Locke Lord QuickStudy: Illinois Still a Forum Shopping Paradise? State Supreme Court Says 'No'

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    Illinois Still a Forum Shopping Paradise? State Supreme Court Says “No” 

    In Fennel v. Illinois Central Railroad Co., 2012 IL 113812, the Supreme Court of Illinois reversed a St. Clair County trial court’s denial of a forum non conveniens motion to dismiss and determined that a Mississippi man’s asbestos bodily injury lawsuit against the railroad did not belong in Illinois. The ruling is a positive development for corporate defendants in a jurisdiction frequently viewed as unfavorable or unfriendly to defendants.

    In Fennel, the Mississippi resident plaintiff filed suit in St. Clair County, alleging that during the course of his work for the defendant he was exposed to asbestos and other toxic dusts which caused him to suffer permanent injuries. The trial court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss under forum non conveniens and the appellate court affirmed.

    The Supreme Court of Illinois reversed and instructed the trial court to dismiss the action. The Court noted that in determining whether the doctrine of forum non conveniens applies, a trial court should balance the public and private factors and evaluate the "total circumstances of the case." The Court noted a policy against forum shopping and that “[d]ecent judicial administration cannot tolerate forum shopping as a persuasive or even legitimate reason for burdening communities with litigation that arose elsewhere and should, in all justice, be tried there.”

    The Court concluded that, on the whole, the private interest factors “greatly favor” a Mississippi forum. For example, the trial court failed to recognize that plaintiff originally filed the action in a Mississippi court where the case was dismissed without prejudice but, instead of re-filing in Mississippi, the plaintiff re-filed in Illinois. Moreover, the plaintiff does not reside in Illinois and the cause of action did not accrue in Illinois, meaning plaintiff’s chosen Illinois forum — his “second choice of forum” — should have been granted far less deference. The Court assessed the private interest factors finding that the plaintiff’s residence, the situs of the injury, and location of witnesses all weighed in favor of Mississippi. The Court placed less emphasis on the location of documentary evidence because of today’s methods to send and receive documents “easily.”

    The Court also found that the public interest factors “weigh heavily” in favor of transfer. For example, while Illinois residents have an interest in “asbestos and other harmful substances,” this does not mean that any time such a relationship exists, the chosen forum is appropriate because, if so, a defendant would be subject to suit in the chosen forum regardless of the inconvenience. Instead, public interest requires that “causes which are without significant factual connections to particular forums be dismissed in favor of, or transferred to, convenient forums.” Here, Illinois had no “relevant or practical” connection with this litigation. The only connections to Illinois — counsel offices, documents in possession of defense counsel and a compensated expert witness — did not provide sufficient factual connection with the case to justify imposition of burdens on the citizens and court system of St. Clair County and Illinois.

    A dissenting opinion argued that the plaintiff’s chosen forum should have been entitled to more deference than recognized by the majority even if plaintiff’s residence and the site of injury are not located in Illinois. The dissent also argued that potential for a jury view of the site should not be given significant weight in this case as the plaintiff did not suffer a site-specific injury, making it likely that a jury view of the site would not be appropriate. The dissent also believed that Illinois had a sufficient interest in maintaining jurisdiction since defendant has train operations in Illinois and maintains a corporate presence in Illinois. The public and private interest factors, according to the dissent, are “fairly evenly balanced.” Because the defendant did not show that the factors “strongly favor” Mississippi, the trial court’s decision to deny dismissal was entitled to deference.

    Illinois has long been viewed as an unfavorable jurisdiction for defendants and “plaintiff-friendly.” In addition, the American Tort Reform Association ranked St. Clair County as a “Judicial Hellhole”® in 2011-12. Fennell is an important case for defendants who will argue it supports their efforts to get out of Illinois. The Court’s willingness, under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, to dismiss an out-of-state plaintiff’s action against a corporate defendant that does business in Illinois signals that not all cases should be or will remain in Illinois, particularly if there is a more convenient forum. The Court was careful to say that “each…case is unique and must be considered on its own facts.” Thus, it will be left to Illinois trial courts (and later appellate decisions) to shape to what extent Fennell shuts down what some perceive as a forum shopper’s paradise.

    For more information on the matters discussed in this Locke Lord QuickStudy, please contact one of the authors:

    Mark Deptula | 312-443-1728 | mdeptula@lockelord.com 
    Molly McGinnis Stine
    | 312-443-0327 | mmstine@lockelord.com

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