In a 5-4 decision handed down in July, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that third-party beneficiaries of a wrongful-death claim are distinct “plaintiffs” within the meaning of the Texas forum non conveniens statute. The ruling means that wrongful-death beneficiaries may block the dismissal under the forum non conveniens rule of an otherwise eligible case if at least one of them can claim Texas residency under the Texas-resident exception to the rule.
In re Ford Motor Company (No.12-0957) arose from a one-car accident that occurred in Mexico. Juan Mendez was driving a Ford Explorer when a rear tire blew out, causing an accident that injured him and killed his brother, Cesar. Juan, a Mexican resident, sued his brother estate in Hidalgo County, alleging that his brother failed to maintain the vehicle and tires. The estate then filed a third-party claim against Ford on defective design and negligence theories, seeking damages for Cesar’s pre-death pain and suffering and the costs of his funeral. Simultaneously with the estate’s claim against Ford, Cesar’s adult daughter, minor daughter, and the minor daughter’s mother intervened in the estate’s suit as Cesar’s wrongful-death beneficiaries, seeking damages for wrongful death, including pain and suffering, loss of consortium, loss of society, loss of support, and other damages. Subsequently, Juan amended his lawsuit to add Ford as a defendant in his personal-injury claim. Ford moved to dismiss the suit under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, which is codified in §71.051, Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code. The trial court denied the motion, and Ford sought mandamus relief from the 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi. The Court of Appeals likewise denied relief, and Ford appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court upheld the Thirteenth Court and denied mandamus relief. Justice Willett authored the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Hecht and Justices Green, Guzman, and Lehrmann. Justice Johnson filed a dissent, joined by Justices Devine and Brown and in part by Justice Boyd. Justice Boyd also filed a separate dissent.
The case poses the question of whether a wrongful-death beneficiary is a “plaintiff” within the meaning of §71.051. If so, a wrongful-death beneficiary may invoke the Texas-resident exception to the forum non conveniens rule found in §71.051(e) and defeat the dismissal of the case. If not, the case would likely have been dismissed, since, among other things, the underlying plaintiff was a resident of Mexico and the accident took place in Mexico.
The statute defines a “plaintiff” [§71.051(h)(2)] as “a party seeking recovery of damages for personal injury or wrongful death. The definition excludes a “counter-claimant, cross-claimant, or third-party plaintiff or a person who is assigned a cause of action for personal injury, or who accepts appointment as a personal representative in a wrongful death action, in bad faith for purposes of affecting in any way the application” of the forum non conveniens rule. Ford argued that the term “third-party plaintiffs” applies to the beneficiaries. Ford argued further that the beneficiaries met the definition of a “plaintiff” because their claims derived wholly from the decedent, who was a resident of Mexico.
The majority rejected both arguments. Responding to Ford’s first argument, the majority interpreted the statute to limit the scope of cross-claimants, counterclaimants, and third-party plaintiffs only to defendants that assert claims. In the context of the statute, a “third-party plaintiff” means a defendant that files a third-party claim against someone else for purposes of shifting part or all of the liability. The beneficiaries in this case, however, could not be characterized as “defendants” because they could not be “directly pitted against the plaintiff” (6). They asserted their own affirmative claims again Ford, the original plaintiff joined the intervenors, and the interests of the intervenors and the original plaintiff were not directly adverse.
With respect to Ford’s second argument, the majority concluded that the beneficiaries and the decedent were distinct and separate, each of which could assert the Texas residency exception. In this part of the analysis, the majority reasoned that since the Legislature excluded bad-faith assignees and personal representatives from the definition of “plaintiff,” it implied that the definition included good faith assignees and personal representatives. The Court found that he plain language of the statute provided no basis for distinguishing wrongful-death beneficiaries from other derivative parties for purposes of the definition. In response to Ford’s assertion that the wrongful death statute follows the traditional rule that the beneficiary is a derivative plaintiff who stands in the decedent’s shoes and the same law should apply in this case, the majority determined that such an interpretation would nullify the bad-faith exception in the forum statute. It thus applied the principle of statutory construction that requires the court to reconcile a conflict between a general and special provision of the law in favor of the special provision, i.e., the Texas-resident exception.
Ford’s motion for rehearing is currently pending before the Court.