Philadelphia Too Oppressive for Personal Injury Suit (PA)

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently affirmed a trial court’s ruling regarding the transfer of venue from Philadelphia County to Somerset County in Pennsylvania.  In Timothy Watson v. Nick J. Capo and National Delivery Systems, Inc., No. 983 EDA 2018 (PA. Super.), Watson sued Capo and Natl. Delivery Systems following a motor vehicle accident that occurred on the PA Turnpike in Somerset County.  Watson was driving a tractor trailer truck with a passenger, Cindy Weaver; and Capo was driving a tractor trailer owned by Natl. Delivery Systems.  Watson sustained various injuries and was taken to an emergency room in Somerset County.  Officers from Pennsylvania State Police, Somerset County investigated the accident scene and authored a report.

Watson commenced a lawsuit in Philadelphia County.  In response, Defendants filed preliminary objections to transfer the venue to Somerset County based on forum non conveniens.  Both Watson and his passenger reside in Maryland, Capo resides in Fayette County, PA; and Natl. Delivery Systems has a principal place of business in Ellicott City, Maryland as well as a Philadelphia Terminal in Philadelphia, PA.  Defendants argued that Philadelphia constituted an oppressive or vexatious forum because the accident occurred in Somerset County, police from Somerset County responded to the scene and drafted the report, Watson was treated at Somerset County Hospital, Somerset County Courthouse is 237 miles away from City Hall in Philadelphia, and the police officers as well as defendants would have to incur significant expenses for travel, lodging and missed work in order to appear in Philadelphia.  In opposition, Watson argued that Philadelphia was an appropriate venue for litigation and also attached an affidavit from Weaver stating that she would be more inconvenienced by having to travel to Somerset County rather than Philadelphia.  The trial court granted Defendants motion to transfer to Somerset County based on forum non conveniens.

On appeal, Watson asserted that the trial court erred and abused its discretion.  The Superior Court articulated the appellate standard of review for an abuse of discretion and stated that the trial court’s ruling must be reasonable in light of the peculiar facts and also that the lower court’s decision must stand if there exists any proper basis for the trial court’s decision to transfer venue.  The court further explained that, determining whether a forum is oppressive requires consideration of the totality of the circumstances and while distance between the two forums and disruption of the parties’ personal and professional lives are part of the equation, no one factor is dispositive.

The Superior Court agreed with the trial court’s determination that Defendants had met their burden of demonstrating that Philadelphia was an oppressive and vexatious forum.  In support of its decision, the Court cited the fact that Somerset County, where the accident took place and where the officers and initial medical treatment facility were located, was over 200 miles from Philadelphia.

In addition, the court noted that neither Watson nor the Defendants were from Philadelphia County, potential witnesses (including Capo and the responding police officers) suffered a greater hardship traveling to Philadelphia as opposed Somerset County, and the sole connection with Philadelphia is the fact that Natl. Delivery Systems occasionally conducted business in Philadelphia.  Thus, the trial court had a proper basis to grant Defendants’ motion to transfer and did not abuse its discretion.  This case illustrates the importance of utilizing the procedural tool of preliminary objections in Pennsylvania civil practice; as Defendants were successfully able to remove the case from the notoriously ‘plaintiff-friendly’ jurisdiction of Philadelphia County to a more conservative forum like Somerset County.  Thanks to Greg Herrold for his contribution to this post.  Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions