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Attorneys spar over jurisdiction in Baltimore bus crash lawsuit

In this frame from video, emergency personnel work at the scene of a fatal school bus and a commuter bus crash in Baltimore, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. (WBAL-TV via AP)

In this frame from video, emergency personnel work at the scene of a fatal school bus and a commuter bus crash in Baltimore, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. (WBAL-TV via AP)

A proposed class action lawsuit filed by victims of a fatal crash between a Baltimore school bus and commuter bus that initially was removed to federal court returned to state court last month after a federal judge granted the plaintiffs’ request to remand the case.

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz did not issue a memorandum explaining his June 19 ruling, but filings by both sides accuse the other of inappropriately attempting to circumvent procedural rules.

The November crash killed six, including both drivers, and injured 11. Glenn Chappell, who was driving the school bus when it rear-ended a car and collided with an oncoming Maryland Transit Administration bus, did not have a valid commercial driver’s license because his medical certification had expired.

The lawsuit, filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court in May, alleges negligence by the school bus company and its medical certification company, Concentra Health Services.

Concentra removed the case from state court the day it was filed based on diversity jurisdiction because it is a foreign corporation, but it later learned that a fellow defendant who is a Maryland resident had already been served with the complaint by the time Concentra acted.

The remaining defendants were Maryland corporations or residents and a case cannot be removed to federal court without complete diversity between plaintiffs and defendants.

In a supplement to its petition, Concentra alleged the Maryland resident who was served was only named so that quick service of process could be made “to thwart the anticipated removal of this matter” and asked the court to disregard service of the Maryland defendant. With no properly joined and served Maryland defendant, Concentra argued, the case was properly removed on the date the action was filed.

The defendant was identified as an owner or manager of AAAfordable Transportation Inc., the school bus company, but Concentra claimed in the filing that he is an employee without hiring or supervising responsibility and did not serve as the resident agent for the business.

Communications between the plaintiffs’ attorneys and attorneys for the corporate defendants did not indicate the man was being sued individually, and he was not named on a draft complaint, according to Concentra. The addition of his name and the resident agent’s was allegedly the only substantive change from the draft complaint to the one filed.

In a motion to remand the case filed June 2, however, the plaintiffs argued AAAfordable Transportation is a properly joined Maryland citizen and Concentra removed the case within hours before the Maryland business could be served in an attempt to avoid the requirement of complete diversity.

The plaintiffs called Concentra’s allegation of fraudulent joinder of a Maryland resident a “thin reed to which Concentra clings” and argued the forum defendant rule has never been interpreted to allow removal based on the timing or sequence of service or process.

In response, Concentra claimed the court had jurisdiction over the case based on “diversity between the real parties” and that joinder and service of a “sham defendant” does not defeat that diversity.

The circuit court docketed the remand on June 28. A trial date is scheduled for June 2018.

Concentra is represented by Barry C. Goldstein and John T. Sly of Waranch and Brown LLC in Lutherville. Goldstein did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from Schochor, Federico and Staton P.A. and Murphy, of Murphy, Falcon & Murphy in Baltimore. Attorneys at the firms did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

The case is Michelle Kennedy et al. v. AAAfordable Tansportation LLC et al., 24C17002426.

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