Our firm maintains an office in southern Illinois, which is routinely criticized by “tort reform” advocates as an unfriendly venue for defendants in injury lawsuits. That’s why, as a southern Illinois personal injury attorney, I was interested to see a ruling from the Illinois Supreme Court saying that an asbestos lawsuit against an Illinois defendant must be heard in Mississippi. Fennell v. Illinois Central Rail Road involved claims about workplace asbestos exposure that took place in Mississippi, using a lead plaintiff who lives in Mississippi. The St. Clair County circuit court denied a motion to dismiss claiming Illinois is the wrong venue, and the Illinois appeals court affirmed, though with a divided panel. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed these decisions, saying the vast majority of the parties are in Mississippi and St. Clair County should not bear the financial burden of trying it.
Walter Fennell worked for Illinois Central Railroad Co. for 37 years, in various capacities. During that time, he alleges he was exposed to asbestos through his job duties. He lives and worked in Mississippi. In a 2002 lawsuit brought in Mississippi, Fennell was the lead plaintiff for more than 80 additional named plaintiffs who alleged negligence under the Federal Employers Liability Act and the Locomotive Inspection Act. That case was dismissed without prejudice in 2006. In 2009, Fennell re-filed the case, but in St. Clair County. Illinois Central moved to dismiss, arguing that Mississippi was a better forum for the dispute. The trial court denied the motion and the appeals court affirmed, but a dissent from the appeals court argued that it’s hard to find a nexus to Illinois in the case, much less to St. Clair County. The Illinois Supreme Court granted leave to appeal and accepted numerous amicus curiae briefs.
Either state is permitted to hear the case, the Illinois Supreme Court said; the dispute is over which forum might better serve the parties. To decide that question, courts look at private interests, like ease of access to sources and subpoena authority, as well as public interests like the cost of hearing a dispute that belongs in another community. The trial court ruled for St. Clair County because, among other things it is the home of substantial documentary evidence as well as two important witnesses and is closer to the expert witness’s Chicago home. The high court found that this analysis left out important factors, including the facts that the plaintiff resided and injury took place in Mississippi, and that the case had originally been filed there. A majority of potential witnesses are in Mississippi, it noted, and the ones outside it would be compensated for their travel. And the location of documents is less relevant in this era, the high court said. Because the weight of the factors favors Mississippi, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded with orders to dismiss.
As a St. Louis injury lawyer, I wonder if the plaintiff felt that his case would have a better chance in southern Illinois. Juries are hard to predict, but I believe a jury in any state would respond the same way to a well-presented case. An asbestos case is very complex, involving exposure over many years and often culminating in diagnosis with a type of rare and life-threatening cancer, mesothelioma, that is only caused by asbestos exposure. Furthermore, the dangers of asbestos were well known many years before it became a public issue. All of this suggests that even in a venue considered unfriendly, this case may be able to succeed. However, as a Missouri personal injury attorney, I support giving plaintiffs as many options as possible for successfully pursuing a claim.
Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients across Missouri and southern Illinois who suffered serious injuries or the loss of a loved one because of someone else’s negligence. To tell us your story and learn more about your legal rights, call us today at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message through our website.
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