Mississippi claimant's FELA case belongs in St. Clair County, appellate court rules

Steve Korris Jan. 12, 2012, 12:56am



MOUNT VERNON – Fifth District appellate justices affirmed St. Clair County Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto's jurisdiction over a Mississippi man's chemical exposure suit against former employer Illinois Central Railroad.

On Jan. 3, Presiding Justice James Donovan and Justice Melissa Chapman ruled that Cueto correctly denied a motion to dismiss Walter Fennell's claims.

Their logic would make any court in America appropriate.

"We first note that this case does not involve a controversy of a particularly local nature," Chapman wrote.

"The plaintiff seeks relief under two federal statutory schemes from a defendant who operates rail lines in multiple states," she wrote.

"This is not the type of inherently local controversy that must be resolved in either Mississippi or Illinois," she wrote.

Dissenting Justice Thomas Welch argued that Chapman and Donovan should have followed a Fifth District forum decision from 2010, in favor of CSX Transportation.

"It is difficult, if not impossible, to find any nexus to Illinois, let alone to St. Clair County," he wrote.

A connection of local lawyers stands out in the record, and Chapman wrote that it weighed slightly in favor of a St. Clair County trial.

William Gavin of Belleville represents Fennell, and Michael Hermann and Thomas Peters of Belleville represent Illinois Central.

Chapman wrote that "attorneys for both parties have tried numerous similar cases in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana over the years."

Fennell first sued in 2002, in Mississippi, as one of 85 Mississippi and Louisiana workers in a single case.

Illinois Central moved to dismiss, and a judge granted the motion without prejudice.

Fennell sued in St. Clair County in 2009, seeking damages under the Federal Employers' Liability Act and the Locomotive Boiler Inspection Act.

Illinois Central moved to dismiss the suit so he could file it in Copiah County, Miss., where he lives.

Cueto denied the motion, finding that almost 80 years of evidence was located just five miles from the St. Clair County courthouse.

He meant Gavin's office in Park Place Professional Centre.

Cueto wrote that St. Clair County citizens have an interest in litigation involving toxic substances in rail cars that travel throughout the country.

"St. Clair County no longer has congested trial dockets," Cueto wrote.

"In fact, there are so few trials that as a matter of policy in Courtroom 404 if the attorneys agree on a jury week they get it.


Chapman expressed deference to his exclamation, writing that he was in a better position to assess the burdens of his own docket.

She wrote that some facts were similar to the case Welch cited, Laverty v. CSX, but there were also important distinctions.

She wrote that no witness in the earlier case lived in Illinois, but two witnesses in Fennell's case do.

Unlike CSX, Illinois Central didn't identify witnesses or representatives who live in Mississippi, she wrote.

And, some Illinois Central witnesses live in Memphis, about as far from St. Clair County as from Copiah County, she wrote.

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