Supreme Court slams forum shopping

By Ann Knef | Nov 17, 2005

Chief Justice Robert Thomas

John Hoffman

Forum shoppers in the nation's top class action market will have to take their business elsewhere.

In a 6-0 decision, the Illinios Supreme Court reversed lower court rulings and remanded a Louisiana man's case against State Farm Insurance back to Madison County with directions to dismiss the complaint based on forum non conveniens.

"We find that the circuit court abused its discretion in denying State Farm's motion to dismiss based upon forum non conveniens," wrote Chief Justice Robert Thomas.

Christopher Gridley filed a class action complaint in Madison County on June 19, 2000, on behalf of himself and a proposed nationwide class against State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company. Gridley's complaint alleged unjust enrichment and violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act in connection with State Farm's sale of salvage vehicles.

A resident of Louisiana, Gridley filed suit as representative of a class of "all persons in the United States who purchased an automobile which was previously declared a 'total loss' by State Farm, and for which State Farm failed to obtain a salvage title."

The American Insurance Association (AIA) stated that today's ruling highlights the need for venue reform in Illinois.

“The fact that this lawsuit went all the way to the state Supreme Court before venue was correctly decided reinforces the need for legislation that clearly delineates when and where forum is proper in civil cases,” said Lynda S. Mounts, AIA assistant general counsel.

Gridley alleged that State Farm had a practice of obtaining "clean" titles on vehicles that it had previously declared "total losses" and that it marketed those vehicles at automobile auctions with clean titles.

He is represented by John Hoffman of Korein Tillery of St. Louis.

The National Chamber Litigation Center praised the Supreme Court decision.

"The court has sent a clear message that forum shopping and out-of-state lawyers looking for big paydays are no longer welcome in Illinois," said Robin Conrad, senior vice president of NCLC.

"Cases like Gridley are in large part to blame for Madison County's reputation as a jackpot jurisdiction."

State Farm moved to dismiss the complaint based upon the doctrine of forum non conveniens arguing that Louisiana and not Illinois was the most convenient forum.

However on June 1, 2001, Circuit Judge Philip Kardis denied the motion leading to an appeal to the Fifth District which remanded the cause for entry of a detailed discovery order that would produce information relevant to the issues raised in the forum non conveniens motions.

"Balancing all the relevant factors, it is clear that those factors strongly favor dismissal in favor of a Louisiana forum with regard to the remaining unjust enrichment claim," Thomas wrote in the court's opinion.

"Further, as the United States Supreme Court has recognized, requiring extensive investigation prior to deciding a forum non conveniens motion would defeat the purpose of the forum non conveniens motion."

In the decision handed down Thursday, the Illinois Supreme Court also granted the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association leave to submit an amicus curiae brief in support of Gridley and granted Allegiance Healthcare Corporation, Allstate Insurance Company, Baxter Healthcare Corporation, Caterpiller, Inc., Country Mutual Insurance Company, Sears Roebuck and Company, and Walgreen Company leave to submit an amicus curiae brief in support of State Farm.

It also granted leave to submit amicus curiae briefs in support of defendant to the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, the Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc., and the American Insurance Association.

Former Appellate Court Justice Gordon E. Maag, who was not retained in 2004 and lost his race for the Illinois Supreme Court to Lloyd Karmeier in the same election, authored the decision remanding the case filed by Gridley to Madison County on State Farm's forum appeal.

Justice Karmeier did not participate in the high court's decision to dismiss Gridley v. State Farm.

In the lower court decision, Kardis held that Illinois had a significant interest in the litigation because State Farm was headquartered in Illinois and because Gridley sought recovery under Illinois' substantive law.

He also ruled that it was proper to consider the size and location of the putative class in ruling on a forum non conveniens motion. Kardis concluded that because the putative class would likely include residents of several states, an Illinois court would be as capable as a Louisiana court of assigning subclasses for each state.

In separate news, the Illinois Civil Justice League issued a an analysis of major civil litigation filing, "Litigation Imbalance," which showed that Madison County is more than four times as litigious as the average of 101 counties outside Cook.

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Baxter Illinois Supreme Court Illinois Trial Lawyers Association

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