Texas residents may sue Ford and Michelin over fatal car accident in Mexico, court rules

Posted
by Michael Heygood

Juan Tueme Mendez, his brother Cesar, and two others were traveling in a Ford Explorer in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon when the left rear tire burst and the vehicle careened off the road. Juan (the driver) was injured and Cesar (the passenger) was killed in the accident. Juan, who is not a legal resident of Texas, filed a lawsuit against his deceased brother’s estate in Hidalgo County, Texas, where Cesar’s estate was being administered. Juan alleged Cesar had failed to properly maintain the vehicle and the tires.

Cesar’s estate in turn filed a third-party claim against Ford and Michelin, alleging defective design and negligence. Then, Yuri Tueme (Cesar’s daughter) and others filed their own claims against Ford and Michelin as wrongful-death beneficiaries. Yuri and two other wrongful death beneficiaries are legal residents of Texas. Finally, Juan amended his petition to add Ford as a defendant in his personal-injury claim.

Ford moved to dismiss all claims under forum non conveniens. When applicable, the doctrine of forum non conveniens (Latin for “forum not agreeing”) means a court may refuse to take jurisdiction over a case because there is a more appropriate forum available to the parties. Here, Ford argued that Mexico—where the accident occurred and where Juan resides— was a more appropriate forum.

The Texas statute regarding forum non conveniens provides as follows:

If a court of this state, on written motion of a party, finds that in the interest of justice and for the convenience of the parties a claim or action to which this section applies would be more properly heard in a forum outside this state, the court shall decline to exercise jurisdiction under the doctrine of forum non conveniens and shall stay or dismiss the claim or action.

However, the statute includes an exception for cases involving a Texas-resident plaintiff:

The court may not stay or dismiss a plaintiff’s claim … if the plaintiff is a legal resident of this state. If an action involves both plaintiffs who are legal residents of this state and plaintiffs who are not, the court may not stay or dismiss the action … if the plaintiffs who are legal residents of this state are properly joined in the action and the action arose out of a single occurrence.

Following a hearing, the trial court denied Ford’s motion without explanation. Ford filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the Thirteenth Court of Appeals. The court of appeals denied relief. The Texas Supreme Court has now agreed with the court of appeals that the wrongful-death beneficiaries are plaintiffs that can take advantage of the Texas-resident exception. In re Ford Motor Co., NO. 12-0957 (Tex. July 03, 2014). Since at least one of the beneficiaries is a legal resident of Texas, the Texas Supreme Court held that trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Ford’s motion to dismiss.

According to the Texas Supreme Court, the formula under the statute is simple: plaintiff + legal residence = right to a Texas forum. Ford argued that the Texas residents should not considered “plaintiffs” for purposes of the forum non conveniens statute.

“Plaintiff” is defined for purposes of the forum non conveniens rule as follows:

“Plaintiff” means a party seeking recovery of damages for personal injury or wrongful death. In a cause of action in which a party seeks recovery of damages for personal injury to or the wrongful death of another person, “plaintiff” includes both that other person and the party seeking such recovery. The term does not include a counterclaimant, cross-claimant, or third-party plaintiff or a person who is assigned a cause of action for personal injury, or who accepts an appointment as a personal representative in a wrongful death action, in bad faith for purposes of affecting in any way the application of this section.

Ford argued the beneficiaries should be considered “third-party plaintiffs” expressly excluded by the definition. Ford also argued that the wrongful-death beneficiaries should combined with the decedent into one single plaintiff. In this regard, Ford claimed the decedent’s legal residency should control and Cesar was not a legal resident of Texas. The Texas Supreme Court disagreed with both arguments and held that the intervening wrongful-death beneficiaries were distinct plaintiffs within the meaning of the Texas-resident exception.

According to the Texas Supreme Court, the definition of “plaintiff” excludes only defendants who become “third-party plaintiffs” for purposes of asserting a claim for affirmative relief and does not exclude a plaintiff who asserts a claim against a third party. In this case, the court determined that Cesar’s wrongful death beneficiaries should not be considered defendants because they are not directly pitted against the plaintiff Juan. Rather, even though Juan has asserted claims against Cesar’s estate, both Juan and Cesar’s wrongful death beneficiaries seek to recover from Ford. Under the circumstances, the court found that the beneficiaries were “plaintiffs” not “defendants” even though they appeared initially as “intervenors”:

[T]he intervenors acted like plaintiffs, not defendants filing a third-party claim. They inserted themselves with affirmative claims for relief. The intervenors’ interests are not in direct opposition to the plaintiff’s. … Here, the plaintiff has not opposed the intervenors—in fact, he has joined with them in the action against Ford.

