A lawsuit over the installation of sand and sod on some ball fields in Foley must be decided several states away, in Missouri. The parties’ contract had a forum selection clause that said any fight over the contract had to be in Missouri. The trial court ruled the clause didn’t apply under the circumstances. The Alabama Supreme Court disagreed and directed the lower court to dismiss the case.
When the City of Foley decided to create the Foley Sports Tourism Complex, it hired a Missouri company to build it for them. In turn the Missouri company hired a local contractor to install the turf. One clause of the contract between the Missouri contractor and the local sub was an agreement – a forum selection clause – that any dispute arising out of the contract would be tried, not in Alabama, but in Missouri.
Ultimately, the relationship between the Missouri contractor and the local sub soured and the sub sued the contractor in Baldwin County, Alabama. However, rather than fight about the location of the lawsuit from the start, the Missouri contractor removed the case from an Alabama state court to the federal courts. The removal failed and the case wound up back in the Alabama state court and only then did a court address the contract’s forum selection clause.
Though there was no doubt that the contract contained a valid forum selection clause, the local subcontractor argued it didn’t apply. According to the sub, the forum selection clause didn’t apply because:
- to try the case in Missouri would be “seriously inconvenient;” and
- by removing the case from an Alabama court to a federal court the Missouri company had waived their right to invoke the forum selection clause.
The Alabama Supreme Court didn’t buy either argument.
A case about an Alabama contract to sod some ball fields in Alabama, but tried in Missouri would undeniably be inconvenient. First, the witnesses would almost all be in Alabama some of whom would likely have to travel. Second, the sub indicated he wanted a visit to the work site to be included as a part of the trial. However, the sub failed to convince the court that a Missouri trial would be “seriously inconvenient.”
As to the distance argument, the Supreme Court had little sympathy. Per their earlier cases, distance alone does not make a case “seriously inconvenient.” The language of the contract trumped whatever difficulty the witnesses would experience if they were to travel to Missouri (assuming they could be subpoenaed to attend).
As to the site visit argument the Supreme Court appears to suggest that in cases where a visit to the “scene of the crime” is warranted that would make a case “seriously inconvenient” and justify setting aside a forum selection clause. However, the Supreme Court found there wasn’t a reasonable need to visit the site, it was simply a contract dispute in their eyes.
While it is somewhat odd that a dispute over ball fields in south Alabama is headed to Missouri, the City of Foley could have prevented this with language in their agreement with the Missouri contractor that barred a forum selection clause outside the state, or even the county. (It is possible the City did include such a clause, but that it never made its way into the lawsuit.)
At least the parties can be thankful for the “fast action” by the courts. While it took years and not months to get kicked out of the Alabama courts, this case has been to three different courts in under three years. That qualifies as fast so far as the wheels of justice are concerned (consider for example an adoption that was still chugging along after 5 years). Given the speed at which the case was decided, there is still a good chance it was kicked in time to get refiled in Missouri and beat the contract statute of limitations there.