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Transfer from Baltimore City to Baltimore County on Forum Non Conveniens Grounds Is Upheld on Appeal in a Medical Malpractice Case

Smith v. Johns Hopkins Community Physicians, Inc.
No. 1191 (Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, January 23, 2013)

by Colleen K. OíBrien, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In this medical malpractice and wrongful death case, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland upheld a forum non conveniens transfer by the trial court pursuant to MD. RULE 2-327(c). Plaintiffs initially filed in Baltimore City. Defendants sought transfer to Baltimore County on forum non conveniens grounds, and the trial court granted the transfer. Plaintiffs appealed. The Court of Special Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting the transfer and indeed praised the trial courtís decision to do so as impeccable.

The intermediate appellate court heard the case as an interlocutory appeal, since the grant of a forum non conveniens transfer is an immediately appealable order (while the denial of a forum non conveniens transfer is not). The Court noted that the Defendant had the burden of proving that the interests of justice would be best served by transferring the action. If the balance is equal, then Plaintiff wins the tie, and Plaintiffís choice of forum controls. An appellate court only reverses a trial courtís forum non conveniens ruling if the trial court clearly abused its discretion.

The Court noted that while typically a Plaintiff is entitled to deference in his or her choice of forum where multiple forums are proper, that little deference is owed when the Plaintiff does not live in the chosen forum. Here, none of the Plaintiffs were Baltimore City residents. The surviving spouse Plaintiff and one (1) surviving child lived in Baltimore County. One (1) surviving child lived in Harford County and one (1) lived in Delaware. The decedent continuously lived in Baltimore County during the entire nine (9) years of medical treatment giving rise to the suit.

Moreover, in deciding whether to transfer a case on the grounds of forum non conveniens, the trial court must consider two (2) factors: 1) the convenience of the parties and 2) the interests of justice. In terms of the convenience of the parties, the court considers the convenience of parties and non-expert witnesses based on where they live and work in relation to the court. As noted above, two (2) of the Plaintiffs lived in Baltimore County; the Defendantís medical office was located in Baltimore County; the Defendant lives in Baltimore County; and all of the medical treatment that the decedent received that gave rise to the suit occurred in Baltimore County. Not a single party lived in Baltimore City. Although little weight is given to the convenience of expert witnesses, in this case, even the Plaintiffís two (2) expert witnesses lived in Baltimore County.

Next, the Court considered the public interests of justice factors, which include: 1) considerations of court congestion; 2) the burden of jury duty; and 3) local interest in the matter at hand. Here, the case involved allegedly tortious conduct (medical malpractice) that took place over the course of nine (9) years, exclusively in Baltimore County. Both the alleged victim and treating physician were Baltimore County residents. The medical treatment at issue all occurred at Defendantís office in Baltimore County. To the Court, there was no justification whatsoever for imposing the burden of adjudicating this case on the court system of Baltimore City or of imposing the burden of jury duty on Baltimore City citizens. Overall, the trial courtís decision to transfer the case to Baltimore County was no abuse of discretion, either on the merits of relative convenience, or upon the consideration of public interests.