California Court of Appeals Reverses Dismissal of Vehicle Accident Case as Forum Issue Remains Unsettled

The California Court of Appeal recently reversed an order dismissing a case involving a bus accident on Highway 101 in Monterey County. The issue before the court in this case centered on where the action should be tried. The accident led to a consolidated action brought by the passengers or their families against Capitales Tours, S.A. and others. In the first appeal from the 2009 accident, the California Court of Appeal affirmed an order applying forum non conveniens, staying the action for one year. Forum non conveniens provides courts the power to dismiss a case for another court, or forum, that is better suited for the case.

After the stay, which lasted two years, the superior court dismissed the action on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not pursue their claims in France and opposed the French courts’ assumption of jurisdiction. The plaintiffs again appealed and alleged the order was premature and did not comply with procedural and substantive dismissal requirements.

In the accident that led to the litigation, a bus driver lost control of the vehicle while crossing a bridge and collided with the bridge rails, eventually rolling the bus onto its side. Eighteen passengers of the 34 French tourists, and their guide, were ejected from the vehicle, and several were thrown over the bridge onto the railroad tracks below. The driver and four passengers were killed, 21 were severely injured, and 10 suffered minor injuries.

Procedurally, 26 plaintiffs brought four lawsuits, naming the tour company and other defendants. The defendants moved to dismiss, or in the alternative, stay the action on the grounds that France was a suitable alternative forum and that public and private factors supported moving the case to France. The plaintiffs opposed the motion and claimed that most of the material witnesses were in California, including the emergency and hospital personnel. The plaintiffs also alleged the hospitals would likely receive little if the cases were transferred and that the plaintiffs themselves would not recover enough to cover outstanding medical bills.

In determining that France was a suitable alternative forum, the superior court held that public and private interest factors favored France as a forum. The court stayed the consolidated actions for one year. The actions would be dismissed if France accepted jurisdiction by that time.

In France, the defendants asked the French court to accept jurisdiction, but the pretrial judge accepted the plaintiffs’ argument invoking the doctrine of lis pendens on the grounds that Monterey had not completely declined jurisdiction. The lis pendens ruling was appealed, but the appellate court in France declined to retain jurisdiction because the merits of the case needed to be decided by the lower court before proceeding. The plaintiffs appealed the decision of this case to the highest court of France.

Eventually, the defendants moved to dismiss the action in California, on the grounds that the plaintiffs failed to initiate proceedings in France as anticipated by the Monterey court judge when the action was stayed. The plaintiffs argued they were under no obligation to initiate another action in France, since they were waiting for the highest court’s decision.

In dismissing the action, the superior court stated that the plaintiffs had more than two years to pursue their claims in France. They had failed to do so and thus had prevented French court jurisdiction.   The court filed its order dismissing the action, and the plaintiffs filed their notice of appeal.

On appeal in California, the appellate court stated that the standard of review for a forum non conveniens motion is abuse of discretion. In this case, the procedural “anomaly” is as follows. The dismissal of the plaintiffs’ case was delayed until it could be established the French courts had jurisdiction to hear the case.

Here, the appellate court stated the contingency on which the dismissal depended had not yet occurred at the time of the hearing and the lower court’s ruling. But the superior court declined to wait for the French court to rule on the jurisdictional question.

During the two-year period, the plaintiffs pursued their appeal in California and in the Supreme Court, and they worked to oppose the French court’s jurisdiction. The appellate court stated that the plaintiffs should not be “sanctioned” for pursuing appellate remedies in California and opposing the jurisdiction of the French courts.

The appellate court reversed the order dismissing the case. The court stated it was unclear if the French judicial system would hear the issue of the defendants’ liability to the plaintiffs for the bus accident. On remand, the superior court is to review the evidence in order to conclude whether the matter will be heard in the alternative forum. If it will not, the stay should be lifted and the action heard so that the parties can resolve the dispute.

In personal injury matters, procedural issues often play a large role in the courtroom. At Sharifi Firm, we bring years of experience to our client representation in many personal injury matters, including fatal car accidents. Call us today for a free consultation at 866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Holds Evidence of Pretrial Settlement Between Plaintiff and One of Two Defendants Should Have Been Admitted at Trial, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 27, 2015

California Appeals Court Remands for New Trial in Car Accident Case Involving Issues of Credibility, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 17, 2015

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