South Carolina Supreme Court Decision Should Reduce Forum Shopping in Third Worst ‘Judicial Hellhole’

The Supreme Court of South Carolina issued a decision Wednesday that should reportedly reduce forum shopping in the state and reign in the rapidly increasing number of cases filed in Judicial Hellhole Hampton County.

In a unanimous decision, the Court adopted the position urged by the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) in its amicus brief, ruling that a corporate defendant resides where it has an office and agent for the transaction of corporate business. The Supreme Court also reaffirmed a trial court’s traditional discretion to transfer a case when it serves the convenience of witnesses and the interests of justice. The case, originally filed in Hampton County, was remanded to Greenwood County. ATRA was joined by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce in filing the brief.

“We applaud the South Carolina Supreme Court for this monumental decision,” said ATRA President Sherman Joyce. “It will help put an end to personal injury lawyers abusing the state’s lax venue laws by filing lawsuits in jurisdictions that have little or no connection to the case.”

The 2004 Judicial Hellholes report ranked Hampton County the third worst jurisdiction in the United States. Litigation tourists, guided by their personal injury lawyer travel agents, reportedly file their cases in Judicial Hellholes because they know they will receive a favorable award or precedent, or both.

The number of lawsuits filed in Hampton County has reportedly nearly doubled in the last five years. Sixty-seven percent of cases filed in Hampton County in 2002 were filed by residents from other counties and other states.

The case, Whaley v. CSX Transportation Inc., involved a plaintiff, a locomotive engineer, who is a resident of Abbeville County and who alleged he was injured due to heat exposure on his route between Greenwood and Laurens Counties. His employer maintains an office and agent in Greenwood County, Each and every fact witness for both parties lived in Abbeville, Greenwood, or Laurens County, yet Whaley’s lawyer reportedly filed a complaint six counties and 145 miles away in Hampton County.

At issue was the definition of where a defendant “resides” for the purpose of where a lawsuit can be properly filed (venue) in South Carolina. The trial court had relied upon a case applying the language of a now-repealed statute to allow lawsuits to be filed against corporate defendants anywhere they “own property and transact business.” South Carolina trial courts routinely applied this lax interpretation of the venue statute, allowing personal injury lawyers to forum shop even when the facts of the case had no connection to that county.

ATRA has cited venue reform as a critical element to help solve problems in Judicial Hellholes. Reportedly, surveys and other evidence have repeatedly indicated that the misinterpretation of South Carolina’s venue law now corrected by the Supreme Court was a deterrent to economic development.