Craig Robinson ()
The disparity between personal injury case values in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburban counties in Pennsylvania is remarkable. It is hard to imagine that there is such a great disparity anywhere else in the country. To think that a short drive to the courthouse in Norristown, just 30 or so minutes away from Broad Street, causes a plaintiff’s case value to significantly decline seems unfair and unjust.
It is common for attorneys to debate which of the surrounding counties (Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, Chester, Berks, Lehigh, Lancaster, etc.) is preferred. The bottom line is: If venue is not proper in Philadelphia, your client runs a major risk of getting burned by proceeding to trial.
Most of us have been in the position of sitting in a judge’s chambers in a county outside of Philadelphia and being reminded that it is rare to achieve a large verdict in that county. Another uncompromising position is being on the other end of the phone with an adjuster or defense attorney and being told that your client’s case has lower value because of the venue. This is especially true for premises liability cases, where liability is doubtful.
Case selection is crucial for a law firm to ensure that money and time are not wasted by both the client and the law firm on a case that has the likelihood of ending in favor of the defendant. There is no conversation more dreaded than telling an injured client that I am unable to help him or her simply because of the county where his or her accident occurred. The county should not have as great of an effect on case value, but unfortunately it does.
I am reminded of representing clients in Social Security disability cases in a county where one judge issued 95 percent favorable decisions and another issued 47 percent favorable decisions. Having to explain to a client that his or her case has significantly changed in value or likelihood of success because of bad luck is a shame.
Exhaust Options to
Stay in Philadelphia
Given the challenges often faced in the counties outside of Philadelphia, it is crucial for a plaintiffs lawyer to exhaust every option to establish venue in Philadelphia. We owe it to our clients to make every possible effort to keep cases in Philadelphia.
A plaintiff’s choice of venue is “given great weight,” and a defendant challenging that choice bears the burden of showing why venue is improper, per Singley v. Flier, 851 A.2d 200, 201 (Pa.Super. 2004). Attorneys should research the defendant in a particular case and see if the defendant has enough contacts with Philadelphia to establish venue there. Remember, there is a lot of plaintiff-friendly law on the issue of venue.
If an individual defendant lives in a county outside of Philadelphia, the defendant may work in Philadelphia or own property there. It is especially important on cases with potentially high value to exhaust all resources to investigate an individual defendant’s connections to Philadelphia. If service is effectuated in Philadelphia, venue in Philadelphia is proper. Another important rule to remember is that if venue is proper in Philadelphia because one of the defendants does business in Philadelphia, then, pursuant to Pa. R.C.P 1006, venue is proper as to all defendants.
If the defendant is a corporation and plaintiffs counsel has reason to believe that the defendant regularly conducts business in Philadelphia, suit should be filed there. At the very least, a judge should grant venue discovery if preliminary objections are filed so that plaintiff can investigate the defendant’s connections to Philadelphia. This is a step that some lawyers might consider a waste of time, but it could have major implications on case value. Many cases are won and lost at the stage of preliminary objections on the basis of improper venue and how a plaintiff responds. Further, many businesses that are located outside of Philadelphia still regularly conduct business in Philadelphia, and the only way to find out is to take discovery.
At the very least, an attorney should send venue discovery and take venue depositions to learn about a defendant’s contact with Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Superior Court, in a per curium decision in Kappe v. Lentz, Cantor & Massey, 2012 Pa. Super 48, held that it was reversible error for the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to sustain venue preliminary objections on the basis that only 1.7 percent of a defendant’s business revenue came from Philadelphia clients.
The decision in Kappe is crucial for plaintiffs, and there are other cases out there that follow Kappe’s sentiment. An amount of business that may be considered minimal can be considered “regularly conducting business” and sufficient to establish venue.
Counsel and Carrier
If the case must absolutely be filed in a county other than Philadelphia, knowing the history of your opposing counsel and carrier can be helpful in determining when to settle and when to try a case. Some opposing counsel and carriers are notorious for waiting until the eve of trial, or sometimes even jury selection, to make a fair offer. If plaintiffs counsel is aware of this history, it may be prudent to advise the client to push forward, as the carrier is prone to caving once trial is reached. If the case must be tried, knowing the history of the results in that particular county is crucial. There are ways to research verdicts in a particular county, and it is important that attorneys conduct that research to make sure the client is fully informed.
Diligence Are Key
With the exception of Delaware County, most counties outside of Philadelphia do not issue strict deadlines, such as discovery or trial dates, unless requested by counsel. With that said, attorneys must push these cases forward by actively engaging in discovery and not allowing significant time to pass without movement on a case. If defense counsel sees that the plaintiff’s attorney is diligently pursuing the case, and is taking all possible and necessary discovery, it is more likely that the attorney will recommend to the carrier to make a reasonable offer. Persistence in the suburban counties pays off.
Craig Robinson is an associate with Lundy Law and is on the board of directors of Stop CAID Now, a nonprofit that raises awareness for children with childhood autoinflammatory diseases.