Maryland Appellate Court Addresses Forum Non Conveniens In Medical Malpractice Case

In its unreported opinion dated July 7, 2021, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland (Maryland’s intermediate appellate court) held in a Maryland medical malpractice case where the trial court granted the defendants’ motion to transfer the case from the Circuit Court for Baltimore City to the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, allegedly for the convenience of the parties: “Appellees had the burden to show that the convenience of the parties and witnesses weigh heavily in favor of transfer. See, e.g., Nodeen v. Sigurdsson, 408 Md. 167, 180-81 (2009) (finding that the defendants did not meet their burden where the transferee court was only three miles closer to defendants’ residence than the original venue). Further, as noted above, the court’s determination that the defendants have met their burden under Rule 2-327(c) must be based on evidence in the record. See Bittner v. Huth, 162 Md. App. 745, 758 (2005) (“[T]he trial court’s decision must be based upon (1) correct findings of fact, and (2) a proper analysis of the applicable burden of persuasion[.]”). The record before the court when it made its ruling did not contain enough evidence to show that Baltimore County was more convenient than Baltimore City for the parties or the likely fact witnesses. As such, the court erred in determining that Appellees met their burden here.”

Maryland Rule 2-327(c)

Md. Rule 2-327(c) provides that, “[o]n motion of any party, the court may 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.” Factors that may be considered in evaluating the convenience of the parties and witnesses include: (1) the deference accorded to the plaintiff when she lives in the forum she chose; (2) the deference given to the defendant’s proposed choice of forum when the defendant resides there; (3) where the cause of action arose; (4) the relative convenience to the parties of “haling defendants or plaintiffs into the others’ choice of venue based on residence or where they carry on business”; (5) convenience of witnesses; and (6) “ease of access to sources of proof.”

The court is free to weigh these factors, as well as any other relevant factors it deems appropriate based on the specific circumstances of the case. In addition, the deference accorded to a plaintiff’s choice of venue serves as an additional factor to weigh, separate from the convenience of the parties, in the overall balancing. As a general proposition, deference is given to the plaintiff’s choice of venue. In fact, the deference shown to the plaintiff’s choice of venue is why the moving party must show that the factors strongly weigh in favor of the transfer in order to prevail.

The degree of deference accorded to the plaintiff’s venue choice, however, depends on the circumstances. For example, the deference diminishes when the plaintiff does not live in the county of her chosen venue, but this loss could be negated or mitigated if the defendant does not reside in the venue of their own choosing. The deference is also reduced if the plaintiff’s chosen forum has no meaningful ties to the controversy and no particular interest in the parties or subject matter.

The “interests of justice” component of Rule 2-327 is intended to promote systemic integrity and fairness by ensuring that both the private and public interests are considered. The relevant private interests include the relative ease of access to sources of proof; availability of compulsory process for attendance of unwilling, and the cost of obtaining attendance of willing, witnesses; possibility of a view of the premises, if a view would be appropriate to the action; and all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious and inexpensive. The public interest analysis focuses on issues such as court congestion, the burdens of jury duty, and local interest in the matter.

The Maryland appellate court stated that in the present case, “In its analysis of the deference accorded to Ms. Walker’s chosen forum, the court made two findings that lacked support in the record. First, although its consideration of the issue was appropriate, the evidence did not support the court’s finding that Ms. Walker’s chosen venue of Baltimore City was improper. Second, the evidence did not support the court’s finding that Baltimore City lacked meaningful ties to the underlying controversy. In addition, the court did not predicate its evaluation of the convenience of the parties and witnesses on an adequate factual record.”

“Nevertheless, if a defendant, for whatever reason, waives a defense based on improper venue but later concludes that a change of venue for reasons of convenience is warranted, it seems only logical that a plaintiff should not expect the court to give the same level of deference to an improper forum as it would for a proper one … We agree with Ms. Walker, however, that the court did not have an adequate factual basis to conclude that her chosen forum was improper.”

