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‘Non Conveniens’ Doesn’t Just Mean Inconvenient (PA)

July 3, 2019

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<p style="text-align: justify;">Oftentimes in litigation, the location of where the matter is litigated can be almost as important as the subject matter over which the litigation arises. In<em> <a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Robbins-v.-Conrail-1.pdf">Robbins v. Conrail</a></em>,No. 1055 EDA 2018 (2019 PA Super 172), Consolidated Rail’s attempt to dismiss an action brought in Philadelphia on the grounds of forum <em>non conveniens</em> was denied by the trial court and then again on appeal.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The underlying case was brought by Howard Robbins (a resident of Indiana) on behalf of David Robbins, who worked as a trackman and machine operator for Consolidated Rail in Indianapolis, Indiana for over thirty-five years. Robbins claimed that decedent was exposed to chemicals at the rail yard that caused him to die from lung and liver cancer in March 2014. Robbins brought the lawsuit in Philadelphia (a historically plaintiff-friendly venue) against Consolidated Rail which has a principal place of business in Philadelphia, PA and Penn Central (which became a property of Consolidated Rail as part of a bankruptcy action in the 1970s) which has a principal place of business in Harrisburg, PA. Consolidated Rail filed a motion to dismiss Robbins’ complaint under the doctrine of forum <em>non conviens</em>.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">In its decision, the Superior Court articulated the standard for forum <em>non conviens</em>, as established under Pennsylvania Law, explaining the that the two most important factors when considering if dismissal is warranted is (1) the plaintiff’s choice of forum should not be disturbed except for ‘weighty reasons’ and (2) there must be an alternate forum available or the action may not be dismissed. In support of its motion to dismiss, Consolidated Rail argued that the action had no bona fide connection to Pennsylvania because: Robbins never worked for Consolidated Rail in Pennsylvania, Consolidated Rail did not store any employment records for decedent in Pennsylvania, and two fact witnesses identified by Consolidated Rail lived in Illinois; and Consolidated Rail would therefore suffer greater costs, inconvenience, and business disruption if the case was venued in Pennsylvania. Robbins countered that, in addition to being a registered corporation in Pennsylvania, Consolidated Rail conducted substantial business throughout Pennsylvania including Philadelphia County, four of Robbins’ identified witness were former employees of Consolidated Rail in Philadelphia, and the policies and procedures related to Robbins’ exposure to chemicals and cancer-causing substances were determined at Consolidated Rail’s headquarters in Philadelphia. Following a hearing in December 2017, the trial court denied Consolidated Rail’s motion to dismiss.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">On appeal, the Superior Court noted that Robbins essentially had a choice of bringing the lawsuit in one of two jurisdictions: (1) Philadelphia, which has general jurisdiction over Consolidated Rail; and (2) Indianapolis, which has specific jurisdiction because that is where the cause of action arose. By filing the motion to dismiss, Consolidated Rail was effectively limiting Robbins to only Indianapolis. The Superior Court also emphasized that there was no evidence that Indiana would provide easier access to the decedent’s employment records, nor would Indiana limit the cost of obtaining witness attendance as Consolidated Rail identified two witnesses in Illinois and Robbins identified four witnesses who worked for Consolidated Rail in Philadelphia. Furthermore, the Court noted that Pennsylvania citizens have a relation to the litigation because the policies and procedures related to Robbins’ exposure chemicals were determined in Philadelphia. Thus, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of Consolidated Rail’s motion to dismiss.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">This case highlights the attention that should be paid to the early stages of litigation as efforts to steer a case to either a more desirable venue or away from a less desirable venue often involve extensive motion practice even before completion of the pleadings stage.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to Greg Herrold for his contribution to this post. Please email <a href="mailto:VPinto@wcmlaw.com">Vito A. Pinto</a> with any questions.</p>

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