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In re Bridgestone/Firestone

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

June 10, 2015

IN RE BRIDGESTONE/FIRESTONE, ET AL.

Session Date November 18, 2014

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County No. 06MD1, 05C1552, 05C1560, 05C1556, 05C840, 05C1473, 05C1650, 05C1561, 05C1570[1]Thomas W. Brothers, Judge

Steve North, Nashville, Tennessee, Richard L. Denney, Norman, Oklahoma, and Frank Fraiser, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the appellants, Torres, Hernandez, Santin, and Guzman.

A. Scott Ross, Nashville, Tennessee, Gregory G. Garre, and Katherine I. Twomey, Washington, DC, for the appellee, Bridgestone/Firestone.

Stephen A. Marcum, Huntsville, Tennessee, Gregory G. Garre, and Katherine I. Twomey, Washington, DC, for the appellee, Ford Motor Co.

W. Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and Richard H. Dinkins, J., joined.

OPINION

W. NEAL McBRAYER, JUDGE

I. Factual and Procedural Background

A. Initial Proceedings

This is our fourth decision relating to this litigation, albeit the third involving Appellants. See In re Bridgestone/Firestone, 138 S.W.3d 202 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003) (hereinafter "Firestone I "); In re Bridgestone/Firestone, 286 S.W.3d 898 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2008) (hereinafter "Firestone II "); Ramirez v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 414 S.W.3d 707 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2013). In 2001, Mexican citizens and residents filed thirty-one lawsuits against Bridgestone Corporation ("Bridgestone"), Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire, LLC ("Firestone"), and Ford Motor Company ("Ford"). Firestone I, 138 S.W.3d at 204. The plaintiffs filed their complaints in the Circuit Court for Davidson County, where Firestone maintains its principal place of business. Id. The lawsuits arose from automobile accidents occurring in eleven different states throughout Mexico. Id. The plaintiffs alleged that the accidents were caused by certain defects in Firestone tires, either on their own or in conjunction with an alleged propensity of Ford vehicles to roll over. Id. The plaintiffs' complaints included claims for negligence, strict liability, breach of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act, and an alleged civil conspiracy between Ford and Firestone to conceal the defective nature of their products. Id

The trial court consolidated the cases for pretrial proceedings on May 21, 2001. Id. Ford and Firestone moved for dismissal under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, [2] alleging that Mexico was the more appropriate forum to litigate the plaintiffs' claims. Id. at 204-05. The trial court denied the motion for forum non conveniens dismissal, finding that, even assuming the Mexican forum was available, Mexico did not provide a "'truly adequate alternative forum that would allow [for] the fair disposition of these cases.'" Id. at 205 (quoting the trial court's order denying the defendants' forum non conveniens motion). In the alternative, the trial court found that the public and private factors used to conduct a forum non conveniens analysis weighed in favor of the plaintiffs' choice of a Tennessee forum. Id. We subsequently granted the defendants' application for extraordinary appeal under Rule 10 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure, [3]resulting in our decision in Firestone I, 138 S.W.3d 202 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003). Id.

B. Firestone I

In Firestone I, we considered the following issues: (1) "[w]hether the trial court erred by inquiring into the 'adequacy' of an alternative forum as part of its forum non conveniens analysis"; and (2) "[w]hether the trial court erred by denying [defendants'] motion to dismiss under the doctrine of forum non conveniens." Id. In resolving the first issue, we found that the proper inquiry in establishing an alternative forum is to analyze that forum's availability, not its adequacy. Id. at 206. Therefore, the trial court had erred in holding that Mexico presented an inadequate forum to litigate the plaintiffs' cases because "a plaintiff's ability to bring suit is, by itself, determinative of the issue of availability." Id. We then held that, because the record indicated that Ford and Firestone were willing to waive any jurisdictional defenses, Mexico provided an available alternative forum without any further inquiry into the availability of the Mexican courts. Id. at 206-07.

Next we examined the trial court's findings on the public and private interest factors to be weighed in a forum non conveniens analysis. We found, contrary to the trial court, that the public interest factors weighed strongly in favor of requiring the cases to proceed in a Mexican forum. Id. at 209-10. Among other factors, we cited the difficulty our courts would face in interpreting Mexican law that would be applicable to the cases. Id. at 209.

Therefore, we reversed the trial court's decision and granted the defendants' motion for forum non conveniens dismissal. Id. at 210. The plaintiffs filed an application for permission to appeal to our Supreme Court, seeking the addition of a return jurisdiction clause in the event the Mexican courts denied jurisdiction, but the Supreme Court denied the application. See Firestone II, 286 S.W.3d 898, 901 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2008).

C. Firestone II

Following our decision in Firestone I, the plaintiffs filed numerous lawsuits in several Mexican trial courts. Id. at 901. The Mexican courts dismissed all of the cases, and those dismissals that were appealed were affirmed.[4] Id. The majority of these dismissals were for lack of competencia, a Mexican legal concept similar to our doctrine of subject matter jurisdiction. See id. at 901.

The plaintiffs then re-filed twenty-six of the thirty-one previously dismissed actions in the Circuit Court for Davidson County, and the court again consolidated the cases for pretrial purposes. Id. at 902. The defendants responded by filing "motions to dismiss on grounds of [collateral estoppel], [5] arguing that the issues of forum non conveniens and the availability of Mexico as an available alternative forum had been determined in their favor in [Firestone I]." Id. at 900. The trial court denied the motions to dismiss, finding that Mexico was not an available forum, as demonstrated by the dismissals from the Mexican trial courts. Id. The trial court also found that a forum non conveniens dismissal implicitly embraces a return jurisdiction clause in the event the alternative forum is not actually available. Id. at 902.

Following its decision, the trial court granted the defendants permission to seek an interlocutory appeal under Rule 9 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure. [6] Id. We granted the defendants' petition, leading to our decision in Firestone II, 286 S.W.3d 898 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2008). Id. In Firestone II, the defendants argued that the plaintiffs had manipulated the Mexican proceedings in order to secure a dismissal. Id. at 903. Furthermore, regardless of whether the plaintiffs had manipulated the proceedings, the defendants argued that the plaintiffs should be precluded from re-litigating the availability of a Mexican forum under the doctrine of collateral estoppel. Id. at 903.

We concluded "that [collateral estoppel] can apply to the finding underlying a dismissal on the basis of forum non conveniens, and in particular can apply to a finding that an alternate forum is available." Id. at 909. Even recognizing the fact that the trial court never made a finding on whether a Mexican forum was truly available, we nevertheless concluded that the finding of an available alternative forum was necessary to our forum non conveniens dismissal in Firestone ...


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