Products Liability Law Daily Exception to jurisdictional statute renders Texas a proper forum for defective tractor suit
Monday, June 11, 2018

Exception to jurisdictional statute renders Texas a proper forum for defective tractor suit

By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.

The residency exception to Texas’ statutory doctrine of forum non conveniens applied to some of the claims in a products liability lawsuit filed by the representative of a man who had perished in a tractor accident, that state’s supreme court determined, ruling that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the tractor manufacturer’s motion to dismiss. Accordingly, the tractor maker’s petition for writ of mandamus ordering the dismissal in favor of litigating in the decedent’s home state was denied (In re Mahindra, USA Inc., June 8, 2018, Devine, J.).

After an individual was killed when a hydraulic line ruptured and caused the front-end loader on his tractor to fall and crush him in the presence of his 14-year-old granddaughter, his eldest son filed suit against the tractor manufacturer, Mahindra, USA Inc., alleging negligence and products liability claims on behalf of the decedent’s estate as well as on his daughter’s behalf. Although the tractor had been sold to the decedent in Mississippi, his son filed the suit in Texas, where he resides (a second son, also a Texas resident, subsequently joined the lawsuit, asserting individual claims).

In response to the lawsuit, Mahindra filed a motion to dismiss based on forum non conveniens, arguing that Mississippi was a more appropriate and convenient forum because of the estate’s administration there and other obvious connections to the accident: i.e., the decedent resided, purchased the tractor, and died in Mississippi. The trial court denied Mahindra’s motion, and the company sought mandamus relief in the court of appeals. The appellate panel denied the petition and Mahindra sought review of that ruling to the state’s highest court.

Arguments on appeal. The tractor maker asserted that Texas’ statutory exception to the forum non conveniens doctrine was inapplicable because: (1) only a plaintiff can invoke the exception and the decedent’s two sons were not "plaintiffs" under an applicable definition of that term; (2) the two sons were "derivative claimants" of their deceased father and, as such, could not invoke the state’s statutory exception to the doctrine because their father was not a Texas resident; and (3) the forum non conveniens factors favored Mississippi as the appropriate forum and, as such, the trial court abused its discretion in failing to dismiss the underlying Texas litigation.

The decedent’s sons countered that they were plaintiffs under the terms of the statute and that the Texas-residency exception unequivocally applied to their individual claims. Although they conceded that their father was not a Texas resident at the time of his death and that the eldest son, as representative of the father’s Mississippi probate estate, could not assert the exception on the estate’s behalf, the sons maintained that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in retaining the estate’s claims in Texas because the court was required by law to deny Mahindra’s motion to dismiss as to all the other, individual claims. Finally, the sons disputed that the forum non conveniens factors favored Mississippi as a more appropriate and convenient forum for their claims.

Statutory exception. While private- and public-interest factors might dictate the dismissal of an action in favor of another forum under the common-law doctrine of forum non conveniens even when the plaintiff in the case is a Texas resident, the state’s statutory version of the doctrine includes an exception for Texas-resident plaintiffs. Under this exception, when the plaintiff is a Texas resident or derivative claimant of a Texas resident, the public and private factors that ordinarily animate the doctrine do not apply.

In the instant case, because the underlying action involved personal-injury and wrongful-death claims, statutory forum non conveniens applied, the high court instructed, adding that the Texas-residency exception in the statute can be invoked either because the plaintiff is a Texas resident or is a derivative claimant of a Texas resident. In that regard, the statute defines "derivative claimant" as "a person whose damages were caused by personal injury to or the wrongful death of another." "Plaintiff" is defined as "a party seeking recovery of damages for personal injury or wrongful death," but the term "does not include … a representative, administrator, guardian, or next friend who is not otherwise a derivative claimant of a legal resident of this state."

Estate-based claims versus individual claims. Under that scheme, the eldest son was not a plaintiff for purposes of the estate’s claims because the estate he represented was that of a non-resident decedent. Therefore, as the administrator and representative of the Mississippi estate, the eldest son was not the kind of plaintiff who could use his own resident status to anchor the estate’s claims to Texas, nor could he use his resident status to anchor his next-friend claims on behalf of his daughter. However, the individual claims of the decedent’s sons qualified them as "plaintiffs" for purposes of the statutory exception. Their claims for the wrongful death of their father were anchored to Texas because those claims were personal and not representative.

As for the tractor manufacturer’s contention that the trial court abused its discretion in failing to dismiss or stay the eldest son’s representative claims as administrator and next friend irrespective of the sons’ individual claims, because the Texas residency exception required the court to retain the sons’ individual claims in Texas, dismissal of the estate and next-friend from the case arguably would ensure litigation of the underlying liability claims in both forums. In that respect, the duplication-of-litigation factor favored retaining all claims in Texas; therefore, on the record, it could not be concluded that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the manufacturer’s motion to dismiss on the grounds of forum non conveniens. Consequently, the petition for mandamus was denied.

The case is No. 17-0019.

Attorneys: Anthony G. Buzbee (Office of the Board of Regents) for Christopher Cody Cooper and Jason Alan Cooper. Nicholas E. Zito (Ramey, Chandler, Quinn & Zito PC) for KMW, Ltd. T. Peyton Smith (Forman Watkins & Krutz LLP) for Mahindra USA, Inc.

Companies: KMW, Ltd.; Mahindra USA, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory JurisdictionNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews TexasNews

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