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Litigation Alert: California Appeals Court Limits Discovery Prior to Filing a Forum Non-Conveniens Motion

Date: Jun 09, 2010

The Fourth Appellate District of California recently held in Martinez v. Ford Motor Co., Case Nos. JCCP-4292 / GIC873813 (Cal. App. 4th May 27, 2010), that a defendant may not use California courts to conduct merits discovery unavailable in the venue to which it seeks to have hear the case through a forum non-conveniens motion.

Facts of the Case

In 2006, four Mexican citizens were driving a Ford Explorer in Mexico when the right rear tire separated from the wheel of the vehicle, causing the driver to lose control. The vehicle veered off the road and rolled over. Two passengers were killed and two sustained serious injuries.

In October 2006, the surviving passengers and the parents of the deceased passengers sued Ford Motor Co. and Cooper Tire and Rubber Co., the tire manufacturer, in state court in San Diego County, Calif., where the Explorer had been purchased.

In January 2007, Ford and Cooper filed their Answers to the Complaint. On the same day, Cooper successfully petitioned to have the case transferred to a coordinated proceeding in Los Angeles, Calif., that had been established to hear claims about negligent design of Cooper tires.

Once in the coordinated proceeding, Ford and Cooper pursued aggressive discovery from the plaintiffs. Between February and July 2007, Ford and Cooper served over 1400 pages of written discovery on plaintiffs. Plaintiffs responses spanned more than 650 pages. The discovery went beyond issues relating to the proper forum.

In February 2008, Ford and Cooper moved the trial court to dismiss the lawsuit for forum non-conveniens. They argued that the lawsuit's ties to Mexico predominated over any ties to California: the accident occurred in Mexico; the passengers were all Mexican citizens; the Explorer was owned, registered and operated in Mexico; Mexican officials and physicians responded to the accident and treated the injured parties. The only tie to the United States was that the Explorer was purchased in San Diego County.

The trial court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit, holding that Los Angeles County was a "seriously inconvenient forum."

Holding

On appeal the Fourth Appellate District reversed, holding that Defendants abused the discovery process by delaying their forum non-conveniens motion so they could conduct discovery on issues unrelated to forum non-conveniens that would have been unavailable in Mexican courts. According to the court, Ford and Cooper had sufficient information from the Complaint and its attachments to make the motion at the outset of the lawsuit. Also informing the court's ruling was the prejudice plaintiffs would have suffered through Ford and Cooper's use of the information they unfairly gathered in California.

The court also noted that Ford and Cooper's petition to transfer the case to the coordinated proceeding in Los Angeles conflicts with their assertion that California is an inconvenient forum because the coordinated proceeding was established specifically for the efficiency and convenience of trying issues relating to defects in Cooper tires.

Impact of the Case

In reaching its conclusion, the court of appeals focused predominantly on discovery and gave little consideration to the factors regarding trial. For example, all of the witnesses with any connection to the accident reside in Mexico and would be beyond the subpoena power of a California court. Moreover, because the product failed in Mexico and the plaintiffs were injured and treated in Mexico, it seems likely that Mexican law -- not California law -- would apply, thereby forcing the trial court to learn another country's law.

The court of appeals failed seriously to consider such trial-related issues, instead concluding without discussion that the site of the accident is collateral to the issues raised by product liability actions and that holding the trial in California would provide sufficient access to evidence regarding the design and manufacture of the tires.

Under Martinez, parties contemplating a forum non-conveniens motion should review the discovery rules in the other potential fora to determine what discovery is permitted there. If less than what California allows, the party should limit any pre-motion discovery to issues relating to forum to ensure that a successful motion will not be reversed for potential unfair advantage.