High court says Cueto was correct in keeping case in St. Clair County

Steve Gonzalez Mar. 2, 2006, 5:01am

In a 4-3 ruling, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed St. Clair County's Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto's decision to deny a motion to transfer a wrongful death case to Clinton County based on the doctrine of forum non conveniens.

In February of 2005, the appellate court also affirmed Cueto's decision to keep the case in St. Clair County.

Rita Langenhorst of Germantown filed the suit against Norfolk Southern Railway after her husband Gerald Langenhorst, a lifetime resident of Germantown, died from injuries he sustained when he was ejected from his pickup truck after being struck by a Norfolk train.

The accident occurred at railroad crossing 724641H on the Langenhorst farm, located in Clinton County near the St. Clair County line, a few miles west of Germantown.

Justice Rita Garman authored a dissenting opinion, stating that Clinton County would have been an appropriate forum based on the plaintiff's residence and where the accident took place. Chief Justice Robert Thomas and Justice Lloyd Karmeier joined the dissent.

Norfolk retained Kurt Reitz of Thompson Coburn of Belleville and in January of 2002, Reitz filed a motion to transfer venue based on forum non conveniens.

Reitz claimed that since almost all the witnesses lived in or around Clinton County and the accident took place there, it would be a more convenient venue. He also argued that it takes approximately three years for a civil case to go to trial due to a heavily congested civil docket in St. Clair County, whereas trial in Clinton County would be more expeditious.

After hearing arguments from both sides, Cueto denied the transfer.

After reviewing the case, the appellate court affirmed his ruling stating, "We cannot say that Judge Cueto was unreasonable in denying a venue transfer to Clinton County, and other reasonable people might well adopt the view that he has taken."

During the hearing, Cueto commented on the St. Clair County court's docket congestion, "The idea that anybody thinking they can get to trial and have a trial quicker in another county than St. Clair County just isn't true."

"Hardly anybody goes to trial to verdict," Cueto said. "I think I've had three verdicts all year. You can get to trial any time you want to. You want to try a case in St. Clair County I'm telling you I'll try it. It doesn't matter whose docket, you just can, and you can get to trial in St. Clair County as quickly as you can in any other county."

Justice Kilbride wrote the majority opinion for the court:

"Plaintiff's counsel argued that defendants want the case transferred to Clinton County because they thought the verdict would be smaller there, and acknowledged wanting the case to remain in St. Clair County because he believed the verdict would be larger there."

Kilbride also writes, "This court has repeatedly noted that the forum non conveniens doctrine gives courts discretionary power that should be exercised only in exceptional circumstances when the interests of justice require a trial in a more convenient forum.

"The burden is on the defendant to show that relevant private and public interest factors "strongly favor" the defendant's choice of forum to warrant disturbing plaintiff's choice.

"Defendants mischaracterize the facts. First, defendants ignore the fact that Norfolk, a foreign corporation, recognized St. Clair County as an appropriate forum by designating as its registered agent for service an individual residing in St. Clair County. Second, defendants ignore important witnesses located in Belleville, St. Clair County, St. Louis, Missouri, and Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois. Finally, defendants have listed ambulance personnel, hospital personnel, firefighters, and auto body repair personnel from Clinton County as potential witnesses, but have not identified who these people are, where they live, or what, if any, relevant testimony they might provide"

"This is not a case of exceptional circumstances where the interests of justice require a trial in a more convenient forum."

However, in dissent, Justice Garman wrote:

"Turning explicitly to the facts of this case, it is clear the doctrine of forum non conveniens warrants the transfer of plaintiff's lawsuit to Clinton County.

"Here, plaintiff is not a resident of St. Clair County, and the accident did not occur there. As a result, plaintiff's choice of St. Clair County as a venue for her lawsuit is entitled to less deference than would otherwise be appropriate.

"The accident occurred in Clinton County, plaintiff is a resident of Clinton County, and the potential witnesses are more closely connected to Clinton County than to St. Clair County. Relatedly, because of Clinton County's strong local interest in the litigation and St. Clair County's comparatively weak interest, it would not be fair to obligate St. Clair County residents to serve as jurors in this matter. Finally, court statistics clearly show greater congestion in St. Clair County than in Clinton County."

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