Before a court can render judgment in a lawsuit, it must have both subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction, also called in rem jurisdiction, refers to the general category (i.e., subject matter) of the case. For instance, a state probate court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over a federal criminal matter, and a Texas state court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to determine a boundary line dispute arising in Tennessee.
In addition to subject matter jurisdiction, a court must also have personal jurisdiction over the parties to the suit. Jurisdiction over the “person” includes not only individuals but also corporations. If a court lacks personal jurisdiction over a party, it cannot render a judgment against that party, regardless of the merits of the plaintiff’s claim.
The Facts of the Case
In the recent case of Bautista v. Trinidad Drilling Limited, the plaintiff was a woman who brought suit individually and as next friend of her minor children, seeking to recover wrongful death damages for the death of her husband, who was killed while installing a drilling rig for his employer. The employer was an indirect subsidiary of one of the defendants in the woman’s suit.
According to the allegations in the complaint, the decedent died when a piece of the rig came loose and fell on him. The plaintiff’s suit named several defendants and alleged multiple theories of liability. One defendant, the company of which the deceased man’s employer was an indirect subsidiary, entered a special appearance and sought dismissal of the action against it on the basis that it was not subject to personal jurisdiction. As grounds, it stated that it was a foreign corporation, organized under the laws of Canada and doing business in Canada.
The District Court of Harris County granted the motion, and the woman appealed.
The Decision of the Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas
The court first acknowledged that Texas courts can exercise personal jurisdiction over a nonresident in some cases, but it noted that even cases attempting to reach out-of-state defendants under the Texas long-arm statute need to comply with the due-process guarantees of the state and federal constitutions.
In the case of a corporate defendant, long-arm jurisdiction can apply if the corporation is found to have been “doing business” in Texas at the time of the incident giving rise to the suit. Pursuant to both state and federal laws, this requires that the nonresident establish at least minimum contacts with the forum state (here, Texas) in order to satisfy the requirements of fair play and substantial justice.
Since the record did not support a finding that the defendant’s contacts with Texas were so substantial that it was “essentially at home” in the state, the court found that the defendant had successfully negated the possibility of personal jurisdiction against it in the plaintiff’s wrongful death lawsuit.
For Help with a Legal Matter
If you have lost a loved one and need to speak to an experienced Texas wrongful death attorney, the Law Office of Earl Drott can help. Call us at (903) 531-9300 and ask for a free consultation. No attorney fees are due unless we collect a settlement or judgment in your favor. Our offices are located in Tyler, and we serve all of East Texas.
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