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Beldner v. Tennessee Steel Haulers Inc.

January 28, 1999

LARRY BELDNER, AS SPECIAL ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATES OF JUDY M. BELDNER, DECEASED, HOPE F. BELDNER, DECEASED, AND BRENT BELDNER, DECEASED, AND AS UNCLE AND NEXT FRIEND OF BRIAN BELDNER, A MINOR, TIMOTHY BELDNER, A MINOR, DANIEL BELDNER, A MINOR, AND BETHANY BELDNER, A MINOR, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
TENNESSEE STEEL HAULERS, INC., AND JEFFREY LYNN MCNEELY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND DENNIS WAYNE BELDNER, DEFENDANT AND COUNTERPLAINTIFF.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County. No. 97-L-733 Honorable David R. Herndon, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Chapman

IN THE COURT OF APPEALS OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS

Tennessee Steel Haulers, Inc. (TSH), and Jeffrey McNeely appeal from the denial of their motion to transfer venue from Madison County to Williamson County on the grounds of forum non conveniens. We affirm.

Dennis Beldner and his wife Judy were traveling through Williamson County with their six children on November 23, 1996. Judy and two of the children were killed after a collision occurred between the Beldners' van, driven by Dennis Beldner, and a truck, driven by Jeffrey McNeely and leased by TSH. Plaintiff, Larry Beldner, filed a wrongful death action on behalf of the next of kin. Recovery is also sought for personal injuries to the surviving children.

Defendants TSH and McNeely claim that all relevant factors favor the transfer of this case to Williamson County. Defendant Dennis Beldner did not file a motion to transfer venue and instead filed a position statement asserting that Madison County is the most convenient forum.

In Peile v. Skelgas, 163 Ill. 2d 323, 645 N.E.2d 184 (1994), the supreme court revisited and reaffirmed the validity of forum non conveniens in Illinois. The forum non conveniens doctrine is premised on convenience and applies when convenience, fairness, and efficient judicial administration demand that a trial be held in a forum which bears a relationship to the litigation. Bjurstrom v. Commonwealth Edison Co., 144 Ill. App. 3d 743, 746, 494 N.E.2d 801, 803 (1986). Under the doctrine, the private interests of the litigants and the public interests must be balanced by the circuit court in ruling on a forum non conveniens motion. Schoon v. Hill, 207 Ill. App. 3d 601, 605, 566 N.E.2d 718, 721 (1990).

The role of this court is not to substitute its judgment for that of the trial court or even to determine whether the trial court exercised its discretion wisely, but rather our role is to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion. Elling v. State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co., 291 Ill. App. 3d 311, 317, 683 N.E.2d 929, 934 (1997). As our supreme court reminds us: "In most instances, the plaintiff's initial choice of forum will prevail, provided venue is proper and the inconvenience factors attached to such forum do not greatly outweigh the plaintiff's substantial right to try the case in the chosen forum. If, however, the litigation has no practical connection to the forum, and the defendant establishes the necessary showing under the doctrine, the court should grant the motion for transfer." Peile, 163 Ill. 2d at 335-36, 645 N.E.2d at 190. Thus, the doctrine defers to the plaintiff's choice unless a defendant can establish that convenience factors weigh strongly in favor of a transfer. Griffith v. Mitsubishi Aircraft International, Inc., 136 Ill. 2d 101, 106, 554 N.E.2d 209, 211 (1990). Our task is to review whether the trial court "acted arbitrarily, without employing conscientious judgment, or whether in view of all of the circumstances, the court exceeded the bounds of reason and ignored recognized principles of law." Mowen v. Illinois Valley Supply Co., 257 Ill. App. 3d 712, 714, 629 N.E.2d 176, 178 (1994).

Here, the trial court weighed the private-interest factors. These factors include the relative ease of access to sources of proof, the accessibility of witnesses, and a jury view of the scene of the accident, when appropriate, and all other practical problems that make the trial of a case easy, expeditious, and inexpensive. Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501, 508, 91 L. Ed. 1055, 1062, 67 S. Ct. 839, 843 (1947). We cannot find that the trial court abused its discretion with regard to these factors.

In the case at bar, all the defendants are non-Illinois residents; thus, venue is proper in any county. See 735 ILCS 5/2-101 (West 1996). Although the accident occurred approximately 120 miles from the plaintiff's chosen forum, the plaintiff-survivors are residents of Kirkwood, St. Louis County, Missouri, which is only 35 miles from Madison County. TSH is a Tennessee corporation that conducts business in Madison County. Madison County is 29 miles from Lambert International Airport, St. Louis. This airport is linked to the interstate highway system and is readily accessible to witnesses from distant places that travel by air. Williamson County is not served by a major airport.

At the time of the accident, defendant Jeffrey McNeely resided in Missouri, and he is now a Tennessee resident. McNeely would have to travel 128 interstate miles to get to the Williamson County courthouse and 211 interstate miles to get to the Madison County courthouse. Although this may pose some inconvenience to McNeely, we do not disagree with the trial court's Conclusion that an additional 83 miles of travel for the trial is relatively insignificant. In addition, McNeely's occupation as an over-the-road truck driver puts him in a unique situation. The degree of inconvenience to him may well depend upon his route assignment at the time of trial.

Defendants list numerous postoccurrence witnesses, including the coroner, the firefighters, paramedics, and hospital personnel. The accident scene was diagrammed and photographed immediately following the collision, and such proof could be used at trial. Defendants have not demonstrated that the testimony of all the postoccurrence witnesses, or any significant number of them, will be necessary at trial. Indeed, it would seem that calling all, or any significant number of these witnesses, would either work to defendants' disadvantage or would provide cumulative testimony.

Even though the Beldners' initial medical care was provided in Williamson County, they claim that after their discharge from the hospital, all care has been in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Because the Beldners' medical records and witnesses are in St. Louis, said evidence and witnesses would be closer to Madison County than Williamson County.

The police officers involved in the accident investigation are from Williamson County. Their travel time to Madison County is less than two hours. We cannot determine that the trial court's decision regarding these officers' utility at trial or their negligible travel inconvenience to attend trial in Madison County is an abuse of discretion.

Several witnesses, including Larry Beldner, the guardian and next friend of the minor plaintiffs, live out of State. Larry Beldner is a resident of South Carolina. One eyewitness, Cisnero Neckard, lives in Monroe, Louisiana. This case will undoubtedly involve expert witnesses, who may have to travel from out of state. Once again, Madison County is readily accessible via the Lambert International Airport in St. Louis. According to an affidavit filed by the plaintiffs, the only airline that services Williamson ...


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