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Solomon v. John Cabot University, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

May 31, 2018


          OPINION & ORDER

          JAMES D. PETERSON, District Judge

         Beau Jordan Solomon, a University of Wisconsin student, was murdered in Rome, Italy, while attending a study abroad program at defendant John Cabot University (JCU). Beau's parents and his estate are now suing JCU and its insurer, defendant Ace American Insurance Company, for his wrongful death, alleging that JCU was negligent for failing to warn visiting students about criminal activities around the campus in Rome.

         JCU and Ace American Insurance Company move to dismiss the case, either for lack of personal jurisdiction or under the doctrine of forum non conveniens. In the alternative to dismissal, they ask to transfer the case to the United States District Court for the District of Delaware. Dkt. 23.

         The court concludes that (1) the exercise of specific personal jurisdiction is proper, because JCU actively recruited students in Wisconsin; (2) forum non conveniens dismissal is not warranted because any burden JCU would bear by being forced to litigate in Wisconsin would not outweigh the convenience to the Solomons of litigating in their home forum; and (3) any connection this case has to Delaware is far outweighed by its connection to Wisconsin. The court will deny defendants' motion.


         In deciding a motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds, the court may consider well-pleaded allegations in the complaint, affidavits, and written materials. Kipp v. Ski Enterprise Corp., 783 F.3d 695, 697 (7th Cir. 2015). And where the material facts are not disputed, the court can decide the issue on the written evidence alone, without an evidentiary hearing. See Lexington Ins. Co. v. Zurich Ins. (Taiwan) Ltd., 286 F.Supp.3d 982, 985 (W.D. Wis. 2017) (citing Hyatt Int'l Corp. v. Coco, 302 F.3d 707, 713 (7th Cir. 2002)). Here, the court draws the following undisputed facts from the Solomons' amended complaint and the affidavits from the parties.

         JCU is an American university, incorporated in Delaware, that operates a campus in Rome, Italy. JCU offers study abroad programs to American students. In 2011, JCU entered into a three-year “affiliation agreement” with the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) that recognized JCU as an “officially sponsored UW study abroad program.” Dkt. 19-1, at 2. In 2014, JCU and the UW extended their relationship by signing a new three-year “program agreement” “for the purpose of providing a study abroad program” for UW students. Dkt. 19-2, at 1. This program agreement was in effect during all relevant times in this case.

         In the fall of 2015, a JCU representative traveled to Wisconsin to recruit UW students at a study abroad fair. Beau attended the fair, met with the JCU representative, and ultimately registered to study abroad at JCU. The following March, a JCU representative traveled to the UW campus and conducted a mandatory orientation for students participating in the study abroad program that summer.

         Beau was officially accepted to attend JCU in May 2016. He arrived in Rome on June 30, 2016. JCU faculty met the students at the airport in Rome, and they were transported to campus, and given another orientation session.

         That night, Beau and his fellow students visited several bars. Beau and his roommate stayed out longer than the rest of the group. The two became separated, and Beau did not return to the JCU campus. Beau's body was eventually recovered from the Tiber River on July 4, 2016. An Italian man has been arrested and faces criminal prosecution in connection with Beau's death.

         In August 2017, the Solomons filed suit in this court, alleging that JCU was negligent for failing to warn Beau of known dangers regarding criminal activity in the area surrounding its campus.


         A. Personal jurisdiction

         JCU contends that it is an Italian-based university that has only limited contact with Wisconsin, and thus the court should dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2). The Solomons bear the burden of demonstrating that the court has jurisdiction over JCU. Purdue Research Found. v. Sanofi-Synthelabo, S.A., 338 F.3d 773, 782 (7th Cir. 2003). The material facts are not in dispute, so an evidentiary hearing is unnecessary, which means that the Solomons can satisfy their burden by making a prima facie showing that the court has jurisdiction. Tamburo v. Dworkin, 601 F.3d 693, 700 (7th Cir. 2010).

         Federal courts may exercise personal jurisdiction where a party would be amenable to suit under (1) the laws of the state where the federal court sits; and (2) where jurisdiction is consistent with the requirements of due process. KM Enterprises, Inc. v. Glob. Traffic Techs., Inc., 725 F.3d 718, 723 (7th Cir. 2013). If a defendant has such systematic and continuous contact with the forum that it might be regarded as home there, the court might have general jurisdiction, which would mean that the defendant would be subject to personal jurisdiction in that court for any claim. Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117, 126-27 (2014). More limited contacts might support specific jurisdiction, which would mean that a defendant would be subject to personal jurisdiction for claims that relate to its forum contacts. Id. Because the Solomons do not argue for general jurisdiction, the court focuses its analysis on whether the exercise of specific personal jurisdiction is authorized by both Wisconsin law and the constitution.

         The applicable state law in Wisconsin is its long-arm statute, Wis.Stat. § 801.05, which is to be liberally construed in “favor of the exercise of personal jurisdiction.” Rasmussen v. Gen. Motors Corp., 2011 WI 52, ¶¶ 16-17, 335 Wis.2d 1, 13, 803 N.W.2d 623, 629. Both parties acknowledge this statute, but they address only the constitutional inquiry.

         Regardless, the court concludes that the facts of this case fit within Wis.Stat. § 801.05(3), which authorizes personal jurisdiction “[i]n any action claiming injury to person or property within or without this state arising out of an act or omission within this state by the defendant.” Here, the Solomons allege that Beau's injury arose out of JCU's negligence during his recruitment and orientation, both of which occurred in Wisconsin. Thus, the court finds that the statutory requirement is met and turns to the constitutional inquiry.

         The Seventh Circuit has distilled the due process requirements for specific jurisdiction to a three-prong inquiry: “(1) the defendant must have purposely availed himself of the privilege of conducting business in the forum state or purposely directed his activities at the state; (2) the alleged injury must have arisen from the defendant's forum-related activities; and (3) the exercise of jurisdiction must comport with traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” Felland v. Clifton,682 ...

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