Court Determines New York’s Recently Amended Venue Provision Does Not Limit Where Lawsuits Between Non-Residents May Be Filed
In 2017, New York amended its general venue statute. For as long as New York’s Civil Practice Law and Rules has existed, the general venue statute (CPLR § 503(a)) placed proper venue solely based on residence of the parties. Prior to 2017, it read:
the place of trial shall be in the county in which one of the parties resided when it was commenced; or, if none of the parties then resided in the state, in any county designated by the plaintiff.
The New York Legislature decided this narrow view of venue was problematic. In cases where both parties reside outside of the county in which the cause of action arose, the county that would seem to have the most interest in resolving the issue and setting community standards would be unable to hear those controversies. To solve this “problem” and expand the permissible possibilities of proper venue, the legislature borrowed from the federal venue statute (28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)) and amended CPLR § 503(a) by adding the bolded text to the rule:
Except where otherwise prescribed by law, the place of trial shall be in the county in which one of the parties resided when it was commenced; the county in which a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred; or, if none of the parties then resided in the state, in any county designated by the plaintiff. A party resident in more than one county shall be deemed a resident of each such county.
Simple enough, right? Evidently not. Take, for example, a scenario where a driver from New Jersey and a driver from Connecticut got into an accident in Times Square. Both parties reside outside the state, but the “substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred” in New York County (i.e., Manhattan). If there was a lawsuit, where would venue be proper? Prior to the amendment, the unambiguous answer was anywhere in New York, including Manhattan, but also a county perhaps a little closer to the parties, like Westchester or Rockland, or even theoretically all the way across the state in Erie County, far removed from the events giving rise to the claim. But did the change in the venue provision to allow venue in the county where “events or omissions” gave rise to the claim limit venue to just that county? Were this to be filed in federal court, venue in New York would be restricted to the district where the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred.
The court in Espinal v. Lightbody was the first and, so far only, court to squarely address this question. In its own words, “whether a plaintiff pursuing a claim arising from an event that occurred in New York State must place venue of an action involving no New York residents in the county in which a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the [subject] claim occurred?” The trial court concluded that the statute did not restrict where proper venue lies, reasoning as follows:
The statute is phrased in the disjunctive, the word “or” connecting the propositions that venue may be laid in the county in which one or more of the parties reside or the county in which a substantial part of the acts or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred, with the proposition that the plaintiff may choose any county when none of the parties reside in New York State. The Legislature’s use of the word “or” makes clear that the propositions are alternatives; plaintiff can choose the venue option he or she wishes, so long as the plaintiff selects an option that is appropriate under the venue-related facts of the case. Thus, the 2017 amendment expanded the number of venue options a plaintiff may have in a given case.
The Court concluded “a foreign plaintiff with a claim against a foreign defendant arising from events that occurred in New York State is free to lay venue in any of the State’s 62 counties.”
This is, of course, the opinion of only one trial court; no appellate court has weighed in on the question. We will continue to track the case law as it develops.