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The Phoenix Insurance Co. v. The Cincinnati Indemnity Co.

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

July 13, 2017



          WILLIAM E. SMITH, Chief Judge.

         I. Background

         This litigation arises out of an incident that occurred at Electric Boat Corporation's property in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, in which an employee of a subcontractor performing work on the property sustained fatal injuries while engaged in his employment duties. The employee's widow initiated a wrongful death action against Electric Boat and PDS Engineering & Construction, Inc. in Washington County Superior Court. PDS had been hired by Electric Boat to make improvements to Electric Boat's property; PDS had subcontracted part of the project to International Door, Inc. (the decedent's employer). International Door held an insurance policy issued by The Cincinnati Indemnity Company, under which PDS and Electric Boat claim to have been included as additional insureds; Cincinnati Indemnity, however, has refused to defend and indemnify PDS and Electric Boat in the state court litigation.

         PDS and its insurer, The Phoenix Insurance Company (“Plaintiffs”), have initiated a separate cause of action in this Court against Cincinnati Indemnity (“Defendant”) seeking a declaratory judgment that International Door's insurance policy includes PDS and Electric Boat as additional insureds under International Door's commercial general liability and umbrella liability coverages. Plaintiffs are also alleging that Defendant breached its contractual obligations to them.

         Defendant (an Ohio-based company) filed a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and improper venue, or, in the alternative, to transfer the cause of action to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Defendant argued that Michigan would be the proper venue because International Door, its insured, is incorporated in Michigan and the policy was issued in Michigan. Plaintiffs were granted leave to conduct jurisdictional discovery, and Magistrate Judge Lincoln D. Almond held a hearing before issuing a Report & Recommendation. In the R&R, the Magistrate Judge found that the District of Rhode Island has neither general nor specific personal jurisdiction over Defendant and that this District is therefore an improper venue. Rather than recommending dismissal of the case, however, the Magistrate Judge recommended transferring it to the Eastern District of Michigan, as requested by Defendant. Plaintiffs filed a timely objection to the R&R.

         II. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to Rule 72(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court reviews de novo any part of an R&R addressing a dispositive motion to which an objection has been properly filed.

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiffs object to the R&R on the bases that the Magistrate Judge erred by (1) finding no general personal jurisdiction in Rhode Island over Defendant, and (2) recommending transfer of the cause of action to the Eastern District of Michigan as the appropriate disposition of the motion.

         A. General jurisdiction

         Plaintiffs argue that the Magistrate Judge overlooked the evidence showing that Defendant consented to general personal jurisdiction when it signed the Uniform Consent to Service of Process form in 2007 and again in 2015.[1] Plaintiffs assert that these forms have the effect of waiving all challenges to personal jurisdiction. Plaintiffs also argue that, because Defendant has maintained a license to sell insurance in Rhode Island since 2007, it has had sufficient contacts with Rhode Island for this District to exercise jurisdiction over it.

         Defendant responds to Plaintiffs' objection with the contentions that the Magistrate Judge squarely addressed Plaintiffs' argument regarding consent and concluded that the Uniform Consent to Service of Process form does not equate to consent to personal jurisdiction in Rhode Island. Defendant also asserts that Plaintiffs' consent argument is waived because it was raised during oral argument before the Magistrate Judge and not in Plaintiffs' initial memorandum in opposition to Defendant's motion.

         Defendant, as a foreign company, was required by statute to designate the insurance commissioner for Rhode Island as an individual upon whom service of process could be served.[2] The template form states that the “Applicant Company”:

does hereby consent that any lawful action or proceeding against it may be commenced in any court of competent jurisdiction and proper venue within the State(s) so designated; and agrees that any lawful process against it which is served under this appointment shall be of the same legal force and validity as if served on the entity directly.[3]

         The form is clearly titled a “Uniform Consent to Service of Process” and is designed to fulfill that purpose in addition to complying with the statutory mandate in § 27-2-13.[4] The form provides that the “Applicant Company's” consent to service of process on the designated state officer shall have the same effect as if service was made directly on the entity, but qualifies its acknowledgement of litigation to a properly initiated cause of action or proceeding with “any court of competent jurisdiction” and “proper venue.” This form does not, therefore, include a general consent to personal jurisdiction in ...

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