Case Sends Message that Plaintiffs Will Travel to Sue Sporting Goods Manufacturers

Case Sends Message that Plaintiffs Will Travel to Sue Sporting Goods Manufacturers

(Editor’s Note: The following is shared from an issue of Sports Litigation Alert from earlier this year. To subscribe to the Alert, visit here.)

By Timothy Liam Epstein and Vernon W. Thomas, of DUGGAN BERTSCH, LLC

On November 12, 2019, Tristin Baylis sued Cycling Sports Grp., Inc. (“Cycling Sports”), a global manufacturer of bicycles and owner of the Cannondale bicycle brand, in Connecticut state court in connection to an October 2018 biking incident.  Baylis alleges that the accident resulted from a defective and unreasonably dangerous design flaw that caused the front wheel of his Cannondale bicycle to fall off while he was riding down a trail.  When the wheel broke away from the bicycle’s frame, Baylis flipped over the bicycle’s handlebars and landed face first on the ground, resulting in Baylis being concussed and suffering several facial fractures.  According to Baylis, the lingering effects of the accident have significantly limited his physical functionality and have rendered him unable to fulfill certain professional and personal duties.

Notably, Baylis is a Canadian citizen residing in Victoria British Columbia where he purchased and was later thrown from his Cannondale bicycle.  Indeed, Baylis has no connection to the State of Connecticut, yet he filed suit there—asserting a claim under the State’s product liability act—because Cycling Sports maintains its corporate headquarters in Wilton, Connecticut.  Cycling Sports, however, took umbrage with Baylis filing suit in Connecticut instead of his native British Columbia.  Accordingly, Cycling Sports moved to dismiss the suit for forum non conveniens, a common law doctrine through which defendants contend that a case should have been brought in another, more appropriate, venue.

Cycling Sports’ position that Connecticut was the improper forum for the litigation hinged on their argument that conducting a trial in a different country and over 3,000 miles from the sight of the incident giving rise to the suit would pose inherent logistical issues in terms of preparing for and conducting the trial.  Defendant Cycling Sports specifically flagged concerns about the difficulty of conducting discovery and having key witnesses testify at trial if the case were to proceed in Connecticut instead of British Columbia.  Defendant argued further that there exists no substantial difference in the Connecticut and British Columbia legal systems that would justify the suit remaining in Connecticut instead of British Columbia, which Cycling Sports perceived as a more natural venue for the case.

Baylis refuted Cycling Sports’ position by calling attention to the long-accepted rule that plaintiffs are entitled to select the forum in which they file their own lawsuits.  Baylis also pointed out that any perceived inconveniences associated with the case proceeding in Connecticut were not so significant as to warrant the suit’s dismissal.  Baylis also contended that his rights would be materially harmed if the case were dismissed in Connecticut and he was forced to pursue his claims in British Columbia.  In fact, Baylis may have been barred from bringing claims in British Columbia altogether as his home province’s statute of limitations is shorter than Connecticut’s and had already expired by the time that Defendant had brought its motion to dismiss.

Ultimately, Cycling Sports’ attempt to throw out the case was unavailing.  In its analysis of the motion to dismiss, the reviewing Connecticut Superior Court contemplated whether British Columbia was an appropriate alternative forum, the private and public interests of keeping the suit in Connecticut, and whether Cycling Sports would be prejudiced if the suit were allowed to proceed in its home state.

To support a claim of forum non conveniens, defendants must demonstrate that the alternative forum is adequate for the “whole case.”  Here, the Court concluded that British Columbia was not an adequate alternative forum for this suit.  In particular, the Court stated that the expiration of the British Columbia statute of limitations and various issues related to hailing key witnesses and parties into a Canadian court supported its holding that there are “non-trivial concern[s] that British Columbia is not an alternate forum available for a determination of the ‘whole case.’”

As for the private and public interests implicated in this matter, the Court held that such interests weighed in favor of keeping the suit in Connecticut.  The Court determined that the case could be fairly adjudicated in either forum, but that the parties will, at least arguably, have better access to witnesses and discovery if the case is adjudicated in Connecticut.  The Court’s decision also acknowledged the state’s public interest in “ensuring that products marketed by Connecticut-based entities are safe” for users, regardless of where those users live or where the harm to those users occurred.

In looking at whether there would be a prejudice to Defendant by keeping the case in Connecticut, the Court determined that no such prejudice existed and confirmed that that there is a strong presumption against changing a suit’s forum after the plaintiff has filed its complaint.  The Court acknowledged that this presumption is somewhat weaker when the plaintiff is not a resident of the selected forum, but that there must be a significant risk of prejudicial inequity for a court to dismiss a matter for forum non conveniens.

Through its decision, the Court made clear that there is no presumption that tort actions should be brought “where the harm occurs as opposed to where the defendant is located,” and that “there is no rule or principle that precludes a citizen of another country from utilizing this forum so long as personal jurisdictions exists.”

This case sends the clear signal that manufacturers in Connecticut, and likely elsewhere, should be prepared to defend themselves against lawsuits filed in their hometown forums by plaintiffs from anywhere on the globe.

Tristin Baylis v. Cycling Sports Group, Inc.