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Duchesneau v. Cornell University

September 30, 2009

RANDALL DUCHESNEAU, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CORNELL UNIVERSITY AND TUMBLTRAK, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jones II, J.

MEMORANDUM

This matter arises out of a tragic accident which occurred on October 12, 2006, on the campus of Cornell University ("Cornell") in Ithaca, New York. Now under reconsideration are:

(1) Cornell's Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(2) and (3), or, in the Alternative, Transfer This Action to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York (Docket No. 5); and (2) Tumbltrak's Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(3) (Docket No. 4). These Motions will be denied.

I. Facts and Procedural Posture

On October 12, 2006, Plaintiff Randall Duchesneau ("Plaintiff"), a twenty-one year old, was utilizing a Tumbltrak gymnastic tumbling training apparatus located in the Teagle Gymnasium on the campus of Cornell. Plaintiff attempted a backwards jumping gymnastic maneuver on the Tumbltrak, and landed squarely in the center of the apparatus -- causing him to suffer catastrophic, permanent spinal injuries. Those injuries have rendered Plaintiff a quadriplegic; he is totally dependant on a motorized, reclined wheelchair.

On October 10, 2008, Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, alleging negligence and product liability. Plaintiff alleged diversity of citizenship between the parties. Cornell filed a Motion to Dismiss in which it asserts that this Court lacks personal jurisdiction over Cornell or, in the alternative, that venue is improper in this District. Tumbltrak filed a Motion to Dismiss in which it only asserts that venue is improper in this District. Plaintiff opposed both motions on the grounds that the Court has personal jurisdiction over both Defendants and that venue is proper in this District.

On February 26, 2009, the Court issued an Order transferring this matter to the Northern District of New York. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Reconsideration, seeking leave to conduct jurisdictional discovery. On March 11, 2009, the Court vacated its February 26, 2009, Order to allow the requested jurisdictional discovery.*fn1 Subsequently, the Court ordered both Plaintiff and Cornell to file supplemental memoranda on personal jurisdiction, and they did so. The Court offered Plaintiff an opportunity to respond to Cornell's Memorandum, but Plaintiff declined to do so.*fn2

Given the results of jurisdictional discovery, however, the Court is compelled to note its concern about the content and phrasing of Cornell Treasurer Patricia Johnson's original Affidavit and her apparent lack of (a) involvement with its preparation, and (b) understanding of the content therein. That Affidavit contributed directly to the original Order of the Court, and the record now reveals that some of the representations made therein were poorly researched/prepared and were subsequently contradicted by deposition testimony and written discovery.*fn3 The Court expects more care in any future sworn statements.

II. Personal Jurisdiction

When ruling on a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, the Court must accept the allegations in the complaint as true. See Dayhoff, Inc. v. H.J. Heinz Co., 86 F.3d 1287, 1302 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1028 (1996). Once a defendant challenges jurisdiction, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to establish with competent evidence that the court may exercise jurisdiction. Mellon Bank (East) PSFS, Nat'l Ass'n v. Farino, 960 F.2d 1217, 1223 (3d Cir. 1992); Carteret Savings Bank v. Shushan, 954 F.2d 141, 146 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 817 (1992); Dayhoff, Inc., 86 F.3d at 1302 (citing North Penn Gas Co. v. Corning Natural Gas Corp., 897 F.2d 687, 689 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 847 (1990)). Once a motion is made, the "plaintiff must respond with actual proofs (by affidavits or otherwise), not mere allegations." Time Share Vacation Club v. Atlantic Resorts, Ltd., 735 F.2d 61, 66-7 n.9 (3d Cir. 1984).

Neither party is asserting that this Court has specific personal jurisdiction over Defendant Cornell. Rather, the parties dispute general personal jurisdiction. The Hon. Lawrence Stengel aptly summarized the appropriate standard for evaluating general personal jurisdiction in Ferro v. Atlantic City Showboat, Inc., Civil Action No. 07-1016, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88954 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 3, 2007):

"The starting point for the inquiry into whether this court has general jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant is Rule 4(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which [a]uthorizes personal jurisdiction over non-resident defendants to the extent permissible under the law of the state where the district court sits." Mellon Bank, 960 F.2d at 1221 (citing Mesalic v. Fiberfloat Corp., 897 F.2d 696, 698 (3d Cir. 1990)). Thus, the jurisdiction of this court reaches as far as Pennsylvania's long arm statute, which states that "[t]he jurisdiction of the tribunals of this Commonwealth shall extend to all persons . . . to the fullest extent allowed under the Constitution of the United States and may be based on the most minimum contact with this Commonwealth allowed under the Constitution of the United States. 42 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. § 5322(b). The reach of this section is coextensive with the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. See North Penn Gas Co. v. Corning Natural Gas Corp., 897 F.2d 687, 690 (3d Cir. 1990) (citing Time Share Vacation Club v. Atlantic Resorts, Ltd., 735 F.2d 61, 63 (3d Cir. 1984)).

Under Pennsylvania's long-arm statute, general personal jurisdiction is exercised over a defendant based on that defendant's "continuous and systematic" contacts with this state. Remick v. Manfredy, et al., 238 F.3d 248, 255 (3d Cir. 2001). It exists "even if the plaintiff's cause of action arises from the defendant's non-forum related activities." Id. (quoting Vetrotex Certainteed Corp. v. Consol. Fiber Glass Prod. Co., 75 F.3d 147, 151 (3d Cir. 1996)). The forum-state contacts must be such that the defendant can reasonably anticipate being haled into court there. World-Wide Volkswagen, 444 U.S. at 297. Once it is established that the defendant's contacts with the forum are continuous and systematic, a court must be sure that maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice. International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316, 66 S.Ct. 154, 90 L.Ed. 95, (1945).

The Third Circuit has held that in order to properly exercise general personal jurisdiction over a defendant, the required contacts must be significantly more than mere minimum contacts. See Provident Nat'l Bank v. California Federal Sav. & Loan Assoc., 819 F.2d 434, 437 (3d Cir. 1987). These contacts must show that the defendant carried on a continuous and substantial part of its general business within the commonwealth. Id. at 438; Gehling v. St. George's School of Med., 773 F.2d 539, 541 (3d Cir. 1985). In order to determine specifically if an out-of-state corporation can be held liable for negligent conduct that occurs outside the forum state, courts have continued to apply this high standard. See Gehling, 773 F.2d at 541; see also Reliance Steel Prods. Co. v. Watson, Ess, Marshall, & Engass, 675 F.2d 587, 589 (3d Cir. ...


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