In re Ford Motor Co., NO. 12-0957.

The court agreed with Ford that a wrongful death beneficiaries’ claims are in a sense derivative of a decedent’s claim. However, the court held that this observation does not deprive the intervenors of the status of “plaintiffs” under the statute. The Texas Supreme Court held that wrongful-death beneficiaries and decedents are both distinct plaintiffs under the statute. While beneficiaries’ claims are in a sense derivative, wrongful death beneficiaries are entitled to their own independent recovery that does not benefit the estate.

According to the Texas Supreme Court, the last clause of the statutory definition of “plaintiffs” provides a clear indicator that “includes both” means that wrongful-death beneficiaries and decedents are distinct plaintiffs. The last clause says that the term “plaintiff” “does not include … a person who is assigned a cause of action for personal injury, or who accepts an appointment as a personal representative in a wrongful-death action, in bad faith for purposes of affecting in any way the application of this section.”

The Legislature’s decision to expressly exclude “bad faith” assignees and personal representatives implies that “good faith” assignees and personal representatives are “plaintiffs” for purposes of the statute, according to the court. Because an assignee or a personal representative is a derivative party like a beneficiary, the court determined such a beneficiary should be treated similarly under the statute. Thus, when a decedent’s estate and a wrongful-death beneficiary seek recovery, the term “plaintiff” “includes both” the estate and the beneficiary. Therefore, wrongful-death beneficiaries, like assignees or personal representatives, are distinct plaintiffs under the statute. The court explained:

If we held that beneficiaries are not “plaintiffs” in deference to the derivative-beneficiary rule, we would render the bad-faith exception meaningless. If a good-faith assignee or personal representative can be a plaintiff, then a wrongful-death beneficiary must also be a distinct plaintiff. To hold otherwise would delete the bad-faith exception and violate our duty to “giv[e] effect to all words so that none of the statute’s language is treated as surplusage.”

In re Ford Motor Co., NO. 12-0957.

Because at least one of Cesar’s wrongful death beneficiaries is a legal resident of Texas, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Ford’s motion to dismiss based on forum non conveniens. The Texas Supreme Court denied Ford’s request for relief, and the case was sent back to the trial court.

Crashworthiness, Vehicle and Tire Defect Litigation

Car and truck manufacturers have a duty to build a car that is as safe as is reasonably possible under the present state of mechanical technology, vehicle design, and safety. Manufacturers are obligated to design vehicles so that they are safe for any reasonably foreseeable use.
It is reasonably foreseeable that any car or truck will be involved in a collision. Thus, a car manufacturer’s duty includes designing a vehicle that is reasonably safe when a collision occurs. The ability of a vehicle to protect the occupants of a automobile in a crash is called “vehicle crashworthiness.”

“Crashworthiness” refers broadly to numerous features— for example: seat belts, crumple zones and airbags—which are designed to minimize occupant injuries, prevent ejection from the vehicle, and reduce the risk of fire. During a crash, a vehicle’s occupants are subject to a number of forces that can result in injury, including rapid deceleration and rapid acceleration, depending on the direction of impact in the collision. A crashworthy vehicle design will distribute these injurious forces over as great a period of time and distance as possible, including by directing them to parts of the body that are more capable of withstanding them.

The cause of the “first collision”—a speeding driver, a driver not paying attention, a drunk driver, a driver running a red light, etc.— is generally considered irrelevant in crashworthiness cases. Instead, a crashworthiness case seeks to hold the vehicle manufacturer liable for injuries sustained in a car accident because of a defect that either caused or made worse the injuries suffered in the accident.

A crashworthiness case could involve aspects of the vehicle such as:

  • Air Bags
  • Auto Glass
  • Child Seats
  • Doors
  • Fires
  • Rollovers
  • Roof (“roof crush”)
  • Seat Belts
  • Tires

If you or a loved one have been seriously injured in a car accident, it may well be that the injuries were caused or made worse because the vehicle was not sufficiently crashworthy. In order to determine whether you may have a case, you need to retain experienced, qualified legal counsel at the earliest opportunity.

At Heygood, Orr & Pearson, we have the experience and knowledge to pursue a crashworthiness claim against any of the major auto manufacturers. Contact our law firm for your free case evaluation and to learn more about your legal right to compensation. You can reach us by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by filling out a free legal consultation form.