Is The Alabama Supreme Court Biased Against Car Accident Victims On Venue Issues?
Venue and forum selection. I started to write on this issue months ago. At that point, the Alabama Supreme Court had issued several recent (and very debatable) decisions on the topic. I know – venue sounds like a pretty boring topic for non-lawyers. So, I chose other topics. Now I’ve come full circle back to venue after the Alabama Supreme Court again ruled against another personal injury victim on this issue.
In simple terms, venue is the county (or counties) in Alabama where a case can be filed. Specific rules govern the proper counties for filing a personal injury (or any other) case. Often, venue can be proper in more than one county. That brings a choice. And, it leads to a question raised by the recent spate of venue decisions. Why is our Supreme Court so quick to interfere with the properly chosen venue of an injury victim?
Even when a case has been filed in a proper venue, a specific Alabama statute gives courts the power to transfer the case for “the interest of justice” or the “convenience of parties and witnesses.” It’s called “forum non conveniens.” Convenience? Interest of justice? Those are some pretty subjective terms. Should the court be quick to force transfers when the issue may be gray?
The recent case of Ex parte Tyson Chicken is a perfect example. The case involved a serious injury. A Tyson tractor trailer crashed into a car. The injured plaintiff filed a personal injury case against Tyson and its driver in Marshall County, Alabama. Both Tyson and its truck driver asked the court to transfer the case to neighboring Cullman County. The trial court denied the request. But, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed that decision and mandated the transfer requested by the defendants. I would note the Supreme Court decision was by a 5-4 margin. Even the judges found the issue debatable. The evidence in support of transfer could not be too compelling where four justices dissented! That leads me back to my original question – Should our Supreme Court be quick to interfere with the chosen venue of an injury victim? Should our Supreme Court liberally impose its choice between two proper venues?
In Ex parte Tyson, the accident happened in Cullman County. Put a check mark in the defendants’ requested venue column on that one. After the accident, the injury victim sought treatment at Cullman Hospital. Put another check mark in the defendants’ column. Yet, both the injured plaintiff and defendant truck driver lived in Marshall County. In fact, the defendant truck driver actually worked at the defendant Tyson Chicken’s facility in Marshall County. Looks like all the parties have a tremendous connection to Marshall County where the case was filed. Also, the case involved significant claims that Tyson Chicken negligently trained and supervised its driver-employee, all of which occurred in Marshall County. If we are talking “convenience,” then the original venue of Marshall County looks just as good as Cullman County. If we are talking the “interest of justice,” I would say Marshall County has a pretty strong interest in whether or not a large employer in the county is properly training and supervising large truck drivers operating on its roadways.
In this case, either Marshall County or Cullman County would have been legally correct venues for the plaintiff to file a lawsuit. Is one venue better than the other for convenience or the interest of justice? Should our appellate courts impose their choice when the issue is debatable? Should our appellate courts arbitrarily disregard the plaintiff’s chosen venue or the trial judge’s decision that his/her county does have an interest in the case? Alabama law has long-held that:
to order a transfer under the interest-of-justice prong, the case must have BOTH a “strong” connection to the county [Cullman] to which the transfer is sought and a “weak” or “little” connection to the county [Marshall] in which the case is pending.
Based on the facts I read, Marshall County’s interest in the claims is anything but weak. Reasonable people can disagree on the better venue for filing this case. Where reasonable people can disagree on a subjective issue, we need to trust our local judges to make the decision. Certainly, the Marshall County judge was in a good position to examine the interest of justice issue. The Alabama Supreme Court should not quickly or easily impose a different, subjective decision.
If you suffered a personal injury in Alabama, how does this decision affect you? Here are 3 points:
You need an attorney who is a student of the law. Face it, forum can matter. Why else would the defendants spend so much effort asking the Alabama Supreme Court to transfer a case. During a case, many legal issues arise. Those issues add or subtract from your claim and the compensation you are likely to recover.
You need an attorney with real courtroom experience in the potential venues. You think that billboard lawyer who never goes to court has any real experience maximizing your recovery in a specific venue? Think again. Serious injuries need good lawyers with experience in actual, local courtrooms.
You need an attorney who will work hard to prepare your case. The injured person’s attorneys in Ex parte Tyson worked hard to fight this issue. They may have lost Round One here – in a debatable court decision that should have gone their way. But, the fight is not finished. They will prepare the case fully regardless of venue. If you have a serious injury, you need an attorney who will work hard to put your case in the best position for maximum recovery.
At the Blackwell Law Firm, we specialize in serious personal injury cases. From our office in Huntsville, we represent injured clients across Alabama. If you would like to discuss a legal issue, let us know.