Alabama Court of Appeals Clarifies Proper Venue in Workers’ Compensation Actions

The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals recently issued an opinion clarifying proper venue in worker’s compensation actions.

In Ex parte Garrison Trucking, Inc., the employer was a truck-load carrier that transported food items. Garrison’s principal place of business was in Cullman County.  An employee of Garrison alleged that he suffered an on-the-job injury.  The accident occurred in Cullman County.  The employee claimed that he was a resident of Washington County. He filed his workers’ compensation action in that county. Garrison filed a motion to transfer venue. Attached to that motion were various documents indicating the employee resided in Mobile County.  Garrison also submitted evidence that it did not do business in Washington County.  The employee filed materials in opposition to the motion to transfer venue indicating that he lived in Washington County. He explained that he used his former wife’s address in Mobile County for mailing purposes only.  With regard to the issue of whether Garrison did business in Washington County, the employee stated that he was acting as Garrison’s agent when he parked and stored Garrison tractors and trailers on property he owned in Washington County.  The employee said the tractors and trailers that were parked on the Washington County property were driven not only by him but by other Garrison drivers. He claimed that officers of Garrison specifically approved of the arrangement.  He also asserted that he recruited drivers for Garrison in Washington County. After reviewing the submissions of the parties, the trial court entered an order in which it found that the employee had presented sufficient evidence that he was a resident of Washington County.  The trial court concluded Garrison was doing business by agent in Washington County at the time of the accident, and denied Garrison’s motion for a change of venue. Garrison filed a petition for writ of mandamus asking that the denial of motion to transfer venue be overturned.

The Court of Civil Appeals started its analysis by citing section 6-3-7 of the Alabama Code, which governs the determination of venue in a civil action against a corporation. The statute provides that venue is proper in the county in which the plaintiff resided if the corporation does business by agent in that county.  Garrison contended the employee’s county of residence was Mobile County; the employee claimed he resided in Washington County.  Generally, a person can only have one domicile and a person’s domicile is “that place in which his habitation is fixed, without any present intention of removing, and it embraces (1) the fact of residence and (2) the intention to remain.” Ex parte Coley, 942 So.2d 49, 352 (Ala. 2006).  In this case, conflicting evidence was presented regarding the employee’s home address, but the employee did offer testimony explaining why he used the Mobile County address on some documents.  Based on the materials before it, the Court of Appeals found it could not  say that Garrison met its burden of proving the employee did not live in Washington County, or that the trial court clearly erred in determining the employee’s residence was in Washington County.  But that was not the end of the court’s analysis.

The Court of Civil Appeals next considered whether the trial court erred in determining that Garrison did business by agent in Washington County.  A corporation does business in a county for purposes of §6-3-7 if it performs with some regularity in that county some of the business functions for which the corporation was created.  Ex parte Elliott, 80 So.3d 908, 912 (Ala. 2011). The court concluded that based on the materials presented, it could not say that the parking or storing of tractors and/or trailers away from Garrison’s premises furthered Garrison’s business purposes. Similarly, the court was unconvinced by the employee’s contention that his recruitment of drivers in Washington County was sufficient to constitute Garrison’s doing business in that county for purposes of establishing venue.”  The petition for writ of mandamus was therefore granted and the trial court was directed to vacate its order denying Garrison’s motion to transfer venue.

Venue can have a very significant impact on the outcome of a workers’ compensation case.  This decision will help support an employer’s right to demand that an action for workers’ compensation benefits be brought in the proper venue.