“If a defendant is a corporation, venue is also proper “where it maintains its principal offices” in Maryland. Id. Here, Ms. Walker provided the court with evidence that each defendant worked, carried on a regular business, or had a principal office in Baltimore City. Appellees did not dispute these assertions nor support their motion with any evidence to the contrary. Although the court was not required to credit Ms. Walker’s evidence that Baltimore City was a proper venue, the court did not have the discretion to conclude, in the absence of any supporting evidence, that Baltimore City was improper. A court abuses its discretion when it draws conclusions without a factual basis … Here, the circuit court found no meaningful connections between the controversy and Baltimore City. However, although the facts certainly established a meaningful connection between this case and Baltimore County, the facts in the record before the court do not preclude a meaningful connection with Baltimore City.”

“Given the proximity of Baltimore City to Baltimore County, it’s not logical to preclude the possibility that patients from Baltimore City see providers in Baltimore County, and vice versa. Nor is it logical to preclude the possibility that medical care providers in Baltimore County also practice in Baltimore City, and vice versa. Put another way, whether Baltimore City has a meaningful connection to this controversy depends more on whether Baltimore City patients regularly receive treatment from Appellees, and less on where the treatment in this particular case took place. Thus, the fact that the parties live and work in Baltimore County, standing alone, is not an adequate factual basis to preclude a meaningful connection to Baltimore City. That’s particularly so where, as here, Ms. Walker provided evidence that each Appellee regularly provides medical care within Baltimore City, and the court had no evidence to the contrary when it granted Appellees’ motions.”

“To sum up, weighing the deference afforded to a plaintiff’s choice of venue is not an all-or-nothing exercise; rather, it is a sliding scale that oscillates on the specific facts and circumstances … Here, the court’s deference analysis suffered from two infirmities. First, the court drew the unsupported conclusion that Baltimore City was an improper venue; and second, the court concluded without evidence that Baltimore City lacked a meaningful connection to the controversy. When considered in conjunction with the unsupported findings concerning the convenience of the parties and witnesses, as discussed above, we cannot say that such an error was harmless.”

“A circuit court’s analysis of the convenience factor must rest on an adequate factual foundation … Here, the court concluded that the convenience factor favored the transfer, largely basing its decision on the fact that all parties resided or conducted business in Baltimore County. Although the court credited Ms. Walker’s argument that it should consider the convenience of her post-injury care providers in Baltimore City, the court found that such consideration did not “outweigh what is undisputed regarding the location of the parties and the current parties and witnesses.” This finding was an abuse of discretion for two reasons.”

First, that the parties resided or conducted business in Baltimore County was, standing alone, not enough for the court to conclude that the convenience of the parties favored Baltimore County. The parties’ place of residence or business is, of course, an important consideration, but it’s not the only one. For example, someone can live in Baltimore County and yet be closer to the Baltimore City courthouse, and vice versa. The place of residence or business is relevant only insofar as it indicates proximity and convenience to the parties’ preferred venues.”

Second, Appellees provided no evidence regarding the convenience of their nonparty fact witnesses. The court did not see that failure as an obstacle, however, noting that a defendant may file its motion under Rule 2-327(c) at any time and that the “court is to rely upon what it has at the time of the motion to make its analysis and findings.” This is, of course, true, but it doesn’t mean that a defendant gets a pass if its evidence is insufficient to meet its burden of persuasion. If a defendant lacks the evidence to meet its burden, it should defer filing the motion until it has that evidence; otherwise the motion should be denied. We note that here, although the litigation was at the beginning stages, Appellees presumably could have identified their employees and agents who were involved in Ms. Walker’s care and would likely serve as fact witnesses. Appellees, therefore, didn’t even provide the court with the evidence it undoubtedly had. In contrast, Ms. Walker produced a list of many potential fact witnesses, all of whom worked in Baltimore City.”

Source Walker v. Seton Medical Group, Inc., No. 0620 September Term, 2020.

If you or a family member suffered serious injury (or worse) due to medical malpractice in Baltimore or elsewhere in Maryland, you should promptly find a Baltimore medical malpractice lawyer (Maryland medical malpractice lawyer) who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you or your family member in a Maryland medical malpractice case, if appropriate.

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This entry was posted on Monday, August 2nd, 2021 at 5:30 am. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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