Alabama Legal Update September 2014

Transfer of Venue Pursuant to Forum Non Conveniens Doctrine

State’s high court bolsters prior opinions that residence of Defendant alone is insufficient to overcome objection to venue.  Ex parte Elizabeth A. Morton. PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS (In re: Annie P. Watkins v. Elizabeth A. Morton) (Greene Circuit Court: CV13-900042).

The Alabama Supreme Court recently held that a Defendant was entitled to a transfer of venue pursuant to the interest-of-justice prong of § 6-3-21.1(a), Ala. Code 1975 where the sole connection between the chosen venue and the case itself was the fact that the Defendant resided there.

Petitioner Morton petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus directing the Greene County Circuit Court to vacate its order denying her motion to transfer the case on the ground of forum non conveniens.

On August 26, 2011, Petitioner Morton, a resident of Greene County, and Respondent Watkins, a resident of Jefferson County, were involved in a motor-vehicle collision in Jefferson County. Watkins was subsequently treated in multiple health care facilities in Jefferson County.

On August 26, 2013, Watkins filed a complaint in Greene County Circuit Court against Morton alleging claims stemming from the August 26, 2011 collision. On September 26, 2013, Morton filed a motion to transfer the case to the Jefferson Circuit Court pursuant to the doctrine of forum non conveniens, codified in § 6-3-21.1(a), Ala. Code 1975, which reads as follows:

(a) With respect to civil actions filed in an appropriate venue, any court of general jurisdiction shall, for the convenience of parties and witnesses, or in the interest of justice, transfer any civil action or any claim in any civil action to any court of general jurisdiction in which the action might have been properly filed and the case shall proceed as though originally filed therein. Provided, however, this section shall not apply to cases subject to Section 30-3-5.

The motion was denied on October 30, 2013, and the petition for writ of mandamus was filed on December 11, 2013.

On review, the Court noted that “A party moving for a transfer under § 6–3–21.1 has the initial burden of showing, among other things, one of two factors: (1) that the transfer is justified based on the convenience of either the parties or the witnesses, or (2) that the transfer is justified “in the interest of justice.” (citing, Ex parte Wachovia Bank, N.A., 77 So. 3d 570, 573 (Ala. 2011)). The Court also cited Ex parte Perfection Siding, Inc., 882 So. 2d 307, 312 (Ala. 2003), recognizing that when venue is appropriate in multiple counties, the plaintiff’s choice of venue is generally given the greater deference.

Petitioner Morton argued that the trial court addressed only the convenience prong of § 6–3–21.1, and that the interest-of-justice prong of § 6-3-21.1(a) compels a transfer of the case to the Jefferson Circuit Court. The Court noted that, in reviewing the case under the interest-of-justice prong, it is necessary to “determine whether the interest of justice overrides the deference due the plaintiff’s choice of forum.”

“[I]n analyzing the interest-of-justice prong of § 6–3–21.1, this Court focuses on whether the ‘nexus’ or ‘connection’ between the plaintiff’s action and the original forum is strong enough to warrant burdening the plaintiff’s forum with the action.” Further, in examining whether it is in the interest of justice to transfer a case, we consider “the burden of piling court services and resources upon the people of a county that is not affected by the case and … the interest of the people of a county to have a case that arises in their county tried close to public view in their county.” Ex parte Wachovia Bank, N.A., 77 So. 3d 570, 573 (Ala. 2011).

In its analysis, the Court cited multiple cases wherein it was recognized that the fact that the injury made the basis of the case occurred in the proposed transferee county is often assigned considerable weight in analyzing a Motion to Transfer Venue under the interest-of-justice prong. The Court also cited multiple cases where the plaintiff resided in the proposed transferee county and no material act or omission occurred in the county where the action was filed. In all of those cases the Court found that transfer was proper.

In finding in favor of the Petitioner, the Court stated, “Jefferson County has a significantly stronger connection to this case than does Greene County, which is connected to this case only by the fact that Morton resides there – a connection this Court has characterized as “weak.””

Read the full decision.