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Judges rule Texas courts have specific jurisdiction over nonresident company in fatal crash case

State Court

By Charmaine Little | Nov 4, 2019

Justice Hollis Horton

BEAUMONT-- A Texas appeals court has determined that a lower court did have jurisdiction to rule in a fatal car accident that included a nonresident as a plaintiff.

Thanks to the Texas long-arm statute, the Texas Ninth District Court of Appeals ruled that the Jefferson County District Court did have jurisdiction in the case. The long-arm statute “authorizes Texas courts to exercise jurisdiction over nonresident defendants in lawsuits if the defendant commits a tort in whole or in part of Texas,” according to the opinion. Justice Hollis Horton wrote the opinion. Chief Justice Steve McKeithen and justice Charles Kreger concurred.

Heniff Transportation LLC, which is based in Illinois and has offices and workers in Texas, filed the appeal in Zola Mack’s case against it after the district court determined it had jurisdiction over Heniff via the statute. Mack sued on behalf of her late husband, John Mack’s estate. John Mack was involved in a fatal accident while leasing his tractor to Heniff.

Horton wrote, “A substantial connection exists between Heniff’s Texas-based contact and the operative facts of the litigation, we hold Texas courts can exercise specific jurisdiction over Zola’s wrongful death and survival claims.”

Although Heniff took issue with one of its employees, Pamela Hayes, contributing to an affidavit to back Zola Mack’s case, Horton wrote, “Under the Texas rule of evidence, statements made by those employed by the opposing party when still employed are not hearsay when offered against the party for whom the employee worked.”

The appeals court also approved the involvement of Heniff terminal manager Justin Talmadge, whom Hayes said told her than an investigation revealed Alex Willett, the Heniff employee driving the car at the time of the fatal crash, fell asleep at the wheel.

Heniff argued this conclusion was hearsay, but the judges noted Hayes was John Mack’s assistant manager, and the person who dispatched Mack, so she could have easily come across information related to the investigation.

Heniff also alleged that Zola Mack did not prove it could be sued in Texas.  Mack alleged Heniff was guilty of two torts in Texas when it allegedly allowed Willett to leave with the load that was being delivered, knowing that he was tired, and that as his employer, Heniff was liable for Willett getting on the road if he were sleepy. “We conclude that Zola’s pleadings allege facts that required Heniff to file a sworn denial or its equivalent to these two Texas-based tort claims,” Horton wrote. “Heniff did not file a sworn denial or its functional equivalent regarding the factual basis of these two Texas-based tort claims.”

Heniff noted that the actual accident happened in Louisiana when the two men were heading to Florida, but the appeals court also pointed out a court’s jurisdiction is determined by where the actual negligence took place, not the injuries. Considering Zola Mack noted that the actions happened in Texas when Heniff failed to stop Willett from getting on the road, the appeals court backed her in this argument.

While Hennif also said it wasn’t responsible for Willett’s decision to drive, the appeals court wrote, “Heniff ignores the responsibilities imposed on it as a motor carrier operating in interstate commerce.”

Even though the appeals court determined Texas courts have specific jurisdiction over cases like this, it also noted that the court doesn’t have general jurisdiction over Heniff, which is a nonresident. Still, the lower court’s decision to exercise general jurisdiction wasn’t harmful since Texas courts do have specific jurisdiction. The appeals court simply corrected the lower court’s order concerning the matter.

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