In Re Bridgestone Am. Tire Operations, LLC No. 12-0946

Case Summary written by Jana L. Simons, Staff Member.

JUSTICE LEHRMANN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The present case was before the Supreme Court of Texas on petition for writ of mandamus. In 2009, a car accident occurred in the Mexican state of Neuvo Leon involving four passengers. Armando Alvarado and his wife Maria Isabel Rodriguez were both killed in the accident and their two minor children were injured but survived. Following the accident, in accordance with Mexican law, the children’s grandparents assumed guardianship and custody in Neuvo Leon.

The family purchased their 1996 Ford Explorer from a Mexican-based company, Librado Leal who imported the vehicle to Mexico from a Texas-based company, Gutierrez Auto Sales. A defective tire allegedly caused the accident, which occurred two years after acquisition of the car. The record was deficient on specific facts regarding maintenance of the vehicle or tires over the course of ownership and the record did not indicate that the tire was manufactured in Texas.

The children’s uncle, Gilberto Rodriguez, a resident of Texas, filed suit in Texas, as a next friend of the children, against Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, LLC (a Delaware corporation), Texas-based Gutierrez Brothers, Inc., and Gutierrez Auto Sales.

Bridgestone asserted that Rodriguez could not sue on behalf of the children as a next friend because their grandparents ere their rightful guardians. Further, Bridgestone argued that the case belonged in Mexico because there were no substantive ties to Texas and a next friend is not a plaintiff for the purposes the Texas exception. Bridgestone attempted to transfer the case to Mexico by filing a forum non conveniens motion; but the trial court denied the motion. The appellate court also affirmed the trial court’s decision because the children’s uncle, who filed the suit, was a resident of Texas, thus concluding the suit was proper in Texas.

Issue: The issue before the Court was multidimensional: (1) whether the children could sue through a next friend when they had no properly appointed or recognized guardian in the United States, (2) whether a next friend of the children was, by definition, a plaintiff that would trigger the Texas exception (which allows all Texas residents to file suit in the state regardless of where the cause of action occurred), and (3) assuming the case could be brought by a next friend on behalf of the children, whether Texas was the proper forum. The Court reviewed the trial court’s decision for abuse of discretion.

The Court first addressed the children’s right to sue through a next friend under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 44. Rule 44 allows minors to bring suit through a next friend if he or she lacks a legal guardian. Bridgestone contended this rule exempted Rodriguez due to the existence of legal guardians for the children, their grandparents. The Court clearly stated that if the children’s grandparents were, in fact, their guardians, Rule 44 did not allow a next friend to sue on their behalf. The question next turned on whether the state of Texas recognized the children’s grandparents as their legal guardians since they were granted guardianship under Mexican law. The Court compared the guardian position to an executor or administrator. Under those positions, the executor or administrator is only authoritatively recognized in the state in which he or she is appointed. Ultimately, although the children’s grandparents were not recognized as legal guardians outside of the jurisdiction that granted the authority, the Court concluded that the grandparents were able to bring a suit as next friend.

The Court also examined the proper definition of a plaintiff in order to determine who was the proper person to sue as next friend of the children, and specifically, whether Rodriguez qualified. The Court stated that a next of friend is not a plaintiff by definition under the Texas Civil Practice and Remedy Code § 71.051(h)(2). Therefore, because the next friend was not an actual party to the suit, the Texas exception was not triggered by the Rodriguez’s residency in Texas. Moreover, if the children were of an age to sue personally, they would lack the right to sue in Texas, therefore, a next friend could not do so either.

Finally, the Court considered Bridgestone’s contention that the proper forum for the suit was in Mexico. The Court examined the factors of forum non-conveniens and relied on the Court’s decision in In re Pirelli Tire, LLC, 247 S.W.3d 670 (Tex. 2007) to determine that the accident and evidence occured in Mexico, with very little connection to Texas. The Court held that public interest favored the case being brought in Mexico. The Court reversed the decision of the appellate court and dismissed the case for forum non-conveniens. Further, Bridgestone submitted to a jurisdiction in Mexico and waived any statue of limitations that might have applied. The Court also briefly mentioned that although a Texasbased company owned the vehicle for a short time, Mexico had jurisdiction over all defendants.