You can call it a sad but true fact if you want: the value of a personal injury case in Maryland might double (or be cut in half) based on where the case is tried. I provide here our thoughts on where each Maryland county and Baltimore City ranks on the food chain of preferability for venue in personal injury cases.
Defense lawyers want to go back to olden days when plaintiffs did not forum shop, they just filed where it was most convenient and advantageous to the plaintiff. Defense lawyers are big into restoring traditions that never existed. I’ve never seen a stitch of evidence to suggest that venue has not been a battlefield since the Industrial Revolution. There are more opportunities where reasonable minds can differ as to the venue in 2012 because we are so much more cosmopolitan today. Just about every tort that arose 150 years ago was on some guy’s farm. So while the analysis is more complex now, there have always been different communities that had different values and this impacts the lens with which they view personal injury claims.
Anyway, the Maryland Court of Appeals decided Miller v. Mathias, a Montgomery County family law dispute case. It is a family law case so the fact simultaneously confused and put me to sleep. But this case matters to personal injury lawyers because the dispute is about venue. The court in Miller restated what we all knew: trial courts have discretion in making venue calls. This makes sense: appellate courts can’t be second-guessing judgment calls on venue if another reasonable judge would agree with the trial court’s decision. Again, this is more true than ever today, where the fact patterns are often complex and require judgment calls. If appellate courts went through these things de novo, they would spend all of their time on venue cases (and attorney disbarment which takes up an embarrassing chunk of the Maryland Court of Appeals work).
So I agree with the premise of the ruling. Still, what bugs me about this case is what concerns me in some venue rulings that I see. Judges do not have discretion to apply inappropriate legal standards to venue rulings, even if their rulings are discretionary. This is exactly what happened here: the trial judge made the call even before getting what would have been the plaintiff’s timely response. Why does this happen? Some trial judges decide way too quick. A plaintiff is trying to get in Baltimore City or Prince George’s County? Must be venue shopping. Ship it out.
The court found what the trial court did, but laughed it all by calling it a harmless error. That is easy for an appellate judge to say. They are given roughly forever and a day to make their decisions. These motion judges have a slew of motions in front of them. It might be a good idea to make a hearing required for venue motions so the parties can really get the chance to be heard and the judge can listen to a well-informed debate on where the case should really be.
You can find the court’s opinion in Miller v. Mathias here.