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Sears Class Action Defense Cases-Berbig v. Sears: Illinois State Court Holds Trial Court Erred In Denying Motion To Dismiss Products Liability Class Action On Grounds Of Forum Non Conveniens

Products Liability Class Action should have been Filed in Minnesota, not Illinois, and Trial Court Abused its Discretion in Denying Defense Motion to Dismiss Class Action on Grounds of Forum Non Conveniens Illinois State Court Holds

Plaintiff filed a products liability class action in Illinois state court against Sears Roebuck after he sustained injuries while using a Craftsman GT 5000 Riding Lawnmower. The class action complaint alleged that plaintiff’s right foot got caught in the lawnmower’s blade while he was using it at his home in Minnesota, and that plaintiff had purchased the lawnmower in Minnesota. The class action further alleged that plaintiff had been treated for his injuries at a hospital in Minnesota, and that he received further treatment in Illinois. Berbig v. Sears Roebuck & Co., Inc., ___ N.E.2d ___, 2007 WL 4562890 (Ill.App. December 26, 2007). Plaintiff identified as witnesses two individuals who lived in Minnesota. Defense attorneys moved to dismiss the class action based on interstate forum non conveniens, see Supreme Court Rule 187 (134 Ill.2d R. 187). The defense argued the class action should be dismissed because the lawnmower was purchased in Minnesota, plaintiff lives in Minnesota, the accident occurred in Minnesota, and plaintiff’s initial medical treatment was performed in Minnesota. Defense attorneys also argued that no witnesses lived in Cook County, and that the Cook County court’s docket is more congested than the court in Hennepin County. The trial court denied the motion “concluding that defendants had not made a strong factual showing that trying the case in Cook County, as opposed to Minnesota, would be more costly or inconvenient or pose a hardship.” The defense petitioned the appellate court for leave to appeal; the appellate court granted the petition and reversed.

The sole issue on appeal was “whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying defendants’ motion to dismiss based upon interstate forum non conveniens.” The appellate court began by noting that Electrolux Home Products, a co-defendant and the manufacturer of the lawnmower in question, was based in South Carolina and the lawnmower had been manufactured in South Carolina. Sears, on the other hand, has its principal place of business in Illinois, and its laboratory and marketing department, as well as corporate records, are in Illinois, but it did not test the lawnmower in Illinois. The defense argued that the class action should have been filed in Minnesota, and that the trial court “accorded undue weight to the location of Sears’ corporate headquarters in [Illinois], especially when none of the personnel or documents relevant to this case are located there.” The appellate court agreed.

The appellate court summarized the doctrine of forum non conveniens and its applicability “on an intrastate as well as on an interstate basis” (citing Dawdy v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., 207 Ill.2d 167, 176 (2003)). “To determine whether the doctrine applies, the circuit court must balance the private interest factors affecting the convenience of the parties and the public interest factors impacting the court’s administration of its docket.” Id. (citing Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501, 508-09 (1947)). “In Illinois, the private interest factors include (1) the convenience of the parties; (2) the relative ease of access to sources of testimonial, documentary, and real evidence; and (3) all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious, and inexpensive for-example, the availability of compulsory process to secure attendance of unwilling witnesses, the cost to obtain attendance of willing witnesses, and the ability to view the premises (if appropriate).” (Citation omitted.) “The public interest factors include (1) the interest in deciding localized controversies locally; (2) the unfairness of imposing the expense of a trial and the burden of jury duty on residents of a county with little connection to the litigation; and (3) the administrative difficulties presented by adding further litigation to court dockets in already congested [forums].” (Citation omitted.)

The standard of review is high – in Illinois, “[a] trial court abuses its discretion when no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the trial court.” (citing Dawdy, 207 Ill.2d at 177). The appellate court concluded that such an abuse of discretion had occurred, agreeing with defense attorneys and “the trial court relied too heavily on the fact that Sears has its principal place of business in [Illinois].” Under the court’s analysis, both the private interest and public interest factors “weigh heavily in favor of a Minnesota forum.” Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the trial court order and remanded the matter with directions to dismiss the class action.