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Stephenson v. New Hampshire Insurance Company

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

March 18, 2019

MICHELLE PEEL STEPHENSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW HAMPSHIRE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GRAY M. BORDEN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Pending before the court is the Motion to Transfer Venue (Doc. 25) filed by Defendant New Hampshire Insurance Company (“NHIC”). With the parties' briefing now complete, NHIC's motion is ripe for the court's review. After careful consideration of the parties' filings and the relevant law, and for the reasons stated below, the court concludes that the Motion to Transfer Venue (Doc. 25) is due to be DENIED. This case will remain pending within the Northern Division of the Middle District of Alabama.

         I. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

         The court has subject matter jurisdiction over the claims in this lawsuit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. NHIC and Stephenson do not contest personal jurisdiction, nor do they contest that venue is proper in the Middle District of Alabama, and the court finds adequate allegations to support both jurisdiction and venue. The instant dispute, however, centers on whether the lawsuit was filed in the proper division within the Middle District.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Michelle Stephenson asserts claims for underinsured motorist (“UIM”) benefits, breach of contract, and wrongful death[1] relating to a motor vehicle accident involving her husband, Gerald W. Stephenson, who is deceased. Docs. 1 & 22. The following is a recitation of the facts as alleged in the complaint and amendment to complaint.

         On February 24, 2017, Gerald Stephenson was driving southbound on County Road 49 in Geneva County near a four-way stop. Doc. 1 at 2. At the same time, Donald Harry Rhein was driving eastbound at an unlawful speed. Doc. 1 at 2. Rhein failed to halt at the stop sign and collided with Stephenson's vehicle, causing Stephenson's vehicle to be struck by another vehicle driven by Lindsay Sparks. Doc. 1 at 2. All three vehicles caught on fire. Doc. 1 at 2. The collision seriously injured Stephenson and he ultimately died as a result of his injuries. Doc. 1 at 2.

         At the time of the collision, Gerald Stephenson was employed by GroSouth, Inc. (“GroSouth”), a company located in Montgomery, Alabama, and was driving a vehicle issued to him by his employer. Doc. 1 at 3. That vehicle was covered by NHIC under an insurance policy issued to GroSouth. Doc. 1 at 4. Stephenson asserts that NHIC breached its duty under the terms of the contract to tender its policy limits after the wrongful death of her husband. Doc. 22 at 4. NHIC denies that it had a specific duty to tender the policy limits, that it breached this duty, and that Rhein acted negligently and wantonly. Doc. 28 at 4-6.

         Stephenson filed this case in the Northern Division of the Middle District of Alabama, and she contends that this is the appropriate venue for this action because it is the venue where NHIC issued the subject insurance policy. Doc. 41. NHIC argues that the Southern Division, where the collision occurred, is the appropriate venue. Doc. 38.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Venue is appropriate in a judicial district where any defendant resides if all defendants are residents of the State in which the district is located; in the judicial district where a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred; or, if there is no district in which a civil action may otherwise be brought, in any judicial district where the defendant is subject to the court's personal jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b). “Upon motion, consent or stipulation of all parties, any action, suit or proceeding of a civil nature or any motion or hearing thereof, may be transferred, in the discretion of the court, from the division in which pending to any other division in the same district.” 28 U.S.C. § 1404(b). While federal courts enjoy discretion in venue determinations, Fedonczak v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 2010 WL 1856080 at *1 (M.D. Ala. May 4, 2010), a plaintiff's choice of forum is due considerable deference. Whitford v. Sub-Line Assocs., Inc., 2015 WL 13646717, at *1 (N.D. Ala. Dec. 18, 2015). “In evaluating a request to transfer venue, a plaintiff's choice of forum should not be disturbed unless it is clearly outweighed by other considerations.” Callwood v. Phenix City, Ala., 2016 WL 1122681, at *2 (M.D. Ala. Mar. 22, 2016). As a result, the movant bears the burden to “show that the forum it suggests is more convenient or that litigating the case there would be in the interest of justice.” Id. (internal citations omitted).

         The question of whether to transfer venue is a two-pronged inquiry, first requiring that the alternative venue be one in which the action could have been brought. C.M.B. Foods, Inc. v. Corral of Middle Ga., 396 F.Supp.2d 1283, 1286 (M.D. Ala. 2005); 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). “The second prong requires courts to balance private and public factors to determine if transfer is justified.” Callwood, 2016 WL 1122681, at *1. In making this determination, courts have considered a number of factors:

(1) the convenience of the witnesses; (2) the location of relevant documents and the relative ease of access to sources of proof; (3) the convenience of the parties; (4) the locus of operative facts; (5) the availability of process to compel the attendance of unwilling witnesses; (6) the relative means of the parties; (7) a forum's familiarity with the governing law; (8) the weight accorded a plaintiff's choice ...

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