FACING THE MUSIC AT HOME

Home field advantage is a substantial advantage.  In litigation, sometimes it favors the Defendant and sometimes the Plaintiff.  Additionally, the court near the Defendant’s headquarters might be the “forum” with the more advantageous laws, such as stricter statutes of limitation.  Also, defending a case or prosecuting a case in a court distant from homes and headquarters can be expensive, in part because of travel costs, but sometimes because a local lawyer must be engaged to assist the lawyer of choice not admitted in the distant court.

In Doe v Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Opinion (D NJ, 2020), the federal trial court rather than dismiss the Plaintiff’s case transferred the case to federal trial court in Pennsylvania.  The New Jersey trial court held it did not have personal jurisdiction over the Defendant in the case presented.  The Plaintiff alleged the employee priest sexually abused the Plaintiff in both Pennsylvania, the location of the local church facilities, and in a beach home in New Jersey.  The abuse continued for a short time even after the priest was transferred.  A quarter of a century later, the priest was laicized.  The federal trial court held that the priest was not acting in course and scope of employment as a matter of law while sexually abusing Plaintiff, therefore, making the transportation of Plaintiff to New Jersey not an act attributable to Defendant which might have conferred jurisdiction.  The Defendant did not purposely direct its activity to New Jersey that caused the harm to Plaintiff.  The Defendant did not have a “substantial connection” to the forum, New Jersey, that was related to Plaintiff’s claims.  However, the Defendant did own property in New Jersey, but that property was not involved.  (While the ownership of the beach house was not mentioned, it was apparently not owned by the Defendant.)  The employment and assignment decisions over employed priests was not carried out in New Jersey.

The reported case might have been quite differently decided.  Because the Plaintiff alleged sexual abuse occurred at the New Jersey beach house, the court could easily have held that the alleged wrongful conduct of the Defendant in failing to supervise, hire, and inquire as to reasons for transfer was substantially connected to the events in New Jersey.  The beach house trips involved the priest and several young boys, only one of whom was the Plaintiff.  For example, a trucking company can usually be sued along with their employee driver at the location of the accident irrespective of whether the trucking company directed the employee driver to travel through that state or to drive negligently, recklessly or drunkenly.  A church bus in a foreign state engaged in a mishap will likewise likely cause the local church to be named in the foreign state court, probably even if the driver borrowed the vehicle for a personal trip.

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