Monday, April 2, 2012

The Law on Pennsylvania Forum Shopping

In many Pennsylvania personal injury lawsuits it is often preferable to file the matter in county over another.  Jurisdiction can mean a great difference in the value of a given case.  Typically, plaintiffs are limited in their ability to "forum shop".  However, depending on the defendant, there are situations where a plaintiff may be able to move their case to a better jurisdiction

The power of Pennsylvania courts to exercise jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant is dependent upon two requirements. First, jurisdiction must be authorized by the Commonwealth's Long Arm Statute, 42 Pa.C.S. §5321; and, second, the exercise of jurisdiction must comport with constitutional principles of due process. Kenneth H. Oakes Ltd. v. Josephson, 390 Pa. Super. 103, 105, 568 A.2d 215, 216 (1989).

The Pennsylvania Long Arm Statute, 42 Pa.C.S. §5322(b), authorizes courts to exercise jurisdiction over non-resident defendants “to the fullest extent allowed under the constitution of the United States.” Id. at 105-106, 568 A.2d at 216. Therefore, any discussion relating to jurisdiction based on the constitution of the United *118 States must focus on constitutional due process constraints. Temtex Products Inc. v. Kramer, 330 Pa. Super. 183, 194, 479 A.2d 500, 505-506 (1984).

A court may exercise two types of personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant. A court can base specific jurisdiction on the specific acts of the defendants that give rise to the cause of action, or general jurisdiction on the defendant's general activity within the state. Derman v. Wilair Services Inc., 404 Pa. Super. 136, 590 A.2d 317 (1991).

For a court to exercise specific jurisdiction, due process requires that a defendant have “certain minimum contacts with [the forum] such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316, 66 S.Ct. 154, 158, 90 L.Ed. 95, 102 (1945). These minimum contacts must have a basis in “some act by which the defendant purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws.” Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 253, 78 S.Ct. 1228, 1240, 2 L.Ed.2d 1283, 1298 (1958).

However, the clear focus in International Shoe was on fairness and reasonableness. Kulko v. California Superior Court, 436 U.S. 84, 92, 98 S.Ct. 1690, 1697, 56 L.Ed.2d 132 (1978). The court declined to establish a test based on the specific number of contacts between a state and the defendant and stated:

“Whether due process is satisfied must depend rather upon the quality and nature of the activity in relation to the fair and orderly administration of the laws which it *119 was the purpose of the due process clause to insure.” 326 U.S. at 319, 66 S.Ct. at 160.

After International Shoe and Hanson, courts now must consider (1) whether these contacts are sufficient to meet the “traditional notions of fairness” described in International Shoe and (2) whether the defendant “purposefully availed” itself of the benefits and protections of the forum state.

Such jurisdictional limits serve due process by assuring that a defendant whose property is at stake does not suffer meaningful inconvenience if compelled to litigate in the forum state. Thus, jurisdictional limits are designed to ensure that defendants are not so distant from, or unfamiliar with, the forum state that they are unable to maintain a defense in that forum. In Justice Brennan's words, “the constitutionally significant ‘burden’ to be analyzed relates to the mobility of the defendant's defense.”

However, due process limits on jurisdiction do not protect a defendant from all inconvenience of travel, McGee v. International Life Insurance Co., 355 U.S. 220, 224, 78 S.Ct. 199, 201 (1957), and it would not be sensible to make the constitutional rule turn solely on the number of miles the defendant must travel to the court-room. Instead, and as noted by Justice Brennan, the constitutionally significant “burden” to be analyzed relates to the mobility of the defendant's defense.

Absent specific jurisdiction, Pennsylvania courts may still exercise general personal jurisdiction over non-resident defendants if in personam jurisdiction does not exist. In contrast to traditional in personam jurisdiction analysis, general jurisdiction exists regardless of whether the cause of action is related to the defendant's activities in this Commonwealth as long as the defendant's activities are “continuous and substantial.”  Hissong Kenworth Leasing, Inc. v. D&FJ Co., Inc., 71 Pa. D. & C.4th 112, 117-20 (Com. Pl. 2004) citing Skinner v. Flymo Inc., 351 Pa. Super. 234, 239, 505 A.2d 616, 619 (1986).

In light of this, we consider where a plaintiff may sue a large corporation like McDonald's in Pennsylvania.  This question narrows the issue to whether venue may be changed to any county within the Commonwealth.

Pa.R.C.P. No. 1006, Change of Venue, dictates:

(a) Except as otherwise provided by subdivisions (a.1), (b) and (c) of this rule, an action against an individual may be brought in and only in a county in which

(1) the individual may be served or in which the cause of action arose or where a transaction or occurrence took place out of which the cause of action arose or in any other county authorized by law, or

. . .

(b) Actions against the following defendants, except as otherwise provided in subdivision (c), may be brought in and only the counties designated by the rule: . . . corporations and similar entities, Rule 2179.

. . .

(d)(1) For the convenience of the parties and witnesses the court upon petition of any party may transfer an action to the appropriate court of any other county where the action could originally have been brought.

Pa.R.C.P. No. 2179, Venue, dictates:

(a) Except as otherwise provided by an Act of Assembly, by Rule 1006(a.1) or by subdivision (b) of this rule, a personal action against a corporation or similar entity may be brought in and only in

(1) the county where its registered office or principal place of business is located;

(2) a county where it regularly conducts business;

(3) the county where the cause of action arose;

(4) a county where a transaction or occurrence took place out of which the cause of action, or

Mainly the jurisdiction determination comes down to the discretion of the judge. McDonald's could object on any one of abovementioned grounds, but a corporation with such a great presence (literally a McDonald's in every county) would expect that they could be subject to litigation in any one of the counties in PA.

The bottom line is that a plaintiff may sue a large omnipresent corporation in any county it does significant business in.  In the case of a McDonald's the jurisdiction battle will also boil down to whether the store in question was a franchise or a corporate branch.  With the former, the Plaintiff is likely stuck in the county the offending franchise resides.  The latter allows a Plaintiff to sue in any county, regardless of where the injury occurred.  The ability to move the case from a conservative venue to a more liberal venue can make a big difference in case value. Share this post :
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