Illinois Supreme Court Addresses Forum Non Conveniens in Asbestos Case

The Illinois Supreme Court recently issued an opinion concerning the doctrine of interstate forum non conveniens, which allows a court to decline jurisdiction of a case, even though it may have proper jurisdiction over the subject matter and the parties, if another forum would better serve the convenience of the parties and promote justice.  The case, Fennell v. Illinois Central Railroad Co., 2012 IL 113812 (Dec. 28, 2012) involved a forum non conveniens motion brought by the defendant where the plaintiff resided in Mississippi, the injury occurred in Mississippi or Louisiana, the defendant maintained offices in Mississippi and Tennessee, and the only connections to Illinois were the location of the attorneys’ offices, some documentary evidence, and the location of one of the plaintiff’s experts. The Circuit Court of St. Clair County, Illinois denied defendant’s Motion to Dismiss onforum non conveniens grounds, which was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit. 

Defendant Illinois Central Railroad Co. appealed, and the Illinois Supreme Court ruled courts should examine all public and private factors in the forum non conveniens analysis, and should not simply give deference to where a plaintiff decided to file the case.  In ordering dismissal in favor of a Mississippi forum, the court noted “far less deference” should be given to the plaintiff’s choice of an Illinois forum when the plaintiff does not reside, and the cause of action did not arise, in Illinois.

After originally filing an asbestos lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, Mississippi, seeking recovery for injuries sustained as the result of alleged exposure to asbestos while employed by the Illinois Central Railroad, plaintiff refiled the suit in the Circuit Court of St. Clair County, Illinois.  Plaintiff lived in Mississippi and worked for the railroad in Mississippi.

The railroad moved to dismiss the suit based on interstate forum non conveniens, and argued Mississippi was the most convenient forum to try the case. The Circuit Court of St. Clair County denied defendant’s motion to dismiss, and held St. Clair County was a convenient forum, as: (1) substantial documentary evidence critical to plaintiff’s case was located a short distance from the St. Clair County courthouse; (2) in-court testimony of two important witnesses for plaintiff would be available if the case were tried in Illinois, but unavailable if the case were tried in Mississippi; (3) St. Clair County was closer than Mississippi for plaintiff’s expert witness from Chicago; (4) the citizens of St. Clair County had an interest in asbestos; and (5) the Circuit Court of St. Clair County no longer had congested trial dockets.

The Supreme Court held the trial court abused its discretion when it denied defendant’s motion to dismiss the Illinois action in favor of an action in Mississippi.  The Court ruled private factors weighed heavily in favor of the convenience of a Mississippi forum over an Illinois forum because plaintiff resided in Mississippi; the alleged exposure occurred in Mississippi and Louisiana; the vast majority of the identified witnesses, including the treating physicians, were located in Mississippi and were not subject to Illinois subpoenas; and a jury view of the premises would occur outside of Illinois.

In its analysis of public interest factors, the Court held Illinois had no relevant or practical connection with the litigation, as the only Illinois connections were the offices of the parties’ counsel, accessible and transportable documents in the possession of defendant’s counsel; and a compensated expert witness for plaintiff.  The Court found these connections did not provide “a significant factual connection with the instant case that justified imposition of the burdens of a litigation upon the citizens and the court system of St. Clair County and Illinois.” Further, the Court held that merely conducting business in St. Clair County does not affect the forum non conveniens issue.

In sum, the Court found the weight of the private and public interest factors greatly favored Mississippi.  Although the Court acknowledged this analysis is always case specific, deference to plaintiff’s choice of an Illinois forum was significantly lessened in the current case because: (1) Illinois was plaintiff’s second choice of forum; and (2) plaintiff did not reside in Illinois and the action did not arise in Illinois, such that Mississippi was the proper forum.

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