The Fifth District Appellate Court concluded that a medical malpractice case that played out entirely in Missouri could appropriately be tried in St. Clair County Circuit Court.
It’s only connection to St. Clair County? The doctor being sued for negligence resides there.
Justice Melissa Chapmen delivered the July 15 Rule 23 order, affirming St. Clair County Circuit Judge Andrew Gleeson’s decision denying a forum non conveniens motion to dismiss.
When reaching a decision, the appeals court noted that Ste. Genevieve County is likely the most proper venue for this case, but the forum factors require the court to look beyond what makes a venue proper.
“The issue before the trial court was whether the defendant met her burden of demonstrating that these factors strongly outweigh the plaintiff’s interest in choosing a forum,” Chapman wrote.
“The defendant argues that the trial court abused its discretion in denying her motion because the connections to Missouri predominate. We affirm,” she added.
Plaintiff Jeremy Dickerson filed the suit on behalf of his minor son, Skyler Dickerson, against Dr. Jane Barker on Oct. 26, 2011, in St. Clair County.
He claims Skyler was taken to the emergency room at Ste. Genevieve Memorial Hospital in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., on Aug. 27, 2010, where Barker diagnosed him with constipation and released him.
Two days later, Dickerson brought Skyler to the emergency room at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Festus, Mo., where he was admitted and transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit at Cardinal Glennon in St. Louis.
Dickerson accuses Barker of failing to take an adequate history, negligently failed to recommend urinalysis, improperly diagnosed Skyler and negligently failed to recommend follow-up care within 24 hours. As a result, the plaintiff claims Skyler suffers from chronic renal damage and undergoes dialysis three times a week at Cardinal Glennon.
On Feb. 28, 2012, Barker filed a motion to dismiss on the basis of forum non conveniens, arguing that the connections to Missouri predominated in this case. Gleeson denied the motion in a Nov. 12, 2013, order that stated, “Motion argued and denied based upon all public and private factors.”
Before considering the public and private factors of forum non conveniens decisions, appeals court noted that “all likely witnesses and documentary evidence in this case are within an 85-mile radius of both possible forums. Although the doctrine of forum non conveniens has vitality even in a battle between adjacent counties, the geographic proximity means that for most witnesses, the differences in mileage and travel time will be fairly minimal.”
In regards to convenience, Chapman wrote that in order to prevail on a forum motion, Barker must show that her home county is inconvenient for her, which she fails to do, the order states.
Barker argued that defending herself in Illinois will be “monumental,” because all witnesses other than herself live in Missouri and all relevant medical records are kept in Missouri. However, she acknowledged that she “can attend the courthouse in St. Clair County with relative ease.”
“We agree that this is not necessarily dispositive in every case – forum non conveniens is a flexible doctrine, and no one factor should be dispositive
Nevertheless, the convenience of the parties is an important factor, and in this case, it weighs heavily in favor of the plaintiff’s chosen forum,” Chapman concluded.
Addressing ease of access to evidence and availability of compulsory service for unwilling witnesses, Chapman held that neither forum is favored.
Considering most physicians testify through deposition rather than in person at trial, the distances witnesses would have to travel and the cost of securing witnesses are not significant factors, the order states.
On the other hand, the appeals court concluded that each of the public factors raised in the forum non conveniens motion favor Ste. Genevieve County in the case at hand.
In her motion to dismiss, Barker noted that St. Clair County is a more congested docket than Ste. Genevieve. She provided statics showing that it takes approximately 53 months to resolve a civil case seeking more than $50,000 in St. Clair County, while it takes roughly 12 months to resolve similar cases in Ste. Genevieve County.
However, Dickerson argued that St. Clair County is better equipped to handle complex civil litigation such as medical malpractice cases, which he says are rare in Ste. Genevieve.
“While this contention seems plausible, the only evidence in the record concerning court congestion and the speed of resolution of cases is the court reports we just discussed,” Chapman wrote.
The appeals court also stated that Ste. Genevieve has a stronger connection and interest in resolving the dispute locally.
Despite these findings, the appeals court resolved that the trial court did not abuse its discretion.
“Taken as a whole, the convenience factors weigh slightly in favor of Ste. Genevieve County. However, we do not believe the trial court abused its discretion in concluding that the factors do not strongly favor dismissal for a Missouri forum. For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the order of the trial court denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss,” Chapman wrote.
Justices S. Gene Schwarm and James R. Moore concurred in the decision.