Location, location, location Featured

7:00pm EDT December 31, 2006

No business owner wants to be sued. Being sued is bad enough. But being sued in an unfriendly venue could be worse. There are times when plaintiffs file suits deliberately in courts that put the defendants in a disadvantageous position. Venues can sometimes be changed, however.

“Defendants do have a say in where or in what type of court a lawsuit is adjudicated, although their choice is not unlimited,” says Darrell R. Greer, a partner with Godwin Pappas Langley Ronquillo LLP. “They have to make their preferences known well before the venue is finalized.”

Smart Business spoke with Greer to learn more about the importance of venues for trials, the types of courts in which trials are held, and how defendants can protect themselves from ending up in courtrooms in which they might be at decided disadvantages.

Does it make a difference what court a client ends up in?

It does. There are numerous factors that clients must take into account. One is the specific type of court. For example, it makes a big difference as to whether clients are in a federal court as opposed to a state court, or a state district court as opposed to a county court of law. Or clients may find themselves in Justice of Peace (JP) courts or probate courts.

The type of court impacts the strategy an attorney uses — and can affect the costs associated with the case. The costs in federal courts tend to be much higher than those in state courts, for instance. In some venues, the verdicts are traditionally much higher than in other areas. Attorneys can help defendants sort out these differences.

What are some of the major differences between types of courts?

Two significant differences are the number of jurors and the judge’s status as a lawyer. If it is the type of case where a defendant might want a jury, the venue is important. District courts have 12 jurors, while county courts of law have six. In JP courts the defendant might get a jury, or might not. In the latter case, the judge might be a lawyer, or might not, depending on where the court is.

It is in the defendants’ best interests to know about these factors when planning legal strategy. After all, whenever business owners are in court, they and their attorneys must have as much information as possible about every aspect of the case in order to make intelligent decisions about how to conduct their defense.

Does the location of the court have an impact as well?

Yes. If a business owner in Houston is sued by someone in a remote small town, that can put him at a disadvantage and affect his choice of defense attorney. When a law suit is filed in a small town quite a way from the business owner’s place of business, the plaintiff’s attorney more than likely has a reputation in that town, and probably knows the judge well. That gives the plaintiff the ‘home-town advantage.’ In such cases, the defense attorney might want to hire a defense attorney from that same jurisdiction who also has a good personal relationship with the judge. That levels the playing field somewhat.

The judge-attorney relationship might not be as important in larger cities like Dallas or El Paso, but in some of the smaller venues the relationship between the judge and the attorney outweighs almost every other factor.

Why do plaintiffs’ attorneys choose venues that place hardships on defendants?

It is part of the legal strategy to place defendants at an economic hardship. For example, a plaintiff might file a claim in Dallam County against a business owner in Houston. That creates an economic hardship for the defendant and the attorney, who must traverse the approximate 680 miles between the two locations, pay for travel expenses, accommodations, etc., and spend time in the process. That explains why defendants and their attorneys should seek a change of venue more amenable to their needs.

Are there cases where courts do not have proper jurisdiction?

That does happen. Say a business owner is sued in Midland, but has never done business there, does not intend to do business there and has no office there. The attorney can challenge the court by saying it is the wrong venue. Or perhaps a suit is filed in the wrong type of court, e.g., a criminal case filed in a probate court, which has no jurisdiction in such matters. In situations like these, attorneys can — and should — file a motion to challenge the court. If this is not done quickly, the parties may lose the opportunity to do it later.

The bottom line is simple: business owners may not be immune to being sued, but they can at least have some say in where they are sued.

DARRELL R. GREER is a partner and vice chair of the Mass Tort Litigation Section for Godwin Pappas Langley Ronquillo LLP in its Houston office. Reach him at (713) 425-7436 or dgreer@godwinpappas.com.