Appellate court takes second look and dismisses case over forum

Steve Gonzalez Apr. 5, 2006, 10:56am

Presiding Justice Stephen Spomer

The 5th Appellate Court reversed a former St. Clair County judge's decision to deny a case be dismissed on grounds of interstate forum non conveniens after the Illinois Supreme Court asked the lower court to take a second look.

The appellate court had originally affirmed Circuit Judge Stephen Kernan's order to dismiss a wrongful death suit filed by a Missouri woman. However, the Illinois Supreme Court exercised its supervisory authority and instructed 5th Appellate Court to vacate its prior judgment and reconsider the matter in light of a November 2005 landmark ruling in Gridley v. State Farm which slammed forum shopping.

In the matter of Skidmore v. Gateway Western Railway Co., the appellate court instructed the case to be remanded back to St. Clair County with instructions to dismiss the case.

Plaintiff Edith Skidmore, as the special administrator of the estate of Clifford Skidmore, filed a wrongful death suit against the railroad in St. Clair County in 2000, claiming her husband was killed when a train operated by the Gateway struck his vehicle.

The incident occurred at a railroad grade crossing in Mayview, (Lafayette County), Mo. on March 15, 2000.

Gateway filed a motion to dismiss based on interstate forum non conveniens.

It argued that the Skidmores and the train operator and crew were all Missouri residents.

They also established that both eyewitnesses were residents of Missouri, and that the accident was investigated by a Missouri state trooper and an accident reconstructionist team from Missouri.

Following the accident, members of a Missouri fire-and-rescue squad assisted in removing Clifford from his vehicle, and a medical treatment team from Missouri provided medical treatment to Clifford, who was airlifted to the Kansas City Research Hospital, where he was pronounced dead soon after his arrival.

Presiding Justice Stephen Spomer wrote the recent opinion stating, "The facts of this case are virtually identical to those in Gridley. The fact that the defendant's home office is located in St. Clair County, while affecting venue, is not dispositive of the forum non conveniens issue."

Justices Stephen McGlynn and Terrance Hopkins concurred with Spomer.

Spomer also wrote, "The plaintiff's choice of forum is given little deference because the plaintiff and the decedent are Missouri residents and the accident at issue occurred in Missouri. The private-interest factors favor a Missouri forum because all the witnesses, including the engineer and the crew of the train, the police department, accident reconstruction experts who investigated the scene, and the medical providers who treated the decedent, are located in Missouri."

"Illinois has no subpoena power over Missouri residents and, thus, has no ability by the use of compulsory process to secure the attendance of unwilling witnesses who reside in Missouri. The public-interest factors favor Missouri because Missouri has an interest in applying its own law in its own courts.

"Illinois has no interest in being burdened by litigation concerning an automobile accident occurring in Missouri and involving Missouri residents. For the same reasons, there is no reason to burden Illinois residents with jury duty given the fact that the action did not arise in, and has no relation to, Illinois," Spomer writes.

"Because the private- and public-interest factors weigh strongly in favor of Missouri as the appropriate forum in which to try this cause, the circuit court abused its discretion in denying the defendant's motion to dismiss."

In 2002, Gordon Maag wrote the opinion affirming the order. He was joined by Clyde Kuehn and Terrance Hopkins.

Maag noted that while the majority of the witnesses would have to travel at least 200 miles to St. Clair County compared to 18-50 miles to Lafayette County in Missouri, driving 200 miles is not oppressive but certainly less convenient.

Maag also wrote, "If the forum is convenient when the plaintiff chooses his or her home forum to file suit, how can the forum be any less convenient when the plaintiff chooses the defendant's home forum (principal place of business) to file suit? Should a defendant be heard to seriously argue that the county it chose to make its home is an unreasonable place to defend itself?"

"The citizens of Illinois certainly have an interest in this case because the incident involves one of its corporate citizens whose headquarters is located in St. Clair County, Illinois. The citizens of Missouri also have an interest in the case because the accident occurred at a railroad crossing in Missouri and the decedent was a Missouri resident. In our view, the citizens of each state have an interest in the litigation, and none would be unfairly burdened if they were required to serve as jurors," Maag wrote.

"We have considered the trial court's decision under the weight of the aforementioned Illinois Supreme Court decisions. Based upon the record and those authorities, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the motion to dismiss on the grounds of interstate forum non conveniens."

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