Venue In Wrongful Death Lawsuits

What is the proper venue for a lawsuit involving multiple businesses?

When your business is sued, Texas law has certain requirements for choosing a venue. Generally, the plaintiff chooses the venue of the case and the venue cannot be changed if the location meets the certain requirements. However, venue can be tricky in personal injury cases when multiple parties are involved.

General Venue Choices in Texas

A plaintiff typically can file a civil lawsuit in at least one of four places:

  1. in the county in which all or a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred;
  2. in the county of defendant’s residence at the time the cause of action accrued if defendant is a natural person (a human being);
  3. in the county of the defendant’s principal office in this state, if the defendant is not a natural person (usually a business of some kind); or
  4. if Subdivisions (1), (2), and (3) do not apply, in the county in which the plaintiff resided at the time of the accrual of the cause of action.

When a case involves multiple defendants, the venue must be proper for at least one of the defendants. Once a defendant specifically challenges the plaintiff’s choice of venue, the plaintiff has the burden to present clear proof, called prima facie proof, that the chosen venue is proper. If the venue is not proper, the court will not have jurisdiction and the case will have to be moved to a different court.

Union Pacific Railroad Company v. Stouffer

In late 2012, a tragic accident involving multiple defendant businesses occurred in Midland, TX. A train struck a parade float that was carrying military veterans and their family members; four veterans died and sixteen other passengers on the float were seriously injured. The parade float was provided by Smith Industries, Inc, a Texas corporation with its principal place of business in Midland, Texas. The train was operated by Union Pacific Railroad Co. The plaintiffs were represented by Catherine Stouffer, whose husband was killed in the accident.

Plaintiffs filed a personal injury and wrongful death suit in Dallas County against Smith Industries and Union Pacific. The petition asserted that venue was proper because Union Pacific maintained a principal office in Dallas County. Union Pacific denied that it maintained a principal office in Dallas County and filed a motion to transfer venue to Midland County.

The Ruling

When challenged, plaintiffs failed to prove that the Dallas County office of Union Pacific was a principal office. While a business can theoretically have more than one principal office, the two offices must have equal power; here, the Harris County office had more power than the Dallas County office. If the plaintiff fails to discharge his burden of proof on venue, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that venue is proper in its chosen county. It was undisputed that Smith maintained its principal office in Midland County and the accident occurred in Midland County. This met two of the four possible venue choices, even though a venue only needs to comply with one of the choices to be proper. Union Pacific was able to have the case transferred to Midland County.

Conclusion

Plaintiffs must choose a venue that complies with at least one of the four choices for venue. In a case with multiple defendants, the rules must be met for at least one defendant for venue to be proper. If challenged, plaintiffs must present clear proof that their choice met with the rules or they risk the case being moved to a different venue chosen by the defendant.