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Wyeth Laboratories Inc. v. Jefferson

February 18, 1999

WYETH LABORATORIES, INC., APPELLANT
v.
CHELEEN JEFFERSON, ET AL., APPELLEES



Before Terry and Steadman, Associate Judges, and Belson, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry, Associate Judge

Notice: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the Atlantic and Maryland Reporters. Users are requested to notify the Clerk of the Court of any formal errors so that corrections may be made before the bound volumes go to press.

Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Hon. Henry H. Kennedy, Jr., Trial Judge

Argued April 16, 199

Appellant, Wyeth Laboratories, Inc. ("Wyeth"), appeals from an order denying its motion to dismiss, on the ground of forum non conveniens,*fn1 product liability claims filed by four Maryland residents. Wyeth contends that because none of the four appellees lives or works in the District of Columbia and none of the events giving rise to their claims occurred in the District of Columbia, there is no reason for this case to be tried in the District of Columbia courts. Appellees contend that because the parties have had "contacts with the District of Columbia and its neighboring jurisdictions," and because Wyeth's motion was filed after the commencement of discovery, the trial court did not err in denying the motion. We agree with Wyeth, reverse the order denying the motion to dismiss, and remand the case for further proceedings.

I.

On December 31, 1994, twenty-five plaintiffs, each residing in Maryland, Virginia, or the District of Columbia, jointly filed suit in the Superior Court against Wyeth, a New York corporation with its principal place of business in Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs alleged that they had been injured by Wyeth's product Norplant*fn2 and sought to recover damages under theories of negligence (failure to warn), strict liability, and breach of warranty.

At a status conference on March 17, 1995, the trial court ordered the parties to meet and confer on the scheduling of discovery. On November 14, by agreement of the parties, the court entered a scheduling order which provided, among other things, that discovery would close on June 30, 1996. By agreement of the parties, the scheduling order was twice modified, and the deadline for closing discovery was eventually extended to October 21, 1996. No trial date was set.

Discovery began, and on January 25, 1996, appellees provided answers to written interrogatories propounded by Wyeth.*fn3 On March 27 Wyeth noticed the depositions of six plaintiffs, but at the request of plaintiffs' counsel these depositions were rescheduled. The first two plaintiffs were deposed on April 12. A third plaintiff, a resident of Maryland, who was also scheduled to be deposed on that day, instead dismissed her claim.

In the course of the April 12 depositions, Wyeth's counsel questioned plaintiff Cheleen Jefferson about her contacts with the District of Columbia. At the Conclusion of this line of questioning, plaintiffs' counsel asked Wyeth's counsel, "Is it your intention to move to dismiss for forum?" Wyeth's counsel responded, "It may well be, depending on the result of my legal research and these depositions."

On May 8 Wyeth noticed the depositions of six more plaintiffs. Again, plaintiffs' counsel canceled these depositions and indicated that many of the plaintiffs would probably be dismissing their claims. He also suggested that the depositions of the remaining plaintiffs should be deferred pending their decisions on whether to remain in the case. On July 2 Wyeth's counsel wrote to plaintiffs' counsel asking him to identify those plaintiffs who were still expecting to go forward with the lawsuit. Wyeth's counsel also said that Wyeth "intend[s] to file a forum non conveniens motion once we know which plaintiffs intend to continue with their claims."

On September 14, 1996, sixteen plaintiffs from Maryland, Virginia, and the District voluntarily dismissed their claims against Wyeth, leaving only nine of the original twenty-five plaintiffs still in the case. On September 17 Wyeth filed a motion to dismiss the claims of four remaining Maryland plaintiffs -- Cheleen Jefferson, Sallie Epps, Donna Shepherd, and Robin McNair -- on the ground of forum non conveniens.*fn4 Wyeth argued for dismissal because, as stipulated by both counsel, none of these plaintiffs lived in the District and none of the events giving rise to the action occurred in the District. On October 25, in a one-page order, the court denied the motion, noting that "the untimeliness of the motion . . . was a substantial factor in [its] decision." Wyeth moved for reconsideration, but the court denied the motion. These appeals followed.*fn5

II.

This court reviews a trial court ruling on a forum non conveniens motion for abuse of discretion but, at the same time, conducts an independent analysis of both the private and the public interests involved. See, e.g., Jimmerson v. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States, Inc., 663 A.2d 540, 542 (D.C. 1995); Jenkins v. Smith, 535 A.2d 1367, 1369 (D.C. 1987) (en banc). "[A]lthough only a `clear showing' of abuse of discretion will suffice to reverse the trial court's decision, `such rulings receive closer scrutiny than most exercises of trial court discretion,' and `convincing ...


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