E-Alert Case Updates
Despite Out-of-State Location of Injury and Multiple Witnesses, Defendants Did Not Meet Burden to Transfer Venue
David Juell Mitchell v. Norfolk Southern Railway Company
In Mitchell v. Norfolk Southern Railway Company, Plaintiff, David Juell Mitchell (“Mitchell”), filed an action for negligence under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”) and, in the alternative, for strict liability under the Railroad Safety Appliance Act against Defendant Norfolk Southern Railway Company (“NSRC”). The Court was asked to decide NRSC’s motion to transfer the action to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
Mitchell was a resident of Dungannon, Virginia. Norfolk Southern Corporation, a Virginia corporation with its headquarters located in Norfolk, Virginia, owns NRSC. NRSC operates over 22,000 miles of railroad, spanning across several states in the eastern United States. Mitchell was employed by Cleco Corporation, which was contracted by NRSC to help make repairs to NRSC’s train tracks. Because Mitchell was the non-moving party, the Court accepted his allegation that NRSC maintained complete control over the railroad repair project, including the method of repairs, and supplied the equipment for the repairs. During the repair project, Mitchell was instructed by a NRSC supervisor to go to a NRSC supply truck, which was located on the railroad tracks, to obtain materials needed for the repairs. While climbing down the ladder of the truck, Mitchell fell several feet and suffered a ruptured disc in his back. Mitchell sought damages of one million dollars ($1,000,000) for pain and suffering, past and future medical expenses, permanent disability, and lost wages.
Because Mitchell’s accident occurred in Trenton, Georgia, which is located within the Northern District of Georgia, NRSC argued that the case should be transferred to that venue under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). The Court noted that it would consider the following factors in evaluating NRSC’s motion to transfer venue: (1) plaintiff’s choice of forum, (2) the convenience of the parties, (3) witness convenience and access, and (4) the interest of justice. Ultimately, the Court concluded that NRSC had not met its heavy burden of showing that the Northern District of Georgia would be a more appropriate forum.
The plaintiff’s choice of forum must be given substantial weight, except where the plaintiff chooses a foreign forum, and the chosen venue has little to do with the cause of action. Here, there was no dispute that the Western District of Virginia was Mitchell’s home forum. Mitchell was a resident of the Commonwealth of Virginia and his home was located within the western judicial district. Because the forum was Mitchell’s home forum, the Court determined that it did not need to evaluate the forum’s connection to the cause of action. The Court therefore concluded that Mitchell’s venue choice was entitled to substantial weight.
The Court began its analysis of the “convenience of the parties” factor by noting that where a plaintiff files in their home forum, the convenience of the parties rarely justifies a venue transfer. Northern Georgia would not be convenient for Mitchell, who lived in southwestern Virginia. Moreover, NRSC was headquartered in Virginia. The Court conceded that more relevant evidence was likely located in Georgia, but could not use this alone to justify transferring the case. NRSC had not demonstrated that it would have difficulty transporting documentary evidence from Georgia to Virginia. The Court also noted that transferring venues would merely shift the burden of inconvenience from NRSC to Mitchell. The Court concluded that this factor weighed against transferring the case to the Northern District of Georgia.
Witness convenience and access was the primary focus of NRSC’s motion to transfer venue. The Court began its analysis by noting a distinction between party and non-party witnesses and emphasizing that inconvenience to a non-party witness must be weighed more heavily. Party witnesses, the Court noted, are presumed to be more willing to testify in a different forum. NRSC asserted in its motion that several of its non-party witnesses lived in Georgia and/or Alabama, hundreds of miles away from Virginia. In support of this assertion, NRSC attached an affidavit from its District Claim Agent, which described the location of several NRSC witnesses. The Court noted that the affidavit failed to indicate that it would be extremely disruptive for these non-party witnesses to travel to Virginia, nor did it indicate that litigating in Virginia would put NRSC at a disadvantage because these witnesses would be beyond the subpoena power of the Court. The Court also noted that NRSC did not submit any affidavits from potential witnesses regarding the inconvenience of traveling to Virginia or their unwillingness to do so without a subpoena. The Court held that without evidence that these witnesses were unwilling to testify voluntarily, the fact that they lived beyond the subpoena power of the court was not enough to tip the scales in favor of transfer. The Court also noted that videotaped testimony was an option, and that NRSC had not demonstrated that such testimony would be inadequate. Finally, the Court acknowledged that litigating the case in Virginia would increase the cost and expense of securing witness testimony, but also noted that that burden would impact NRSC and Mitchell equally. Ultimately, the Court concluded that this factor also weighed against transferring the venue.
Finally, the Court considered the “interest of justice,” which involved an analysis of “public interest factors aimed at systemic integrity and fairness.” The Court noted that the relevant considerations included: the court’s familiarity with the applicable law, docket conditions, access to premises that might have to be viewed, the possibility of an unfair trial, the ability to join other parties, the possibility of harassment, the pendency of a related action, and the interest in having local controversies decided at home. Given that the dispute was between a Virginia resident and a subsidiary of a Virginia corporation, the court concluded that the Western District of Virginia would not be burdened with a controversy that was unrelated to the district. The Court further noted that Virginia had an interest in providing a forum for its residents to litigate disputes against subsidiaries of Virginia corporations. Therefore, the interest of justice weighed against transferring the case out of the Western District of Virginia.
|©2008 Maryland Defense Counsel, Inc. All Rights Reserved.|