Texas SC rules wrongful death case belongs in Singapore or Australia, not Texas

Steve Korris May 11, 2010, 4:55pm

Justices of the Supreme Court of Texas

AUSTIN – Dallas County District Judge Gena Slaughter kept a wrongful death suit that belonged halfway around the globe, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled on May 7.

"The case involves an injury that happened in Singapore's territorial waters on a Liberian flagged vessel to an Australian citizen employed by an Australian company," the justices wrote.

They declared Dallas County an inconvenient forum for defendant ENSCO Offshore International and its affiliates, though they have corporate offices in Dallas.

The wife of a deceased worker who had tried to sue in Texas can now refile her suit in Singapore or Australia.

Paul Merema, an Australian citizen, worked for Total Marine Services of Western Australia. Total Marine contracted to provide personnel for an ENSCO drilling rig docked at a shipyard in Singapore.

Merema was killed in an accident that was investigated by four agencies of the Singapore government as well as a private testing service.

His widow, Margaret Merena, sued Total Marine Services in Western Australia, and ENSCO filed an indemnity suit against Total Marine Services there.

Margaret Merema and her husband's estate then sued ENSCO in Dallas County.

ENSCO moved to dismiss so Merena could sue in a more convenient forum.

Margaret Merema answered that ENSCO's negligence emanated from Dallas, and produced an accident report from Total Marine Services, quoting workers who blamed the failure of safety systems on lack of commitment from management.

"Several persons suggested that commercial imperative was perceived to be interfering with safety management," the report stated.

Merema argued that nine of 29 men working on the rig were U. S. citizens, including four from Texas. She asserted that documents from Australia and Singapore could reach Dallas by shipment or electronic mail.

She pointed out that with witnesses all over the globe, trial would be inconvenient in any forum. But because the case involved actions of Texas parties, the people of Texas had an interest in resolving it, she argued.

When ENSCO argued that a Texas court shouldn't apply law of Singapore or Australia, Merema answered that Texas law or the federal Death on the High Seas Act would apply.

ENSCO pleaded that it couldn't consolidate its Australian suit against Total Marine Services with a Texas suit or determine common issues in Texas.

At a hearing, Judge Slaughter said, "While I do think all the factors weigh in favor of a different forum, probably in Australia, I don't think that they weigh so heavily that I've got to dismiss this case."

ENSCO petitioned Third District appeals judges in Dallas for a writ of mandamus, and they denied it. When ENSCO petitioned again for a writ, the Supreme Court justices granted it.

Their unsigned opinion stated that "the lack of compulsory process for reaching the great majority of witnesses would be substantially unjust."

They wrote that investigators and shipyard employees were in Signapore and Paul Merema's family was in Australia.

The rig manager is in India, they wrote, and three of four men who witnessed the incident were citizens of Australia or New Zealand.

Easy delivery of documents and evidence does not cure the difficulties posed by the lack of process to secure their production, they wrote.

"Merema argues that because witnesses are scattered around the globe, there will be inconvenience no matter where the suit is tried, and that is true," they wrote.

"But clearly the great majority of witnesses and most of the evidence remain in Australia and Singapore," they wrote.

"The cost, timer, and scheduling difficulties to obtain evidence and present witness testimony would be far greater if the case were tried in Texas," they wrote.

They rejected the accident report and wrote, "Merema has not identified any corporate policy linked to Paul's death."

She failed to explain why Texas law would apply, and even if it did, they added, other public interest factors favored dismissal.

Robert Klawetter, Christina Schovajsa and Michael Hurst represented ENSCO.

Eric Pearson and James Orr represented Merema.

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