Geismar Wrongful Death Action Focuses on Choice of Litigation Forum

A common litigation strategy employed by savvy plaintiffs is choosing the most favorable jurisdiction in which to file a complaint. Favorability can turn on a number of factors including geographical convenience, the perception that a “local” jury may be more sympathetic, or that certain judges are more welcoming to the plaintiff’s particular cause of action than others. The choice of forum is governed by a series of procedural rules, but in many instances a plaintiff’s case may be properly filed in more than one parish. Or, in a case involving multiple defendants, there may be a need to decide between filing in state or federal court. Generally, state court is preferred by plaintiffs in tort actions, but federal court may be the only available forum when one or more defendants is not a resident of Louisiana. Accordingly, a critical part of the forum selection strategy is deciding whom to name as a defendant. Federal civil procedure rules seek to limit the parties’ unfair manipulation of defendants to affect forum choice.

The term “complete diversity” refers to the situation where none of the plaintiffs in a case is from the same state as any of the defendants; this results in jurisdiction by the federal court. A plaintiff who prefers to have his case heard in state court may attempt to name a defendant who resides in his own state in order to destroy complete diversity. The concept of “improper joinder,” however, can be employed by a defendant who favors federal court to challenge the plaintiff’s inclusion of the in-state, or “non-diverse,” defendant. To do so, the objecting defendant must demonstrate either

(1) actual fraud in the pleading of jurisdictional facts, or
(2) [the] inability of the plaintiff to establish a cause of action against the non-diverse party in state court. See Smallwood v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co.

In the second method, the test is whether “there is no reasonable basis for the district court to predict that the plaintiff might be able to recover against [the] in-state defendant.” The federal court is permitted to engage in a summary judgment-style analysis to decide whether the plaintiff has a reasonable basis of recovery under state law. The court may also, through a “simple and quick inquiry,” determine the presence of “discrete and undisputed facts that would preclude the plaintiff’s recovery against the in-state defendant.”

A recent example of this process can be found in Kemp v. CTL Distribution, Inc. in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The case involved a wrongful death action filed by the family of Martin Young. Young was employed by the Delta Trailer Company in Geismar, Louisiana where he worked in a truck terminal owned by CTL Distribution. Young died from exposure to toxic fumes that came from chemicals that were improperly left in a tanker trailer. The lawsuit was originally filed in state court and named as defendants CTL, a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Florida, and Roger McLelland, a Louisiana citizen and manager of the CTL terminal where Martin Young died. CTL removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, alleging that McLelland was fraudulently joined. The district court agreed, concluding that the plaintiffs’ executive-officer negligence and
spoliation-of-evidence claims against McLelland would fail in state court. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit conducted its own review of the pleadings and determined that “Plaintiffs have no possibility of prevailing on either claim against McLelland, [and] the district court did not err in finding that McLelland was improperly joined to defeat federal jurisdiction.”

If you have been injured by someone’s negligence, you need an experienced attorney to help you navigate the complex waters of tort litigation, including the quesion of which court to bring your action.

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