One of the fundamental questions that must be resolved at the start of every lawsuit is where is the proper forum for a lawsuit to be brought. Plaintiffs may not simply bring a case anywhere they choose. Instead, the court hearing a lawsuit must have some logical connection to it, most often that the incidents giving rise to the lawsuit occurred there or that the defendants reside in that jurisdiction. A recent case before the Georgia Court of Appeals considered whether a defendant may request a change of venue to the county where he resides, when the lawsuit is brought in the place of the accident.
In this case out of Bibb County, Georgia, the plaintiffs, S.M. and C.H., brought claims against E.C. and another unknown defendant, John Doe, for injuries resulting from a highway car accident in Georgia. According to the complaint, S.M. and C.H. were driving on Interstate 75 when John Doe suddenly and unexpectedly cut into their lane of traffic ahead of them, causing them to slow down quickly. E.C., who had been driving closely behind them, was unable to slow down in time and ran into the back of their vehicle. S.M. and C.H. alleged that E.C. was negligently following too closely at the time. The John Doe who started the chain of events leading to the accident fled the scene and was not identified at the time of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs brought the case in the county where the accident occurred, Bibb County. E.C. moved for a change of venue to the county where he resided, Crawford County. The trial court denied the motion, holding that, under Georgia law, when there is a John Doe defendant in a lawsuit, his county of residence is presumed to be the county where the accident occurred. Moreover, when there are joint defendants, venue is proper where either of the defendants resides. Since John Doe was presumed to reside in Bibb County, the court determined that venue was proper in Bibb and did not need to be transferred. E.C. appealed.
On appeal, E.C. argued that John Doe was only a nominal defendant because he could not be identified and that he, as the named defendant, should be able to have the case tried in his county of residence. The Court of Appeals turned to Georgia Law 33-7-11(d)(1), which clearly states that the residence of John Doe defendants “shall be presumed to be [either] in the county in which the accident causing injury or damages occurred, or in the county of the residence of the plaintiff.” The Court of Appeals held that it was required to interpret this statute according to its plain meaning, which meant that the John Doe in this lawsuit was determined to reside in Bibb County. Moreover, since Georgia law allows co-defendants to be sued in either defendant’s county of residence, the Court of Appeals concluded that there was no absolute right of a defendant to be tried by a court in his county of residence, and requiring E.C. to be tried in Bibb did not raise any constitutional concerns. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals denied E.C.’s request.
Plaintiffs who are injured in an accident and are considering litigation must carefully evaluate where the best place is to bring their lawsuit. At times, when defendants reside in the same location as the accident, there may not be many options from which plaintiffs can choose. However, in other instances, when multiple defendants exist, or a John Doe defendant is alleged, a plaintiff may have a choice of more than one forum. In these types of circumstances, seeking the guidance of a qualified personal injury attorney, who can tell you about the judges and procedures in any potential venue, can be immensely valuable. Stephen M. Ozcomert has over 20 years of experience handling car accident cases, representing individuals who have been injured as a result of another person’s negligent driving in Atlanta and throughout Georgia, and he can help you evaluate the proper venue in which to bring your personal injury case. Call us today at (404) 370-1000 to schedule your free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.
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