, confer jurisdiction to Georgia’s superior and state courts, and those courts cannot decline that jurisdiction. And, he added, “a plaintiff’s status as a nonresident alien does not warrant a change in the constitutionally and statutorily established jurisdiction of our trial courts.” The Legislature would be a more appropriate authority than the supreme court to decide whether Georgia should adopt the doctrine of forum non conveniens, Benham wrote. The Legislature could conduct hearings on such a measure and what impact it would have on the state’s legal and business interests, he said. The majority’s decision, he concluded, “unwarrantedly abandons established precedent, ignores legislative prerogatives, provides no guidance, fails to consider the ramifications of its holding, and destroys predictability, certainty, and stability in the law.”

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