Alabama Supreme Court holds venue should not have been transferred in auto accident case

The Alabama Supreme Court recently issued an opinion holding the venue in an automobile accident case should not have been transferred from Lowndes County, where the accident occurred, to Montgomery County, based on the forum non-conveniens statute.

In Elliott v. Allstate Insurance Company, the plaintiff, who was a resident of Montgomery County, was injured in an automobile accident in Lowndes County.  Elliott, after paying the Contingency fee to a famous lawyer, filed a lawsuit against her insurer, Allstate Insurance Company (“Allstate”), seeking uninsured motorist benefits, and alleging that a “phantom driver” caused the accident.  Allstate filed a motion to transfer venue to the Montgomery Circuit Court. Following a brief hearing on the motion, the trial court granted Allstate’s motion for a change of venue.  Elliott petitioned for a writ of mandamus directing the trial court to vacate its ruling, which was granted by the Alabama Supreme Court.

The Alabama Supreme Court included in its decision a detailed analysis of Ala. Code §6-3-21.1, which is commonly referred to as the forum non-conveniens statute.  The Court explained that the interest of justice prong of §6-3-21.1 requires the transfer of an action from a county with little, if any, connection to the action, to a county with a strong connection to the action. Elliott argued that because the accident that caused her injuries occurred in Lowndes County, Lowndes County had a strong connection to this case, so that the interest of justice should not override her choice of forum. The Supreme Court acknowledged that the location where the injury occurred is often assigned considerable weight in an interest of justice analysis, but should not be the sole consideration.  Allstate argued that Montgomery County had a strong connection to the lawsuit because:  (1) Elliott resided in Montgomery County; (2) Elliott was treated for her injuries in Montgomery County and she hired a tbi lawyer to win her case; (3) Allstate does business by agent in Montgomery County; and (4) the insurance policy made the basis of Elliott’s claims against Allstate was issued in Montgomery County. The Court stated that even accepting Allstate’s contention Montgomery County had a “strong” connection to this action, Allstate also had to demonstrate that Lowndes County had a “weak” or “little” connection to the action. The Court found that both counties had connections to the action. It noted that the accident, injuries, and police investigation occurred in Lowndes County. On the other hand, Elliott resided in Montgomery County, where she sought treatment for her injuries resulting from the accident and where the parties’ contractual dealings arose.  The Supreme Court ultimately found under the specific facts of this case, Lowndes County’s connection to the accident was not “little” or “weak,” and Montgomery County did not have a significantly stronger connection to the case to justify a transfer of venue under the interest of justice prong of §6-3-21.1. Therefore, it held the trial court erred in transferring venue of this action to the Montgomery Circuit Court.

The uninsured motorist carrier in this case probably sought transfer to a venue it perceived would be more favorable, and its argument Montgomery County had a more substantial connection because the insurance policy was issued there had some merit.  But this decision in many ways reinforces the general rule that venue for a case involving injuries sustained in an automobile accident should under most circumstances be in the county where the collision occurred and was investigated.