Mexican family can't pursue claims in Texas, Justices rule

By The SE Texas Record | Apr 28, 2015

AUSTIN – Mexican brothers whose parents died in Mexico can’t pursue Texas justice through a Texas uncle, the Supreme Court of Texas has ruled.

All nine Justices held April 24 that Gilberto Rodriguez, who filed a wrongful death suit as “next friend” of Diego and Elian Rodriguez, did not fit the definition of plaintiff.

Texas allows lawsuits over events in Mexico, if a Texan stands as plaintiff.

The Justices reversed Ninth District appellate judges in Beaumont, who regarded the uncle as a proper plaintiff.

“Texas courts have no responsibility to protect the interests of next friends, who themselves must protect and advance the interests of the minors suing through them," Justice Debra Lehrmann wrote. “That is, next friends have no interest in keeping a case in Texas beyond the interests of the minors they represent.”

Rodriguez sued tire maker Bridgestone in 2009, claiming a defective tire caused an accident that killed Maria Rodriguez and Armando Alvarado.

He identified himself as next friend, under Texas law that provides for such a position when a child has no legal guardian.

Bridgestone moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that the boys didn’t need a next friend because their grandparents in Mexico acted as their legal guardians.

Bridgestone argued that a next friend lacks the status of a personal representative, who can act as plaintiff.

Montgomery County District Judge Michael Mayes denied the motion, ruling that Rodriguez qualified as plaintiff.

He wrote that the boys had no legal guardian in Texas.

Bridgestone petitioned the Ninth District to halt the proceedings, and Ninth District judges upheld Mayes.

“Gilberto is a Texas citizen and he is a properly joined plaintiff," the company argued. “Based on our review, every court considering whether a trial court could appoint a next friend under such a circumstance has held that without letters of guardianship issued by a Texas court, the trial court had the right to appoint a next friend to represent the minor.”

The company held that the Legislature did not limit its definition of “personal representative” to persons formally named as guardians.

At the Supreme Court, Bridgestone prevailed.

Lehrmann quoted the definition of plaintiff, “a party seeking recovery of damages for personal injury or wrongful death,” and wrote that Rodriguez did not qualify.

She quoted a decision from 1984 that, “In a suit by a next friend, the real party plaintiff is the child and not the next friend.”

Citing a decision from 1863, she wrote, “Indeed, we long ago stated that the next friend is not a party to the suit instituted by a minor by his aid.”

She quoted a U. S. Supreme Court decision that, “It is the infant, and not the next friend, who is the real and proper party.”

In that decision, the Justices in Washington compared a next friend to an attorney or a guardian ad litem.

Lehrmann wrote that the Ninth District opinion “stretches the definition of plaintiff beyond the breaking point.”

She wrote that if the definition of personal representative included a next friend, she saw no reason not to include a guardian ad litem or an attorney ad litem.

“Yet it would be absurd to classify a guardian ad litem as a plaintiff, and, for the reasons discussed above, it makes no more sense so to classify a next friend,” she wrote.

John Skaggs of McAllen and Larry Lawrence of Austin represented Rodriguez.

Thad Jenks of Houston represented Bridgestone.

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