An appeals court in California has ordered reconsideration of a dismissal order in lawsuits filed by 26 plaintiffs who were injured or lost family members in a motor coach accident involving a French tourist company.
The crash happened in the spring of 2009 after the driver, an American, reportedly made an unsafe turn and struck a guardrail, resulting in the vehicle overturning. No other vehicles were involved, and authorities said whether and road conditions weren’t a factor. More than likely, according to the state highway patrol, the driver had been extremely fatigued. It was a 2,000-mile trip, and plaintiffs allege he wasn’t fit to make it.
He’d been seen dozing by passengers a number of times along the trip, and he had even missed several exits leading up to the crash. Four years earlier, while driving a similar bus in Nevada, he struck an elderly woman whom he said he never saw. He was later convicted of a misdemeanor for that offense.
Plaintiffs later filed a flurry of lawsuits against numerous defendants, including:
- The charter bus company that provided transportation for the group
- The bus driver’s estate (the 69-year-old was one of those who perished in the crash)
- The French tour operator
- The Canadian tour operator
Claims against the American charter bus company and the driver’s estate were already settled. However, claims against the foreign companies remain unresolved.
Previously, defendants in the consolidated action of Auffert v. Capitales Tours moved to stay or dismiss the action under the doctrine of forum non conveniens. That means essentially the case would most appropriately be tried in France, the home country of defendants and most of the plaintiffs.
However, plaintiffs took issue with this. First of all, personal injury plaintiffs were likely in French courts to receive less than the $5 million they had collectively accrued in medical bills. A verdict there would mean many of the American hospitals and doctors who treated them would not be paid. Secondly, they argued the crash happened in California, and most of the material witnesses are located there as well.
In 2011, a hearing was held on the motion to dismiss, and the trial court ordered a stay for one year. The expectation was the lawsuit would ultimately be dismissed and plaintiffs would be free to pursue their claims in a French court.
A case was then filed in Paris, but the court ruled that per lis pendens doctrine, the case there couldn’t go through if the case in the U.S. was still pending, even if it had been stayed. Appeals were made all the way up to the highest court in France.
Meanwhile, the stay order in California was affirmed by the appellate court.
Then in 2013, the tour company moved to dismiss the case in California, noting the proceedings in France. Plaintiffs argued the court shouldn’t take any action until the high court in France issued its ruling.
Still, the motion to dismiss was granted, with trial court noting plaintiffs had two years to pursue claims in France or to prevent a French court from having jurisdiction. The court stated it was not the duty of the court to make sure plaintiffs have an adequate alternative forum in which to pursue claims.
In its reversal of that order, the California Court of Appeal for the Sixth Appellate District ruled that decision was premature. Trial court should have waited for the French high court to decide the matter of jurisdiction before making its ruling.
As this case shows, the issue of jurisdiction can be a challenging on, particularly when plaintiffs and defendants do not reside or do business in Florida.
If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Auffert v. Capitales Tours, Aug. 21, 2015, California Court of Appeal, Sixth Appellate District
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