Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert (1947)

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 28 § 1391(b)  U.S.C., 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 U.S. Supreme Court under writ of certiorari. Here, it was noted that it was not unusual for claimants to abuse § 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 on the principle that:

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

Harris v. Balk (1905)

US Civil Procedure

Harris v Balk
‘Strong Arm’ by Kevin LePrince

Debt priority through attachment is not something familiar to English law, however in America the facts are quite different, and in this instance the indebtedness of a lender became primary to the borrower’s failure to repay, after a third party attached the sum outstanding through applicable State law.

In 1896, two men residing in North Carolina entered into a verbal agreement concerning the lending of $180, during which time the lender and now claimant, had an outstanding debt of $344 with a lender in Maryland. While visiting Baltimore, the now defendant was approached by the Maryland lender, who issued a writ of attachment for $180 under the powers of §§ 8 and 10 of art. IX of the Code of Public General Laws of Maryland, both of which read:

“8. Upon making the affidavit and producing the proofs before the clerk of the court from which such attachment is to issue…he shall issue an attachment against the lands, tenements, goods, chattels and credits of said debtor.

10. Any kind of property or credits belonging to the defendant, in the plaintiff’s own hands, or in the hands of any one else, may be attached; and credits may be attached which shall not then be due.”

Having failed to attend the hearing, the defendant admitted later acquiesced to the attachment and entered payment for the sum owed to the Maryland claimant in accordance with both the statute and decision of the court.

Upon this, the claimant sought remedy on grounds that the Maryland court lacked sufficient jurisdiction to apply such an attachment, whereupon the defendant claimed under art.IV of the U.S. Constitution that:

“Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.”

Therefore the judgment against the defendant to the claimant’s creditor was equally valid in North Carolina as it was in Maryland. However, the Supreme Court of North Carolina awarded in favour of the claimant on grounds that the defendant was in Maryland for but a brief time, and that the debt was initiated and so grounded in North Carolina.

Heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, it was explained through Chicago, R. I. & P. Co. v. Sturm that:

“All debts are payable everywhere unless there be some special limitation or provision in respect to the payment; the rule being that debts, as such, have no locus or situs, but accompany the creditor everywhere, and authorize a demand upon the debtor everywhere.”

While § 35 of art. IX of the Code of Public General Laws of Maryland provides that:

“Any judgment of condemnation against a garnishee ad execution thereon, or payment by such garnishee, shall be sufficient and pleadable in bar in any action brought against him by the defendant in the attachment for or concerning the property or credits so condemned…”

Which translated that the claimant had equal opportunity to sue the defendant for his debt while in Maryland, but failed to do so, while it was also held that upon litigation, the defendant was under a legal duty to notify the claimant that a third party had issued an attachment for the $180, whereupon the claimant is afforded opportunity to defend the debt, as had been held in Morgan v. Neville.

This caveat left the Court with no option other than to reverse the previous decision for further discussion, so as to avoid duplication of a debt recently paid in full, while further holding that:

“Power over the person of the garnishee confers jurisdiction on the courts of the State where the writ issues…”

British Chiropractic Association v Singh (2011)

English Tort Law

Chiropractic Association v Singh
‘Leaning Right’ by Steve Mills

Damages for libel and the freedom of expression, rely upon distinct terms of meaning for their preservation or application. And so on this occasion, the subjective opinion of an industry insider becomes the target of a writ that while not uncommon, does little to protect the reputation of those evaluated.

Whilst writing a tabloid article, the appellant doctor wrote of the respondents:

“The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence.”

In retaliation, the respondents issued a writ for defamation on grounds that when publishing the article, the appellant had implied on the basis of fact, that the respondents lacked any credible evidence with which to support its claims. During the trial, the judge elected to apply a ‘fact’ based test, as opposed to one of subjective opinion, whereupon the jury found against the appellant and damages were set, along with injunctive remedy.

During the appeal, the Court reexamined the actions of the judge when choosing to adopt a factual premise upon which to rest the defence, while exploring the meaning of art.10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Freedom of expression), with particular reference to De Haes and Gijsels v Belgium, in which the Court found that a journalist accused of libellous commentary was ultimately found to have merely expressed a ‘value judgment’ based upon collective facts relating to the field under discussion.

Here, the appellant had recently co-authored a book with an established authority on the history of chiropractic medicine, who had found through direct application of the methods common to chiropractic, that despite seventy experimental trials, there was no evidence to support the claims forwarded by the respondents, hence the commentary made within the article.

With these ‘facts’ in hand, the Court held that while honest in his intentions, the trial judge had erred in treating subjective opinion and reasoned commentary as statements of fact, and that by doing so had in essence contravened the rights contained under art.10, and reinforced the notion that challenges of those in authority were subject to punishment or forfeiture.

It was for this reason that the Court reversed the previous decision, while citing the words of Judge Easterbrook in Underwager v Salter, who had clarified how:

“[Plaintiffs] cannot, by simply filing suit and crying ‘character assassination!’, silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs’ interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation . . . more papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of images – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.”

While reminding the Court that language should not be used to distort, dilute or obscure the purpose of clarity when establishing liability for defamation or libel.