On Friday the Texas Supreme Court denied a motion for rehearing of its decision to decline review of the Tyler Court of Appeals’ decisions in UPS Ground Freight, Inc. and Phillip Villarreal v. Cameronn Morrison (No. 20-0224) and UPS Ground Freight, Inc. and Phillip Villarreal v. Sean Trotter and Micah Trotter (No. 20-0225). The court’s decision will allow a multiple-party personal injury case to proceed in Rusk County rather than in Collin County, where the accident occurred.
This case arose from a multi-vehicle fatality accident involving a UPS truck and several vehicles that occurred in Collin County. Stephanie Riddle, who was injured in the accident, was the first to file suit, naming UPS, the employee driver Villarreal, and Jacintha McElduff, the administrator of the estate of Nathan Clark, who was killed in the accident. Riddle filed in Rusk County, McElduff’s county of residence. UPS moved to transfer venue to Collin County. At this point, the decedent’s father intervened in the suit, naming UPS and its employee as defendants. McElduff, acting both individually and as administrator of the decedent’s estate, then filed cross claims against UPS and its employee. The trial court denied UPS’s motion to transfer Riddle’s claim. UPS moved transfer venue of the intervenor’s and McElduff’s claims to Collin County, which the trial court likewise denied. Three more plaintiffs, Micah Trotter, who was injured in the accident, her husband, and Cameronn Morrison intervened in the Rusk County suit, naming UPS, its driver, and McElduff as defendants. UPS once more filed a motion to transfer venue, which the trial court denied. UPS filed an interlocutory appeal.
UPS focused its appeal on two issues: (1) did Morrison, the last intervenor, establish independently of every other plaintiff that proper venue was in Rusk County, and (2) did Morrison establish proper venue in Rusk County under the estate administration venue provision in §15.031, CPRC, or the cross-claim provision of §15.062, CPRC. The court of appeals’ analysis commenced with the general rule that in a suit with multiple plaintiffs, each plaintiff, independently of every other plaintiff, must establish proper venue under §15.003(a), CPRC. (As you recall, the Legislature amended the venue statute as part of the 1995 tort reform legislation.) The general venue rule set out in §15.002(a) provides the plaintiff with four options: (1) the county in which all or a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred; (2) if the defendant is a natural person, the county in which the defendant resides; (3) if the defendant is not a natural person, the county in which the defendant has its principal office; and (4) if none of the above apply, the county in which the plaintiff resides at the time the cause of action accrues. Under this rule, venue would have been proper in Collin County, where the accident occurred and where UPS wanted to try the case.
So why was Rusk County proper venue when the accident occurred 150 miles away in Collin County? Section 15.031, CPRC, creates an exception from the general venue rule for suits against an an executor, administrator, or guardian, which may be brought in the county in which the estate is administered. The exception applies to suits against an estate, administrator to establish a money demand against the estate, or if the suit against the administrator grows out of a negligent act or omission of the person whose estate the administrator represents, it may be brought in the county in which the negligent act or omission occurred. Here McElduff, the administrator, resided in Rusk County and administered her son’s estate there. Claims of the intervenors, as well as McElduff’s cross claim against UPS and its driver, piggybacked on this estate administration exception to get the case into Rusk County, presumably a more favorable venue for the plaintiffs than Collin County.
UPS argued that §15.031 should not apply because Morrison’s suit against the estate is not “to establish a money demand.” It urged a more limited interpretation of §15.031 to apply only to claims for liquidated damages. The court of appeals rejected this interpretation, holding that “a suit to establish a money demand” encompasses a personal injury lawsuit that seeks to reduce an unliquidated demand by judgment to a liquidated amount. Venue was therefore proper in Rusk County, “in keeping with the longstanding Texas policy of giving the estate the right of being sued at its locality due to concern about expense to the estate and oversight of the administrator.” The court of appeals pointed out that Morrison could also have filed suit in Collin County under 15.031 where the accident occurred, but that §15.031 established permissive venue in either place. Since venue was proper in Rusk County as to Morrison, it was also proper as to the intervenors by virtue of §15.005, which holds that if venue is proper as to one defendant, it is proper as to all defendants “in all claims or actions arising out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of actions or occurrences.”
In its petition for review, UPS urged SCOTX to adopt a narrower interpretation of §15.031 that would require venue to be transferred to Collin County on the basis either that the court of appeals was wrong about the scope of “suit to establish a money demand” or that the second prong of the statute (allowing suit to be brought in the county where the negligence of the person represented by the administrator occurred) overrides the first. UPS raised the specter that the court of appeals’ opinion encourages forum shopping by allowing the residence of an estate administrator to control venue in multiple party cases arising from an accident that occurred elsewhere. Implicit in this argument is that the plaintiff’s strategy could involve filing suit against a nominal defendant, i.e. the administrator, for the purpose of moving the case from an unfavorable county (Collin) to a friendlier one (Rusk).
There is certainly nothing wrong with doing that if the law allows it, as §15.031 appears to do. It should be noted that in this case that McElduff—the estate administrator and original defendant upon whom venue is based—is represented by plaintiff’s attorneys Brent Goudarzi and Marty Young, who specialize in trucking litigation cases and have a number of nuclear verdicts and settlements to show for it. In any event, SCOTX did not see anything of concern in the court of appeals’ analysis of the law in this particular instance. It will be interesting to see how this case plays out now that venue has been determined, and whether this kind of fact pattern will repeat itself in other cases.