U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear venue case

By Chris Dickerson | Dec 11, 2006

The United States Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to review an appeal of the West Virginia Supreme Court's decision in a venue case that has been monitored closely by business and court watchers.

In its orders list published Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down the appeal in Morris vs. Crown Equipment and Jefferds. The state Supreme Court had ruled in June that restrictions under state law on out-of-state plaintiffs were unconstitutional.

Crown and Jefferds had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to revive the law regulating access to the state's courts.

That means Jeremiah "Bart" Morris of Virginia can continue to pursue his injury claim against Crown Equipment and Jefferds Corporation in West Virginia.

Crown Equipment attorney Thomas Cullen of Baltimore warned in his petition that due to the decision, plaintiffs in other states would seek out West Virginians to sue.

He wrote, "…a statute which the West Virginia Legislature enacted to protect its citizens and its courts from suits which have no basis for litigation in the state, has become a statute which not only encourages such suits, but also provides an incentive to sue its residents…"

For Jefferds Corporation, attorney Brian Kane of Pittsburgh wrote that the decision allows residents of other states to sue in West Virginia, "as long as they can allege some plausible claim against at least one West Virginia resident."

He wrote, "…plaintiffs will rarely find it difficult to identify some corporation in the stream of commerce that does business in West Virginia."

Morris lived in Virginia and worked in Grottoes, Va. He filed suit in 2004 at Kanawha Circuit Court in Charleston, claiming he suffered an injury operating a forklift at work.

He claimed damages from Crown Equipment as the forklift manufacturer and Jefferds Corporation as the distributor responsible for service. Crown Equipment and Jefferds Corporation moved to dismiss, relying on a law the Legislature passed in 2003.

The law provided that nonresidents could not sue "unless all or a substantial part of the acts or omissions giving rise to the claim asserted occurred in this state."

Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman dismissed the defendants in 2004. Morris appealed under the Privileges and Immunities Clause.

In June, West Virginia Chief Justice Robin Davis and Justices Larry Starcher and Joseph Albright agreed that the law violated the clause.

Starcher wrote, "…there is a strong constitutional disfavoring of the categorical exclusion of nonresident plaintiffs from a state's courts under venue statutes when a state resident would be permitted to bring a similar suit."

Justice Brent Benjamin found no constitutional violation but agreed that Morris could pursue his claim in West Virginia.

Justice Spike Maynard dissented, declaring that the majority eviscerated a statutory safeguard against abuse of West Virginia courts.

In Crown Equipment's petition to Washington, Cullen wrote that courts consistently dismiss cases in which the only connection to the state is the location of a defendant's incorporation.

He wrote, "Here, while Jefferds is incorporated in West Virginia, its office in Verona, Va., was responsible for every activity involving the subject forklift."

He wrote that the forklift has never been in West Virginia. He wrote that all witnesses were presumably in Virginia, beyond the subpoena power of a West Virginia court.

He wrote, "The case presently before the Court is precisely the type of lawsuit which the statute was intended to prevent…"

He wrote that Morris chose to sue in West Virginia because its courts have adopted a system of comparative liability, while Virginia adheres to a stricter doctrine of contributory negligence.

Kane in his petition for Jefferds Corporation deplored "magnet jurisdictions" with liberal tort laws, plaintiff friendly procedures and generous juries.

He called the decision of the Justices in Charleston "an abandonment of all rules of statutory interpretation and judicial restraint."

He wrote that it "creates a clear conflict with decisions by the highest courts of at least eight other states."

A West Virginia legal watchdog group decried the U.S. Supreme Court's decision not to hear the appeal.

"The U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of this appeal is a serious setback for legal reform in West Virginia, opening the floodgates for out-of-state lawsuits," said Steve Cohen, president of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. "The Legislature will soon be meeting in Charleston and needs to fix this gap in our laws allowing a swarm of personal injury lawyers bringing lawsuits here from beyond our borders.

"West Virginia citizens, who pay taxes to support our courts, now have to stand in line for justice behind outsiders seeking to abuse our system."

Cohen said he is baffled by the entire situation and what it means to the state.
"It makes no sense that a worker who lives in Virginia, works in Virginia and is injured on the job in Virginia can sue in West Virginia," he said. What employer would want to create jobs in a state known as a haven for litigation tourism?"

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