Illinois Retains Jurisdiction Despite Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss for Inconvenient Forum – Fennell v. Illinois Central Railroad Company

The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed a circuit court’s ruling regarding the venue in a railroad employee’s personal injury lawsuit. While the railroad company had wanted to transfer the case to Mississippi, the Illinois courts supported the plaintiff’s choice of Illinois as the case’s venue. Fennell v. Illinois Central Railroad Company, 2012 WL 19455 (Ill.App.2012).

The plaintiff, Walter Fennell, had been working for Illinois Central Railroad Company for over 35 years. In 2009, Fennell filed a Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) lawsuit against Illinois Central Railroad. The FELA lawsuit alleged that Fennell was exposed to asbestos, diesel exhaust, environmental tobacco smoke, sand, and toxic fumes, dust, and gases during the tenure of his employment, which in turn resulted in Fennell’s current respiratory problems. Fennell was seeking compensation for the health problems he allegedly developed during the course of his employment with Illinois Central.

Shortly after Fennell was filed, Illinois Central sought to have the case dismissed under the doctrine of interstate forum non conveniens, which is a legal doctrine that allows a court to deny its jurisdiction if it finds that a different forum would be more convenient and more equitable. The defendant railroad argued that Mississippi would be a more convenient and fair location on the grounds that Fennell himself lived in Mississippi, that Fennell had worked in Mississippi for the majority of his career, and because the alleged injury likely occurred in Mississippi. However, the trial court denied the defendant’s motion and affirmed Illinois’s jurisdiction in the case; the defendants appealed this decision.

When examining whether the trial court incorrectly denied the interstate forum non conveniens, the Illinois appellate court first set out the conditions in which forum non conveniens is granted. Citing Langenhorst v. Norfolk Southern Ry. Co., 219 Ill. 2d 430, 441, 848 N.E.2d 927, the appellate court noted that courts should decline jurisdiction “only in exceptional circumstances.” In addition, the plaintiff’s preference has more weight than the defendants; therefore, the plaintiff’s chosen forum is only overturned if it is inconvenient to the defendant and the alternative forum would be more convenient to all parties involved. The burden of proving that a transfer is necessary falls on the defendant.

In an attempt to prove a change was necessary, Illinois Central argued that the forum should be moved from Illinois to Mississippi because:

  1. Fennell was a lifelong resident of Mississippi and had worked at Illinois Central’s Mississippi facility,
  2. there was no evidence that any of Fennell’s injuries had occurred in Illinois,
  3. many of the potential witnesses lived in Mississippi, and
  4. a Mississippi trial would be more convenient for Illinois Central because most of its witnesses were based out of its Memphis, Tennessee facility.

However, Fennell responded by stating that Illinois was not inconvenient for Illinois Central based on the fact that the railroad company has an office in Illinois and that the Illinois facility was actually where a lot of the case’s evidence was based. Likewise, an Illinois forum would allow Fennell to compel to Illinois Central Railroad agents living in Illinois to testify, whereas a Mississippi forum would not require those witnesses to appear.

After considering the case facts, the appellate court determined that Illinois Central was not unduly burdened by the Illinois venue and that it had not proved that Mississippi would be a more convenient location for all parties. Since the defendant had not proven that factors “strongly favor[ed] transfer” to Mississippi, judicial considerations favored the Illinois site as the plaintiff’s choice. The FELA lawsuit would be remanded to the Illinois circuit court for further handling.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois personal injury matters for individuals and families for more than 36 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Brookfield, Morton Grove, Mundelein, Blue Island, Burbank, Oak Lawn, and Calumet City.

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