Our reports on the oral arguments of the Illinois Supreme Court’s September term continue with Fennell v. Illinois Central Railroad Co. Fennell presents the issue of whether a case with no apparent connection to Illinois, filed here after an initial lawsuit was thrown out of plaintiff’s first choice forum (and home state), could remain in Illinois. To watch the video of the argument, click here.
The facts and holding of the decision in Fennell are summarized here. Plaintiff alleges exposure to asbestos, diesel exhaust, sand, environmental tobacco smoke and toxic dusts, fumes and gases during his thirty-seven year employment with the defendant railroad. Plaintiff filed a putative class action in Mississippi in 2002, but the action was dismissed without prejudice on the motion of the defendant in 2006. So plaintiff sued in St. Clair, Illinois.
The defendant moved to dismiss under forum non conveniens: the plaintiff was a lifelong resident of Mississippi; he wasn’t injured in Illinois; and perhaps thirteen potential witnesses, including plaintiff’s family, co-workers and treating physicians, lived in Mississippi. The defendant cited the need to call its risk mitigation manager for occupational disease claims as well. He lived in Memphis, and testified that he would find it easier to come to Copiah Co., Mississippi (the alternative forum) than to St. Clair County. The plaintiff responded that defendant was represented by regional counsel in St. Clair County, evidence was located in St. Clair, and he wanted to call two defense representatives, one in Illinois and one in Memphis. The Circuit Court denied the motion to dismiss, and the Appellate Court affirmed.
Counsel for the defendant argued that documents are less important than they would otherwise be, under the circumstances, because of the ease of moving documents from one place to another. As for witnesses, counsel argued that only two witnesses lived in Illinois, while thirteen were in Mississippi, beyond the reach of the court in the event that trial occurred in Illinois. Depositions are not a substitute for live testimony, counsel argued; without the ability to call live witnesses, the defendant would be unable to quickly adapt to unexpected trial testimony. Justice Burke asked whether the defendants had business operations in Illinois, and whether that fact should have any bearing on the ultimate result. Counsel responded that the mere fact that a corporation did business in a state could never be sufficient without more to defeat a forum non conveniens motion.
Counsel for the appellee emphasized that a defendant must show exceptional circumstances in order to justify overruling the plaintiff’s choice of forum. The suit had been filed in Illinois for several reasons, according to the plaintiff– the plaintiff needed access to fragile documents located in Illinois, and the documents were located in the defendant’s counsel’s office, down the street from the St. Clair County courthouse. Justice Garman asked whether any part of plaintiff’s alleged exposure had happened in St. Clair County, and counsel answered no. Plaintiffs’ counsel argued that defendants had substantially changed their story in hopes of winning their forum non conveniens motion. Justice Garman suggested that it was hardly surprising that defendant would be uncertain of which witnesses would be called early in the case, when a forum non conveniens motion was filed. Counsel responded that the case had been in Mississippi for four years, discovery had been done and depositions taken, and defendant had substantially delayed filing its motion after re-filing in Illinois Counsel argued that the initial filing in Mississippi was not relevant, and the defendants needed, at most, two witnesses from Mississippi — the plaintiff’s treating physicians. According to counsel, the defendant had failed to meet the burden of justifying dismissal, and if the Court reversed, the Court was saying that defendants didn’t have to. Chief Justice Kilbride asked whether the dismissal in Mississippi had been instigated by the defendant, and whether anything in the order of dismissal had contemplated re-filing in Illinois. Counsel responded that although the order didn’t mention Illinois, it certainly contemplated re-filing somewhere.