Business Forum: Venue reform bill merits outcry from residents

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It's time for the residents of Pennsylvania to send a message to legislators who want to restrict the rights of individuals, but not corporations, to sue in court.

The proposed law, House Bill 1976, a "venue reform" bill, would limit personal injury lawsuits against corporations to the counties in which they have a principal place of business or in which the incident that forms the basis of the lawsuit occurred.

The proposed law would not equally affect commercial claims, which are usually filed by one business against another. In other words, our legislators are proposing an obstacle to a convenient venue for the average Joe, but not for a large corporation.

The proposed legislation addresses a problem that does not exist.

Proponents of the law tend to overgeneralize about alleged lawsuit abuse in an attempt to sway public opinion. For example, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry cites a survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in support of its goal of venue reform. The survey, titled "Lawsuit Climate 2012 Study," concluded that Pennsylvania is the 40th best climate for lawsuits in the country.

But how did Pennsylvania get this ranking? All the Chamber of Commerce did was ask 1,125 general counsels, senior litigators, attorneys and senior executives at companies with at least $100 million in annual revenues where they like to go to trial, parroting the opinion of big corporations.

What the U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey actually suggests is that large companies do not like to go to court in Pennsylvania because the laws and regulations protect individuals and small businesses.

The Pennsylvania court system has detailed and strict rules written by the state Supreme Court about where individuals or corporations can sue other individuals and businesses in Pennsylvania and when one of the parties to a lawsuit can ask for a change in venue.

The Pennsylvania Constitution gives the state Supreme Court the power to write the rules that govern the practice and procedure in civil court actions. To write a law that specifically dictates venue would go against the concept of separation of powers and would probably be unconstitutional.

Residents must ask: If the legislation limiting venue choice is so good for the average person, why isn't it also good for corporations? The sponsors and proponents of the bill limiting venue want businesses to keep the necessary flexibility built into the current venue rules. They just don't want individuals suing corporations to have the same rights and flexibility.

The growing movement to restrict venue change in personal injury lawsuits is unnecessary and unfair. It is yet another ominous step in the direction of limiting resident access to the courthouse.

By claiming to address a nonexistent problem, proponents hope to make it harder and more expensive for average residents to have their day in court. Pennsylvanians should be opposed to this proposed law limiting venue change in personal injury lawsuits.

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Sandra Neuman and Joshua Geist are both plaintiff attorneys in Western Pennsylvania and officers of the Western Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association.


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