April 9, 2015
by Angela Morris
Texas courts should be for Texas residents rather than serving as the world’s courts, Rep. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas, said when explaining a bill that would change the way courts dismiss lawsuits that fit better in other jurisdictions.
Sheets told members of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee on April 7 that House Bill 1692 would amend state law concerning the forum non conveniens doctrine, in which courts dismiss nonresidents’ lawsuits that have little to no connection to Texas.
“The Texas definition of legal resident is too broad,” said Sheets. “If someone just intends to move to Texas, they could be considered a resident.”
The bill addresses In Re Ford Motor Co., a 2014 Texas Supreme Court case in which a Mexican national died in a car accident in Mexico. His wrongful death beneficiaries sued Ford Motor Co. in a Texas court. The company argued that the beneficiaries were not plaintiffs under forum non conveniens but the high court disagreed, noting that it relied on a Texas-resident exception in the law.
The bill deletes that exemption by removing a definition of “legal resident” and clarifying that a plaintiff is not an intervener, beneficiary, next friend or the estate of a nonresident decedent.
Current law prohibits courts from dismissing plaintiffs’ lawsuits if they are legal residents or if a legal resident was properly joined in a suit with a nonresident plaintiff. The bill would delete that provision and instead instruct courts—for a resident plaintiff or for litigation connected to Texas—to give “substantial deference” to a plaintiff’s choice of forum in Texas.
Austin solo George Christian, speaking for the Texas Civil Justice League, said that most states use a forum non conveniens doctrine established through common law, following a federal standard. Judges there use a balancing test. He said that under the bill, Texas residents could still bring lawsuits in Texas; for nonresidents, judges would use a balancing test to decide if the case was connected to Texas.
Doug Lampe, inhouse counsel at Ford Motor Co., said his company and others in the business community were concerned by the Supreme Court’s decision in In Re Ford Motor Co. He said that in the past five years, the company has defended itself in 67 cases involving accidents that occurred in other countries and plaintiffs that were not legitimate Texas residents. Lampe said it’s hard defending against these cases because the state courts’ subpoena power does not extend to other countries, thus hindering discovery. Other auto companies are experiencing the same thing, he said.
“We think that’s something probably not intended by the Legislature …and we wanted to convey that information to you,” said Lampe.
Laura Tamez, vice president of communications for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, said the current forum non conveniens statute doesn’t need changing. It allows a nonresident to sue in Texas, but it also enables defendants to challenge the forum. The trial court then must do an analysis on multiple factors, balancing public and private interests and using discretion to decide the argument, said Tamez.
“It’s not just anybody could sue and then move forward,” she said. “Each case turns on its own facts—it’s not one size fits all. … It’s not like a plaintiff is gaining an advantage over defendants or vice versa.”
Tamez said the way the bill amends the definition of plaintiff would close the courthouse doors on intervenors, beneficiaries, next friends and other derivative parties. It also would require plaintiffs who are Texas residents to take on the burden of proving residency, although defendants now have that burden, she said.
Sheets said he’s working with legal groups that have concerns about the bill, and he intends to introduce a substitute version later.