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A town that time forgot—but lawyers remembered

Sidebar has been to courthouses in some real one-horse towns, but this beats all: A federal judge in South Carolina came across a forum selection clause requiring that all disputes be heard in a town that hasn’t existed for decades.

The clause provides that the exclusive venue for any contract disputes should reside in the “court located in Belleville or the closest city thereto [in] California.” PMAC Lending, the defendant in the suit and author of this curious clause, cited it in a motion to have a lawsuit against PMAC transferred out of South Carolina.

U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Michael Duffy noted that Belleville was a gold rush town in the 1800s, but “despite some initial successes, the quest for gold in Belleville quite literally did not pan out” and it was abandoned in the mid-1900s. In its brief heyday, “citizens employed a tall juniper tree and some rope as a makeshift justice system for murderers, [but] it is unclear whether Belleville had any state-sanctioned courts for resolving civil disputes.”

Today, the site of former Belleville is now part of a national forest, and “Calling present-day Belleville a ghost town would be generous,” Duffy quipped. “The site of the former town consists of one tiny cabin surrounded by a fence and an otherwise empty field. It does not appear that a court system currently operates in the cabin. The juniper tree used for hangings still stands, but the Court assumes that Young and PMAC did not have that in mind as ‘the applicable court’ for resolving their contractual dispute.” [That’d be some aggressive litigating.]

Luckily for PMAC, “Apparently recognizing that someone would eventually uncover the farce of designating a remote, abandoned field as the exclusive forum,” the clause’s “closest city” fallback saved its hide. Since there was no dispute over where Belleville used to sit when it existed, Duffy transferred the case to the nearest federal court.

So the plaintiff will still need to book plane tickets to get to court, but at least he won’t need a time machine.

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