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Hinshaw v. Coachmen Industries

February 13, 2001

ELDON J. HINSHAW AND KATHRYN T. KERBER, AS CO-EXECUTORS OF THE ESTATE OF MARY E. WADE, DECEASED; ELDON J. HINSHAW, INDIVIDUALLY; AND JESSIE M. HINSHAW, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
COACHMEN INDUSTRIES, INC., COACHMEN VAN CONVERSIONS, A SUBSIDIARY OF COACHMEN INDUSTRIES, INC., COACHMEN AUTOMOTIVE (FORMERLY COACHMEN VANS), FLEXSTEEL INDUSTRIES, INC., FLEXSTEEL DIVISION, DYGERT SEATING, CHRYSLER CORPORATION, CHRYSLER MOTORS CORPORATION, DAIMLER-CHRYSLER AG, DAIMLER-CHRYSLER MOTORS CORPORATION, A DELAWARE CORPORATION, MITCHELL A. PATE, SECOR SALOON, TOM RORA, BARBARA RORA, AND GARY JASPER, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Gordon

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County.

The Honorable Michael J. Hogan, Judge Presiding.

Plaintiffs-appellees Eldon and Jessie Hinshaw, individually, and Eldon Hinshaw and Kathryn Kerber, as co-executors of the estate of Mary Wade, deceased, filed a complaint in the circuit court of Cook County alleging negligence, products liability, breach of warranty, and Dramshop Act violations arising from an auto accident in which Eldon and Jessie Hinshaw were seriously injured, and in which Mary Wade, the backseat occupant of the Hinshaw van, was killed. Defendants named in the complaint included Mitchell Pate, the driver of the vehicle which collided head-on with the Hinshaw van; Dramshop Act defendants Tom and Barbara Rora, Gary Jasper, and the Secor Saloon; Daimler-Chrysler Corporation, the manufacturer of the Hinshaw van; Coachmen Industries, Inc., the customizer of the van; and Flexsteel Industries and Dygert Seating, which manufactured the van's seats. Defendants Coachmen Industries, Inc., and Coachmen Automotive (hereinafter referred to collectively as Coachmen) moved to transfer this action to Woodford County, the site of the accident, under the doctrine of forum non conveniens. The circuit court denied the motion, and Coachmen appealed pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 306(a)(2) (166 Ill. 2d R. 306(a)(2)). For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the denial of the motion.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs-appellees alleged in their complaint *fn1 that on December 28, 1996, Eldon Hinshaw, Jessie Hinshaw and Mary Wade were in a Dodge van which was traveling eastbound on Route 24 in Woodford County, Illinois. At about 4:20 p.m., Mitchell Pate was driving westbound on the same road when he attempted to pass another vehicle and struck the Hinshaw van head-on in the eastbound lane. Eldon and Jessie Hinshaw were seriously injured in the collision, and Mary Wade was killed. According to the complaint, Pate was intoxicated at the time of the collision and had been drinking at the Secor Saloon, an establishment located in Secor Illinois, which is in Woodford County. Defendants Tom and Barbara Rora were the owners of the Secor Saloon, and defendant Gary Jasper owned the building in which the saloon was located. It is undisputed that these four Dramshop Act defendants did not join in Coachmen's motion to transfer venue.

In their answers to defendant Daimler-Chrysler's interrogatories, plaintiffs identified seven persons who were present at the scene of the accident, at or near the time of the collision. Four of those seven were directly involved in the accident: Eldon and Jessie Hinshaw of Bloomington, Illinois, in McLean County; Mitchell Pate of Sheridan, Illinois, in LaSalle County; and Quinn Schad, Pate's passenger, of East Peoria, Illinois, in Tazewell, County. Two of the remaining three occurrence witnesses reside in DuPage County, and one lives in Cook County. Kathryn Kerber, the remaining plaintiff, resides in McLean County, and Mary Wade, the deceased, also lived in McLean County. Plaintiffs identified 18 other persons with knowledge of the facts of the occurrence. Fifteen of them reside in Illinois: seven in Will County, three in McLean County, two in DuPage County, two in Lake County and one in Woodford County. Plaintiffs also identified an auto pound in Cook County where the Hinshaw van was stored after the accident.

In its response to plaintiffs' interrogatories, Daimler-Chrysler identified 48 vehicle dealerships in Cook County which sell Daimler-Chrysler vehicles. According to Daimler-Chrysler, there is one such dealership in Woodford County. Daimler-Chrysler also named two of its employees as persons with knowledge of potentially relevant matters. Both of them presumably reside in Michigan. Defendant Coachmen identified in its answers to plaintiffs' interrogatories three dealerships in Woodford County which sell Coachmen products: one in Eureka, one in Morton, and a third in Peoria. *fn2 According to a purchase order attached to Coachmen's answers to interrogatories, the Hinshaw van at issue in this case was purchased in Morton, Illinois. Coachmen also named at least seven dealerships in Cook County which sell its products. In addition, Coachmen listed seven of its employees, all of whom presumably live in Indiana, as persons with potentially relevant knowledge.

