Appeals Court reasserts '100-mile threshold' in venue transfer

Michelle Massey, East Texas Bureau Nov. 8, 2007, 12:51am

The John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals Building in New Orleans

MARSHALL – After weighing public and private interest factors regarding location of lawsuits, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reasserts that a proper venue should be within a "100-mile threshold" for the convenience of the parties.

On Oct. 24, the court issued a mandamus opinion granting the transfer of a product liability case against Volkswagen from the Marshall Division Eastern District of Texas to the Dallas Division in the Northern District of Texas.

The litigation arises out of an automobile accident occurring in Dallas on May 21, 2005. Traveling with their 7-year-old granddaughter, Ruth and Richard Singleton slowed their 1999 Volkswagen Golf to adjust to freeway traffic flow. A car driven by Colin Little collided into the rear of the Volkswagen, sending it spinning. The VW spun clockwise and collided into a flat bed trailer that was parked on the freeway's shoulder. Although she survived the wreck, the granddaughter was taken to a children's hospital where she later died of "craniocerebral trauma."

The Singleton family filed suit against Volkswagen on May 30, 2006, in the Marshall Division of the Eastern District of Texas. The complaint alleges the Volkswagen's front passenger seat was defective and collapsed rearward during the collision, crushing the granddaughter's skull.

The Singletons did not sue Colin Little, the driver who collided into them. Volkswagen filed a third-party complaint against Little arguing his actions solely caused the damages.

Volkswagen filed a motion to change venue to the Dallas Division of the Northern District of Texas, arguing that the Singleton's Golf was purchased in Dallas, the collision occurred in the Dallas Division, all witnesses and third-party plaintiff Little resided in Dallas and a Dallas physician performed the autopsy on the Singleton's granddaughter. None of the parties or witnesses live in the Marshall Division.

In the Eastern District, Judge T. John Ward denied the transfer request stating, "The plaintiff's choice of forum is a paramount consideration in any determination of a transfer request and that choice should not be lightly disturbed."

The judge's order said, "The defendant has not satisfied its burden of showing that the balance of convenience and justice substantially weighs in favor of transfer in this case."

Arguing the district court gave the plaintiffs' choice of forum decisive weight, Volkswagen filed a motion for reconsideration. Judge Ward also denied that motion.

Volkswagen then filed a writ of mandamus with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Declining to issue a writ of mandamus, the majority panel held that the district court "did not abuse its discretion in denying Volkswagen's motion to transfer."

Writing a dissenting opinion, Appellate Judge Garza argued, "the only connection between this case and the Eastern District of Texas is plaintiffs' choice to file there; all other factors relevant to transfer of venue weigh overwhelmingly in favor of the Northern District of Texas."

So Volkswagen petitioned the court of appeals for a rehearing to have all judges reconsider the matter. The appeals court granted a rare oral argument before a new panel of judges.

On rehearing, the Fifth Circuit agreed with Volkswagen that the district court abused its discretion by applying the wrong legal standard and issued a writ of mandamus.

The appeals court found that the plaintiff's choice of forum is entitled to deference. A party wishing to transfer a litigation "must show good cause," through demonstrating the transfer is convenient and in the interest of justice for the parties.

The court stated the district judge did not properly weigh private and public interest factors. Specifically, the court reasserted its prior decision establishing a 100-mile threshold.

"When distance between an existing venue for trial of a matter and a proposed venue under § 1404(a) is more than 100 miles, the factor of inconvenience to witnesses increases in direct relationship to the additional distance to be traveled," the court wrote.

The appeals court panel also agreed that the district court abused its discretion by failing to order the transfer of venue. "The district court's provided rationales could apply to virtually any judicial district and division in the United States; they leave no room for consideration of those actually affected – directly and indirectly – by the controversies and events giving rise to a case."

The case was remanded with instructions that it be transferred to the Dallas Division of the Northern District of Texas.

The plaintiffs are represented by Marshall attorney, Michael Smith of the Roth Law Firm, attorney Jeffrey Embry of the Tyler firm, Hossley and Embry and attorney Thomas Crosley of San Antonio.

Case No.: 2:06cv0022

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