There are open courthouse doors, and then there is the federal courthouse in Marshall, where Judge John Ward has been doing his best to establish a new legacy for this Texas town.
Readers of these pages know that the native home of Lady Bird Johnson has become well known as America's irresistible magnet for patent lawsuits. Plaintiff lawyers shopping for a friendly court often choose Marshall, where Ward has been pleased to be the courthouse shopkeeper.
His welcome mat tactics finally proved a bit too much, according to an order issued last week by the Fifth U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A Fifth Circuit panel sided with automaker Volkswagen over Judge Ward who, despite the fact that a lawsuit had no connection whatsoever to Marshall, had refused to release the case from his courtroom clutches. The panel reversed Ward and allowed the company to defend itself in a more relevant and convenient venue, Dallas.
At issue was a family suing over a fatal 2005 car crash involving a Volkswagen Golf.
The car was purchased in Dallas.
The accident occurred in Dallas.
The accident's witnesses, plus responding paramedics and police, were from Dallas.
A Dallas doctor performed the autopsy.
None of the plaintiffs live in Marshall. But the suit was filed there, perhaps because of its pro-plaintiff reputation in the legal community and beyond.
The Appellate Court said that in denying Volkswagen's request to move the case to Dallas, Judge Ward made "extraordinary errors'' interpreting the law. A plaintiff's choice of venue "should be respected," but a lawsuit should be transferred if another court "is clearly more convenient,'' it said.
The importance of convenience should never be discounted. Lawyers might not mind traveling 150 miles for court hearings and depositions: they collect mileage stipends and bill by the hour. It's part of their job.
For the witnesses--those folks who have to take multiple days out of their lives to testify--trekking to Marshall is a real burden.
The precedent from this product liability case could have ramifications for Judge Ward's weighty patent docket in the Marshall courthouse, where corporate defendants from far-and-wide are routinely dragged against their will. Now, there is a legal authority for arguing that Judge Ward should let them try the case at a more convenient location.
We're confident he'll resist. So will the band of plaintiff's lawyers who've been benefitting from his patent case possessiveness.
But a higher court has spoken. Lady Bird's Marshall may once again be best known as her hometown.