Products Liability Law Daily Pennsylvania trial court erred in dismissing vena cava filter suit over forum non conveniens objection
Thursday, October 17, 2019

Pennsylvania trial court erred in dismissing vena cava filter suit over forum non conveniens objection

Jeffrey H. Brochin, J.D.

Appellate panel finds lower court abused its discretion by giving no weight to many relevant forum non conveniens factors and too much weight to irrelevant ones in weighing private and public interest factors.

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania has reversed a decision by the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County that dismissed a patient’s products liability vena cava filter lawsuit, ruling that the lower court had misapplied the law when it granted the device manufacturers’ motions to dismiss based on the doctrine of forum non conveniens. A trial court may grant a motion to dismiss on those grounds only if "weighty reasons" support disturbing a plaintiff’s choice of forum and an alternative forum is available. The manufacturers were required to show that the chosen forum was inconvenient to them, rather than to the patient. However, the manufacturers did not carry their burden of showing why a trial in Pennsylvania would be inconvenient, the appellate court said (McConnell v. B. Braun Medical Inc., October 16, 2019, Pellegrini, D.).

Patient’s change of locations. The patient’s products liability action arose out of the implantation of a VenaTech LP Vena Cava Filter, manufactured by B. Braun Medical, Inc. (BMI), in 2003 while she resided in Michigan. Between 2008 and 2013, she resided in North Carolina, and in 2015, while residing in Texas, she underwent a CT scan which allegedly revealed that the filter had caused recoverable damages. She filed her complaint in 2017 against BMI; B. Braun Interventional Systems, Inc. (BIS); and B. Braun Medical S.A.S., a French corporation (B. Braun France)—collectively, Braun—claiming negligence, strict products liability/failure to warn, and other claims.

Manufacturers’ motions to dismiss. Before the parties began discovery, BMI and BIS filed a motion based on the doctrine of forum non conveniens, arguing that the lawsuit should be re-filed in the patient’s home state of Texas or in Michigan where the device was implanted. Alternatively, they requested that the case be transferred to Lehigh County, Pennsylvania.

At the hearing on the motion, it was undisputed that each of the Braun entities had a role in putting the filter into the stream of commerce but had varying degrees of local presence in the patient’s chosen forum of Philadelphia County. BMI is a Pennsylvania corporation with a headquarters in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania; BIS is a Delaware corporation with a principal place of business in Lehigh County; and B. Braun France is a French corporation with no physical presence in the United States.

Deference to the plaintiff’s choice of forum. The court began its review by noting that the doctrine of forum non conveniens allows the dismissal of a case when the evidence shows that another forum would be more appropriate, and the tribunal finds that in the interest of substantial justice the matter should be heard in another forum. Although a plaintiff’s choice of forum is entitled to deference, that deference is to a somewhat lesser degree when her residence and place of injury are located somewhere else. Under Pennsylvania law, the trial court may grant a motion to dismiss on the grounds of forum non conveniens only if "weighty reasons" support disturbing the choice of forum and an alternative forum is available.

Factors to be weighed. In determining whether such "weighty reasons" exist, the trial court must examine both the private and public interest factors involved in the case. The private interest factors include the relative ease of access to sources of proof, availability of witnesses, and all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious, and inexpensive.

As for the public interest factors, trial courts must take into account several circumstances, including administrative difficulties for courts when litigation is piled up in congested centers instead of being handled at its origin, and the appropriateness in having the trial in a forum that is at home with the state law that must govern the case.

Defining abuse of discretion. The court acknowledged that in conducting its review, it could not reverse the trial court’s decision to dismiss based on forum non conveniens absent an abuse of discretion by the trial court. Such abuse of discretion occurs if the law is overridden or misapplied, or the judgment exercised is manifestly unreasonable, or the result of partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill will.

Importantly, the party seeking dismissal has the burden of proof, and the shifting of that burden to the party opposing dismissal, as well as making presumptions about the evidence against the non-moving party, constitutes an abuse of discretion and is a misapplication of the governing legal standard. Furthermore, a trial court also misapplies the law in that context by incorrectly weighing the public and private interest factors.

Trial court’s abuse of discretion. In addressing the private interest factors, the trial court did not consider the presence of BIS employees in Lehigh County, and it discounted that evidence because the Braun entities only submitted the affidavits of those witnesses in support of the motion to transfer the case, and not their motion to dismiss. Accordingly, the superior court found that the trial court abused its discretion in not considering the affidavits because, regardless of why that evidence was introduced, it showed that Pennsylvania was more convenient for the Braun entities than either Texas or Michigan. BMI and BIS both had corporate offices in Pennsylvania, and, thus, in terms of convenience for those entities, that forum was as good as any other.

Next, the appellate court turned to the relevant public interest factors and found that although Texas and Michigan both had an obvious interest in the health of their residents and the performance of their physicians, Pennsylvania’s interests were implicated as well. If held in Pennsylvania, a trial would determine whether corporations with a principal place of business and a headquarters located within it have sold, marketed, and distributed a product that may have injured people across the country. As such, the superior court found that the trial court abused its discretion as to the public interest factors because it disregarded Pennsylvania’s interests and improperly focused on whether Philadelphiawas a convenient forum.

For the foregoing reasons, the appellate court ruled that the trial court abused its discretion in dismissing the case based on the doctrine of forum non conveniens, and it reversed and remanded the patient’s case.

The case is No. 2971 EDA 2018.

Attorneys: Stephen A. Sheller (Sheller, PC) for Beonca Maria McConnelll. Gregory Thomas Sturges (Greenberg Traurig, LLP) for B. Braun Medical Inc., B. Braun Interventional Systems Inc. and B. Braun Medical S.A.S.

Companies: B. Braun Medical Inc.; B. Braun Interventional Systems Inc.; B. Braun Medical S.A.S.

MainStory: TopStory JurisdictionNews MedicalDevicesNews PennsylvaniaNews

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