Gulf Oil Corporation v Gilbert

US Civil Procedure

Gulf Oil Corporation v Gilbert
Image: ‘Leyland Octopus Gulf Oil’ by Mike Jeffries

Choice of venue within a civil action, while enjoyed by claimants for honourable reasons, can sometimes prove destructive to the roots of a claim when the right is abused or exercised in error. In this instance, the want of policy ran risk of disrupting and possibly destroying, the need for redress through the use of established legal doctrine.

In 1944, the appellants supplied a delivery of gasoline to the respondent in Lynchburg, Virginia, whereupon an explosion caused significant damage to the establishment, customers property and pecuniary standing of the proprietor. Upon litigation, the respondent sought damages of around $365,000, and when exercising his civil rights, elected to issue proceedings in the state of New York, as explained under under title 28, ch.87 s.1391(b) of the US Code, which reads:

“A civil action may be brought in (1) a judicial district in which any defendant resides, if all defendants are residents of the State in which the district is located.”

And yet with appreciation that the appellants were based in New York, the court elected to challenge the choice of venue on grounds of ‘forum non conveniens’, which translated that although the claimant had a right to choose the venue best suited to their needs, the location of the actual event, the relevant evidence, potential expedience, lower legal costs and optimal attendance of both jurors and witnesses, demonstrated that the hearing was best heard in Virginia, as opposed to a courtroom almost four-hundred miles away.

Taken to the District Appeal Court, the decision was reversed back in favour of the claimant, whereupon the matter was further escalated to the US Supreme Court under writ of certiorari. Here, it was noted that it was not unusual for claimants to abuse s.1391 by choosing inconvenient forums as a means of vexing and oppressing the defendant, thereby reducing the opportunity of a fair trial, while it also became apparent that on this occasion, the lawyer acting under instruction for the claimant resided in New York, and was retained by the insurance firm for reasons benefiting their own interests, hence arguing strongly in favour of one venue over the other, despite the obvious inconvenience to the claimant.

In light of this glaring disparity, the Court held that there were simply too many reasons for a trial to be held in Virginia, and that despite any contention that the District Court had acted ultra vires, the judgment of the Appeal Court was too narrow an interpretation of the doctrine, and so the decision was reversed with a view to proceedings in Lynchburg.

Key Citations

“[T]he doctrine of forum non conveniens can never apply if there is absence of jurisdiction or mistake of venue.”

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Author, publisher and foodie...

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