Coachmen also filed a reply in support of its motion to transfer venue. Exhibits attached to this reply included an Illinois Traffic Crash Report indicating that the on-scene investigation of the accident was conducted by Woodford County police, assisted by officers from Eureka and El Paso, both of which are in Woodford County. Also attached to Coachmen's reply were medical-bill summaries for plaintiffs Eldon and Jessie Hinshaw indicating that their medical care providers were located primarily in McLean and Peoria counties. Thirteen were in McLean County, five in Peoria County, and one each in Woodford and Champaign counties. Also attached was an "Annual Report of the Illinois Courts" for the year 1997, upon which Coachmen relies for its assertion that the Cook County court system is more congested than Woodford County's.

In November 1999, defendant Mitchell Pate was dismissed from the complaint pursuant to a good-faith settlement with plaintiffs. In January 2000, plaintiffs moved to voluntarily dismiss their claims against defendant Flexsteel. In the same month, a hearing was held on Coachmen's motion to transfer venue, with Daimler-Chrysler orally joining in the motion. The trial court denied Coachmen's motion, stating that there were "at least nine different counties or states that have potential witnesses and have some relations to this case," that the witnesses were "spread all over," and that Coachmen had not met its burden of showing that a transfer to Woodford County was strongly favored. The instant appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

The sole issue in this appeal is whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying Coachmen's motion to transfer this action to the circuit court of Woodford County pursuant to the doctrine of intrastate forum non conveniens. Coachmen contends that the balance of public and private factors strongly favors that transfer, and the trial court therefore erred in denying Coachmen's motion. Plaintiffs argue that Coachmen failed to meet its burden of showing that the relevant factors strongly favor transfer.

"[A] trial court is vested with broad discretion in ruling on a forum non conveniens motion; its decision will be reversed only if it is shown that the court abused its discretion in weighing the relevant considerations." Griffith v. Mitsubishi Aircraft International, Inc., 136 Ill. 2d 101, 106, 554 N.E.2d 209, 211 (1990).

In resolving a forum non conveniens motion, a court balances private interest factors affecting the litigants and public interest factors affecting the administration of the courts. Griffith, 136 Ill. 2d at 105, 554 N.E.2d at 211; Washington v. Illinois Power Co., 144 Ill. 2d 395, 399, 581 N.E.2d 644, 645 (1991); Schoon v. Hill, 207 Ill. App. 3d 601, 605, 566 N.E.2d 718, 721 (1990). Important private interest considerations include the relative ease of access to sources of proof; the availability of compulsory process for the attendance of unwilling, and the cost of obtaining attendance of willing, witnesses; the possibility of a view of the premises if such a view is appropriate to the action; and "'all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious and inexpensive.'" Washington, 144 Ill. 2d at 399, 581 N.E.2d at 645; Smith v. Silver Cross Hospital, 312 Ill. App. 3d 210, 216-17, 726 N.E.2d 697, 702-03 (2000). Public factors to be considered include the administrative difficulties which result when litigation is handled in congested venues, the unfairness of imposing jury duty on a community with no connection to the litigation, and an interest in having localized controversies decided locally. Griffith, 136 Ill. 2d at 106, 554 N.E.2d at 211; Schoon, 207 Ill. App. 3d at 605, 566 N.E.2d at 721.

A further consideration under the forum non conveniens doctrine is deference to plaintiff's choice of forum. Griffith, 136 Ill. 2d at 106, 554 N.E.2d at 211. While a plaintiff's choice is normally given great weight, it is entitled to less deference when the plaintiff selects a foreign forum. Schoon, 207 Ill. App. 3d at 605, 566 N.E.2d at 721. Nevertheless, in either case, a plaintiff's choice of forum should rarely be disturbed unless the relevant factors, viewed in their totality, strongly favor transfer. Griffith, 136 Ill. 2d at 106-08, 554 N.E.2d at 211-12 (rejecting argument that, where plaintiff is foreign to the chosen forum, defendant need establish only that factors favor, rather than strongly favor, transfer; plaintiff's choice of forum receives less deference where plaintiff is not resident of the forum, but that does not alter the ultimate test, which is whether the relevant factors, having been given their appropriate weight or deference, and viewed in their totality, strongly favor transfer); see also Elling v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 291 Ill. App. 3d 311, 318, 683 N.E.2d 929, 934 (1997) ("[W]hile the deference to be accorded to a plaintiff regarding his choice of forum is less when the plaintiff chooses a forum other than where he resides or where the injury occurred, nonetheless the deference to be accorded is only less, as opposed to none, and the test ...


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