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Maryland High Court Upholds Transfer of Venue

December 15, 2017 By Gerald W. Ueckermann, Jr.

Recently, Maryland’s highest court, in a 4-to-3 decision, upheld a Baltimore City judge’s order transferring a case to Talbot County.

In University of Maryland Medical System v. Kerrigan (decided Nov. 28, 2017), 15-year-old Brandon Kerrigan, was a resident of Talbot County.  After Brandon experienced breathing problems, he received treatment in Talbot County and was admitted to Shore Medical Hospital in Talbot County.  After consultation with other physicians, he was transferred, by helicopter, to the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore City.  There he was diagnosed with heart failure and subsequently received a heart transplant.  Brandon Kerrigan and his parents, all of whom were Talbot County residents, subsequently filed suit in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against seven defendants: two physicians located in Talbot County, two physicians located in Baltimore City, two medical systems located in Talbot County, and one medical system located in Baltimore City.  A Baltimore City judge subsequently transferred the case to the Circuit Court for Talbot County.

On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals reversed, finding that the balance of factors did not weigh strongly in favor of the transfer as is required by Maryland law.

Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, however, disagreed.  Judge Greene, writing for the four-judge majority, found that the trial court judge had not abused his discretion when he found that the balance of factors did weigh strongly in favor of the transfer.  Factors that the Court of Appeals found the trial judge appropriately considered included the fact that the plaintiffs would have to drive past the Talbot County Courthouse in order to drive to Baltimore City.  Another factor that the court found was appropriately considered was that one of the defendants, Shore Medical, was the only hospital in Talbot County, and that this provided Talbot County with a stronger interest in hearing the case.  Primarily, however, the Court of Appeals recognized that less weight should be given to the plaintiff’s choice of venue when the plaintiff does not reside in that venue.

Judge Adkins, writing for the three dissenting judges, primarily disagreed that a plaintiff’s choice of venue deserves less deference when the plaintiff chooses to sue in a county in which he or she does not live.  The dissenters found that the majority’s decision dealt a heavy blow to the Court of Appeals’ long-held recognition of a plaintiff’s right to choose venue.

The rule that governs transfer of venue in Maryland state courts, Rule 2-327(c), is derived from an analogous federal statute, 28 U.S.C. 1404(a).  The Maryland Court of Appeals has, over the years, ruled in a number of cases that federal court decisions construing 28 U.S.C. §1404(a) are highly persuasive when ruling on change of venue motions brought under Rule 2-327(c).  As a result, the court has arguably placed greater importance upon the plaintiff’s choice of venue than it deserves under Maryland law.  For example, a purpose of Maryland’s venue statute is to afford defendants with convenient forums in which to be sued.  Wilde v. Swanson, 314 Md. 80 (1988). Furthermore, a provision in the Maryland Declaration of Rights recognizes that actions are most appropriately heard in the county where the cause of action arose. Maryland Decl of Rights, §20. (This factor was not directly involved in the Kerrigan case since the cause of action arose in both Talbot County and Baltimore City).  Due to the Maryland Court of Appeals’ focus on federal precedent, however, these principles of Maryland law have seldom, if ever, received consideration from the Court when it has reviewed orders transferring venue.