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When neither of two Pennsylvania federal district courts has a “very strong interest” in a case, the plaintiff’s choice of forum deserves deference, a federal judge has ruled. In so ruling, Senior Judge James McGirr Kelly of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania refused to move a case where the dispute stemmed from incidents occurring outside Pennsylvania, and where the plaintiff does business in one district and the defendant in the other. In Agrotors Inc. v. Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., the Texas-based defendant filed a motion to have the plaintiff’s products liability suit transferred from the Eastern District to the Middle District, the jurisdiction in which the Gettysburg-based Agrotors has its principal place of business. “Any slight weight in favor of transfer is counterbalanced by the deference which must be paid to plaintiff’s choice of forum . . . ,” Kelly wrote. He added later in the opinion that “[t]he importance of plaintiff’s choice of forum should not be lightly disturbed.” The case involved a claim for property damage to a helicopter owned by Agrotors, the opinion states. Agrotors alleged that the failure of a valve and surrounding screws that were part of a helicopter engine sold by Bell to Agrotors ultimately led to the “oil starvation,” which caused a helicopter pilot to execute an emergency landing while on a firefighting mission in Arizona. A second defendant, Ohio-based Auto Valve Inc., was sued because it manufactured the valve and screws, according to the opinion. Auto Valve concurred in Bell’s inconvenient forum motion. Bell and Auto Valve claimed that there was nothing tying the action to the Eastern District besides Agrotors’ counsel’s Philadelphia-based practice. The opinion notes that district courts enjoy “broad discretion” when considering a forum transfer, and that the plaintiff’s choice is usually respected. The opinion also calls attention to the fact that Bell, while not having a principal place of business in either the Eastern or Middle Districts, does have some connection to the Philadelphia area. “It is undisputed that Bell maintains a registered agent in Philadelphia, in the Eastern District, a fact the court views as a significant contact with this district,” Kelly wrote. “The existence of a registered agent in this district shows that Bell was prepared to do business here and to be sued here.” Kelly later cited the customer service and service repair facilities Bell operates within the Eastern District’s jurisdiction. “The Eastern District has an interest in this case because Bell, through its customer service facilities, circulates Bell helicopter parts in the Eastern District, and may have even circulated identical helicopter parts to the ones at issue,” Kelly wrote. Kelly also wrote that the witnesses in the case based in the Middle District would not be unduly burdened in having to travel to Philadelphia, and that many of the case’s other witnesses will be traveling to testify in Pennsylvania from out of state to begin with. “As plaintiff repeatedly emphasizes in its papers before the court,” Kelly wrote, “this is a products liability case and, as such, will be built around the testimony of expert witnesses from outside the Middle District.” Because court efficiency and administration would be affected equally in either district, Kelly found, Agrotors’ initial choice of forum need not be changed. “Defendants fail to show that this forum is so inconvenient that a disturbance of plaintiff’s preference is warranted,” Kelly wrote. Agrotors was represented by Arthur A. Wolk and Matthew K. Clarke of the Wolk Law Firm in Philadelphia. Agrotors provides helicopter services such as agricultural spraying, power line inspections and wild fire suppression, according to its Web site. Wolk said that his office values the case at about $400,000 in hard damages and expects only minor compensatory damages if their client prevails. “To go ‘paper chase’ this case — I don’t get it,” Wolk said. Bell’s attorney was Veronica W. Saltz of Saltz Hollaender’s Wayne office. Saltz declined to comment on the court’s decision. Auto Valve was represented by Charles W. Rubendall II of Keefer Wood Allen & Rahal in Harrisburg. He did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment. (Copies of the 11-page opinion in Agrotors Inc. v. Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. , PICS No. 04-0360, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information. Some cases are not available until 1 p.m.).

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