A state appellate court panel taking up the consolidated appeals of 19
separate asbestos injury and wrongful death cases out of Philadelphia has upheld decisions by the trial court to transfer the mass torts out of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania and into the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas.
The plaintiffs in the consolidated cases, who allege either they or their relatives developed various cancers due to asbestos exposure, argued the trial court was wrong to grant defense motions to transfer venue to the northeastern Pennsylvania court based on the doctrine of forum non conveniens.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers argued the trial court abused its discretion because the defendants failed to meet their burden of proof for a venue transfer.
In one of the cases, husband and wife plaintiffs Raymond and Joyce Stettler asserted the trial court abused its discretion by ordering that their case be coordinated with a prior ongoing case that had been initiated by Raymond Stettler in Northampton County.
The allegations in the various cases are similar, namely that individuals were diagnosed with illnesses due to their exposure to asbestos in the workplace.
Most of the plaintiffs or their decedents worked at Bethlehem Steel.
Some cases contain claims of secondary exposure of workers’ family members of asbestos fibers in the home, mostly through the workers’ clothing, the record shows.
The record further shows that none of the appellants live in Philadelphia; most reside either in Northampton County, or adjacent Lehigh and Carbon Counties.
A parallel set of cases, many of them containing the same plaintiffs, is already playing out in Northampton County.
The main distinction between the Philadelphia and Northampton cases, the appellate ruling states, is that those filed in Philadelphia involve malignancies while those that had been brought in Northampton County involve non-malignant injuries.
In their motions to transfer venue, Hobart Brothers Co. and other co-defendants argued that venue in Philadelphia was inconvenient, vexatious and oppressive because the actions do not in any way involve or relate to Philadelphia, other than the fact that several of the defendants did other business in Philadelphia that was unrelated to the underlying litigation.
At the same time, the defendants argued that venue was proper in Northampton County because most of the plaintiffs lived, worked or sought medical treatment in that county, and that that venue would provide easier access to witnesses, worksites, and medical records.
The Superior Court panel even noted that during oral arguments on the transfer motions, attorneys representing the plaintiffs conceded that their clients chose Philadelphia in which to file suit “based on counsel’s perception that Philadelphia juries would generally be more sympathetic to plaintiffs than juries might be in Northampton County.”
The trial court granted the defense motions to transfer venue at various times throughout 2012, the record shows.
On appeal, the plaintiffs raised two issues: whether the trial court abused its discretion in not requiring the defendants to show with detailed on-the-record information that the plaintiffs’ chosen forum, Philadelphia, was oppressive or vexatious to the defendants, and whether the trial court, in the Stettler case only, abused its discretion by ordering that the case be coordinated with the prior Stettler case.
In their ruling, the appellate judges struck down the argument on the first issue, determining that venue was properly transferred.
“After review, we discern no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s determination that where the exposure allegedly occurred in Northampton County, where access to most fact witnesses and evidence, in particular, medical treatment records, are in, or must closer to, Northampton County, and where there is ongoing litigation of previous filed, related asbestos cases, that ‘trial in another county would provide easier access to witnesses or other sources of proof, or to the ability to conduct a view of premises involved in the dispute,’” the ruling states.
The panel further wrote that the second issue, the one involving only the Stettler case, was rendered moot by the fact that the panel affirmed the transfer of all of the cases to Northampton County.
“We conclude that the trial court properly determined that transfer to Northampton County, where parallel cases were already in progress, would provide easier access to witnesses or other sources of proof,” the appellate panel wrote. “If there exists any proper basis for the trial court’s decision to grant the petition to transfer venue, the decision must stand.”
Those who heard the appeal were Superior Court President Judge Susan Peikes Gantman, Judge Jacqueline Shogan and Senior Judge William H. Platt.