Illinois Supreme Court Rejects Forum Shopping in Asbestos Case

May a lifelong resident of Mississippi who alleges that he was exposed to asbestos and assorted other allegedly toxic agents while working out of the defendant's Jackson Mississippi facility nevertheless sue for his alleged injuries in Illinois, even though numerous potential witnesses lived in Mississippi and plaintiff alleged no exposure here? On Friday morning, the Illinois Supreme Court answered "No," reversing the Appellate Court in Fennell v. Illinois Central Railroad Co. [pdf] with instructions that the case be dismissedOur detailed description of the underlying facts and lower court rulings appears here. Our report on the oral argument is here.

The plaintiff in Fennell worked for the defendant railroad for thirty-seven years. He alleged that during that time, he was exposed to asbestos, diesel exhaust, sand, environmental tobacco smoke and toxic dusts, fumes and gases. Illinois wasn't the plaintiff's first choice of forum: he initially filed a putative class action in Pike County, Mississippi. That action was dismissed without prejudice, but rather than refiling in Mississippi, the plaintiff opted to file the action anew in St. Clair County, Illinois. The defendant moved to dismiss based on interstate forum non conveniens, arguing that the action belonged in Mississippi. The Circuit Court denied the motion to dismiss. The defendant appealed, but a divided panel of the Appellate Court affirmed.

In an opinion by Justice Charles E. Freeman, the Supreme Court reversed, remanding the action with instructions that the Circuit Court should dismiss. The Court held that in resolving forum non conveniens motions, Illinois courts apply the public-and-private-factors analytical framework derived from Gulf Oil Corp. v. GilbertThe court does not balance the factors against one another; rather, the court determines whether the total circumstances of the case strongly favor dismissal (in interstate cases) or transfer (in intrastate cases). The Supreme Court cautioned lower courts to include all of the relevant public and private factors in analyzing such motions.

Although the Court acknowledged that a plaintiff's choice of forum is typically entitled to deference, the Court strongly condemned forum shopping:

Decent 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.

Accordingly, when the plaintiff doesn't reside in the chosen forum and the action didn't arise there, the plaintiff's choice of forum is entitled to less deference. This principle applied in Fennell, since the plaintiff was a Mississippian who alleged no exposure in Illinois, and had not even originally filed here.

Turning to the Gulf Oil factors, the Court found that the relative ease of access to testimonial, documentary and other evidence weighed heavily in favor of dismissal, since many witnesses resided in Mississippi and almost none lived in Illinois. The Court rejected the plaintiff's argument that the residency of witnesses should be accorded little weight since some might not testify, finding that requiring extensive investigation to determine which witnesses are important before bringing a forum non conveniens motion would defeat the purpose of the motion to quickly terminate improperly filed actions. Many documents were apparently located in the Illinois offices of the defendant's counsel, but the Court found that the physical location of documents, records and photographs was a less significant factor in the modern world of internet, email, fax, copying machines and worldwide delivery services.

The majority also criticized the lower court for disregarding the possibility of the jury viewing the relevant premises. The Court pointed out that this factor is not concerned with whether or not a jury view would be necessary, but whether it would convenient if it turned out to be appropriate. Since plaintiff had never worked in Illinois, the Court concluded that this factor weighed in favor of dismissal as well.

After concluding that the private interest factors weighed heavily in favor of dismissal, the Court turned to the public interest factors. Although the Court placed no weight on the relative congestion of the relevant Illinois and Mississippi court systems, the Court found that other factors weighed heavily towards dismissal. For example, the case had already imposed significant burdens on the Illinois judiciary despite the state having virtually no connection to the dispute. The Court flatly rejected the plaintiff's contention that the defendant's doing business in Illinois alone, without more, was sufficient to give Illinois an interest in the litigation. Because both the private and public factors weighed heavily in favor of dismissal, the Court held that the action should be dismissed.

Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride dissented.  According to the Chief Justice, since defendant's offices were more or less equidistant from Mississippi and Illinois, the convenience of the parties didn't weigh towards dismissal. Many potential witnesses lived in Mississippi, but it was unclear how many would actually testify, the Chief Justice wrote. The plaintiff's expert witness lived in Chicago, and key defense witnesses were once again equidistant from the two competing forums. Like the Appellate Court, the Chief Justice concluded that it would be more convenient to present documents currently located in Illinois at trial in Illinois that transporting them to Mississippi. The Chief Justice dismissed the significance of a jury view of the premises, writing that it seemed quite unlikely that any premises would still be in the same condition as when the plaintiff worked in them. As for the public interest factors, the Chief Justice wrote that the controversy was not particularly localized, and that Illinois had a sufficient interest in toxic exposures in transportation to justify trial in Illinois. The Chief Justice concluded that the factors were "fairly evenly balanced," so dismissal was not appropriate.

 

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