The Superior Court of Pennsylvania Confirms Transfer of Venue Under Forum Non Conveniens Requires More Than Mere Allegations of Inconvenience

Transfer of venue based on forum non conveniens must be supported by specific evidence that forum is vexatious. Mere allegations of party or witness inconvenience are insufficient to support transfer of venue based on forum non conveniens. Rather, the defendant must also identify their defenses, witnesses who support the defenses, and that the witnesses possess testimony which is relevant and necessary to the defense.  The Superior Court recently reviewed this threshold matter in James v. Wal-Mart Distribution Center, Lexis 31, 2024 WL 389020 (Pa. Super. Feb. 2, 2024).

In James v. Wal-Mart Distribution Center, the Superior Court reviewed whether the lower court committed an error of law and abuse of discretion in granting the Appellee’s Motion to Transfer venue from Philadelphia County to Lehigh County based on forum non conveniens.

In James, the Appellant, was working as a contractor at a Walmart Distribution Center in Lehigh County, when she slipped and fell on a slippery substance. As a result of her fall, Appellant sustained injuries which required surgery and medical care. Appellant received her medical care in Lehigh County. In September 2022, Appellant filed her negligence action in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. Subsequently, in November 2022, Appellees filed a Motion to Transfer Venue based on forum non conveniens. In their motion, Appellees argued that the choice of forum in Philadelphia County was oppressive, the case had no connection to Philadelphia County, and that litigating in Philadelphia County would create hardships for the Appellees.

In support of its motion, Appellees affixed affidavits which asserted that the four-hour round-trip commute to Philadelphia from their residences was oppressive and severely affected their personal lives. The trial court granted the Appellees Motion to Transfer from Philadelphia to Lehigh County for forum non conveniens. However, as the Superior Court noted, the affidavits did not establish the Appellees’ defense or provide that the witnesses were key to its defense.

Ultimately, the Court reversed the trial court’s order transferring venue based on forum non conveniens. Upon review, the Court found that the record did not provide any information about the witnesses’ testimony which the trial court could weigh the hardship factors and support a finding that the defendant met its burden of establishing a hardship. The Court indicated that transfer of venue based on forum non conveniens requires detailed evidence of the relevance of identified witness testimony to the defense. To support venue transfer, the defendant must identify the allegedly inconvenienced witness as key to its defense and provide a general statement of their testimony.

The Court further explained, Appellees’ affidavits merely addressed the hardship that they would allegedly suffer if they had to travel to testify in Philadelphia. The Appellees failed to produce information regarding the importance of the testimony to their defense. Without relevant information regarding the witnesses’ testimony, the trial court could not properly weigh the hardship factors. As a result, the Court reasoned that the trial court erred in assuming the witnesses were important to Appellees defense and therefore failed to hold the Appellees to the proper burden.

The Court further explained that an “abuse of discretion is not merely an error of judgment, but occurs only where the law is overridden or misapplied.” The Court found the trial court had misapplied the holdings in Cheeseman v. Lethal Exterminator, Inc. and Bratic v. Rubendall in granting the Appellees’ Motion to Transfer of Venue based on forum non conveniens. The James Court noted “the trial court’s failure to hold the defendant to the proper burden constitutes an abuse of discretion.” Therefore, the Court was “constrained to reverse” the trial court’s order, and provide deference to the Appellants original choice of forum in Philadelphia County.

For additional questions, please contact Leilani Brown, Esq. and/or Conrad James Benedetto, Esq.

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