Pa. Supreme Court Eyes Forum Issue in Legal Mal Case
The defendants argued that the venue was improper because eight witnesses were based in Dauphin County, and petitioned to transfer on the ground of forum non conveniens.
The trial court found that the defendants' only connection to Philadelphia was that all of them occasionally do business in Philadelphia, and granted the petition.
The Superior Court upheld the decision, finding that the trial court had not abused its discretion in determining that the defendants had met their burden to prove that the plaintiff's selected venue was "vexatious and oppressive."
However, on reargument before the Superior Court, the plaintiff contended that the defense had relied on unspecified allegations about witnesses who were not likely to testify at trial.
In April 2012, a split en banc Superior Court panel reversed the trial court's holding. The panel ruled 6-3. The majority opinion said the defendants failed to show why litigating in Philadelphia would be inconvenient, and the trial court relied on "irrelevant" factors, specifically the trial court's concern that none of the appellants are from Philadelphia.
In its one-page per curium order, the high court had asked the arguments to focus on the applicability of the forum non conveniens test outlined in Cheeseman.
During arguments before the high court, Podraza traced the usage of "vexatious and oppressive" to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1947 decision in Gulf Oil v. Gilbert. He said that the terminology was adopted in Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s, and the usage followed into the Cheeseman case.
Cheeseman, Podraza argued, established that the burden to prove that the forum was oppressive and vexatious fell solely on the defendant. He said that ruling required defendants to show that the allegedly oppressed witnesses would not be compensated for their time and travel, among other things.
He defined "oppressive" under Cheeseman as being "cruel and unjust hardship," and then asked whether paying a toll and driving 100 miles could constitute "cruel and unjust hardship."
However, in determining whether a court should use the distances witnesses have to travel as a major factor in determining "oppressiveness" under Cheeseman, Justice J. Michael Eakin noted that the Cheeseman opinion specifically listed access to witnesses as a factor of a venue being "oppressive."