In its unreported opinion filed on December 5, 2016, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland (“Appellate Court”), Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, ruled that the trial court abused its discretion in transferring a medical malpractice case filed in Baltimore City to a rural court on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
The Appellate Court held, “the [plaintiffs’] choice of forum was entitled to deference unless the appellees met their burden under Rule 2-327(c) to show that the balance of convenience to the parties and witnesses and the public interest in justice factors weighed strongly in favor of transfer. Here, the factors when properly assessed in accordance with the law weighed in near equipoise. Accordingly, the circuit court abused its discretion by granting the motion to transfer.”
Motions To Transfer
In Maryland, with some exceptions, “a civil action shall be brought in a county where the defendant resides, carries on a regular business, is employed, or habitually engages in a vocation . . . . [and] a corporation . . . may be sued where it maintains its principal offices in the State.” Md. Code (1974, 2013 Repl. Vol.), section 6-201(a) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article (“CJP”). If a plaintiff sues multiple defendants and “there is no single venue applicable to all defendants, . . . all may be sued in a county in which any one of them could be sued, or in the county where the cause of action arose.” CJP § 6-201(b).
An action may be transferred to another appropriate venue even though a plaintiff’s choice of venue is proper. Pursuant to Rule 2-327(c), “any party” may move to “transfer any action to any other circuit court where the action might have been brought if the transfer is for the convenience of the parties and witnesses and serves the interests of justice.” The party seeking transfer must present evidence weighing strongly in its favor, because when multiple venues are jurisdictionally appropriate, a plaintiff has the option to choose the forum.
In the case the Appellate Court was deciding, there was no single venue applicable to all of the defendants and the plaintiffs chose to sue them in Baltimore City, where the defendant hospital maintained its principal office and where two of the defendant doctors were employed. The defendants filed their motion to transfer the Baltimore City medical malpractice case to a court on the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland, based on forum non coveniens (i.e., alleging that it was more convenient and it was in the interests of justice to transfer the Maryland medical malpractice lawsuit to the rural county). The trial court ruled that the factors weighed strongly in favor of transfer to the rural county, determining that the “inconvenience of the parties and the witnesses would be tremendous if the matter were handled in Baltimore City” and it also would “serve the interest of justice to transfer the matter.” The trial court therefore granted the motion. The plaintiffs appealed.
Forum Non Conveniens: Convenience And The Interests Of Justice
The Appellate Court stated that there are two basic factors to be considered by the trial court in ruling on a motion to transfer: convenience and the interests of justice. The ‘convenience’ factor requires a court to review the convenience of the parties and the witnesses, which centers around where the parties and witnesses live and work in relation to the court. The “interests of justice” factor includes a public and private component: the “public” interests of justice include: (1) considerations of court congestion; (2) the burden of jury duty; and (3) local interest in the matter at hand; the “private” interests of justice include: (1) the relative ease of access to sources of proof; (2) availability of compulsory process for attendance of unwilling witnesses; (3) the cost of obtaining attendance of willing witnesses; (4) possibility of view of premises (the subject of the action or where the incident occurred), if view would be appropriate to the action; and (5) all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious and inexpensive.
The Appellate Court’s Decision
In deciding the case, the Appellate Court noted that the plaintiffs allege tortious acts by four defendants occurring in the rural county and separate tortious acts by three defendants occurring in Baltimore City. The plaintiffs allege that the separate tortious conduct of the defendants, occurring at different times and in different places, all contributed to the ultimate harm to their 15-year-old son—injury to his heart necessitating a heart transplant. Both Baltimore City and the rural county indisputably were appropriate venues for the plaintiffs to file suit. Thus, the only issue before the trial court was whether the convenience to the parties and the witnesses and the interests of justice factors weighed strongly in favor of transfer.
The Appellate Court held that the trial court abused its discretion in its assessment of those factors: Baltimore City is the situs of alleged tortious acts by two defendants, the principal place of business of the defendant hospital, and the location where the plaintiffs’ son received most of his post-injury medical treatment; the healthcare providers who have treated the plaintiffs’ son at the defendant hospital since August 2013 will be primary and key witnesses on the issues of causation and damages; the judiciary statistics relied upon by the parties show that Baltimore City has many more case filings each year than does the rural county, but Baltimore City has many more sitting judges and the statistics show that, on average, the caseload of a judge in the rural county is 1.43 times heavier than that of a Baltimore City sitting judge (therefore, the interest in decreasing court congestion does not weigh in favor of transfer); and, the citizens of each jurisdiction have a significant interest in adjudicating the controversy to the extent that it involves local doctors and hospitals — the only public interest factor weighing in favor of transfer was the burden of jury duty, which the trial court properly concluded is heavier in Baltimore City given the much greater number of jury trials in that jurisdiction.
The Appellate Court held that the factors when properly assessed in accordance with the law weighed in near equipoise and therefore the trial court abused its discretion by granting the motion to transfer.
Source Kerrigan v. University Of Maryland Medical System Corporation, No. 1710, September Term, 2015.
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