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Grumbles v. Ineos USA, LLC

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

June 27, 2019

LYNANN GRUMBLES, Appellant,
v.
INEOS USA, LLC, INEOS NITRILES, USA, LLC, A DIVISION OF INEOS USA, LLC, AND ARTURO XAVIER TRUJILLO, Appellees.

          On appeal from the County Court at Law No. 1 of Calhoun County, Texas.

          Before Chief Justice Contreras and Justices Benavides and Longoria

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORA L. LONGORIA JUSTICE

         A jury found that there was no common-law marriage between James Wade Gutierrez, deceased, and appellant Lynann Grumbles. By three issues which we construe as one, Grumbles argues that the jury charge instruction was misleading and served as an improper comment on the weight of the evidence. We affirm.

         I. Background

         On June 10, 2015, Gutierrez died while working for Zachry Industrial Services, Inc. (Zachry) at Ineos's acrylonitrile plant in Port Lavaca, Calhoun County. Grumbles intervened in the present case, which was initiated by Karen Henderson and Miguel Gutierrez, Gutierrez's mother and father. The suit alleged that Ineos USA, LLC, Ineos Nitriles, USA, LLC, a division of Ineos USA, LLC, and Arturo Trujillo (collectively, the appellees) caused the death of Gutierrez through their negligence; Grumbles intervened, alleging she was Gutierrez's common-law spouse. Karen and Miguel eventually nonsuited their claims against the appellees, leaving Grumbles as the sole plaintiff. The trial court granted the appellees' motion for bifurcation; thus, before reaching liability and damages, the case proceeded on the threshold issue of whether Grumbles was Gutierrez's common-law spouse and thereby had standing to bring suit.

         On March 16, 2018, before trial began, Grumbles and the appellees submitted an agreed instruction on common-law marriage: "Two people are married if they agreed to be married and after the agreement they lived together in Texas as spouses and there represented to others that they were married." This language tracks the statute on informal marriage, as well as the applicable Texas Pattern Jury Charge. See Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 2.401(a); Tex. Pattern Jury Charges: Family & Probate § 201.4A (2016 ed.). Trial began on March 26, 2018. Grumbles's mother, Maxine Grumbles, testified that Gutierrez and Grumbles met in the fall of 2012 at a community college. Maxine testified that in November of 2013, Gutierrez and Grumbles moved into an apartment together, where they continued cohabiting until Gutierrez's death in June of 2015. Even though Grumbles could not recall a specific date, she testified that she and Gutierrez agreed to be common-law married sometime in April of 2014.

         One of Gutierrez's coworkers testified that he believed Gutierrez and Grumbles acted like a married couple, at times. However, he also testified that, to his knowledge, they were just boyfriend and girlfriend. Grumbles's friend Daren Galup testified that both Grumbles and Gutierrez told her that they were common-law married. Grumbles did not call her father, Johnny Grumbles, to testify at trial because she "did not have the best relationship" with him; however, Johnny's video deposition testimony was entered into evidence at trial. Johnny averred that Grumbles told him that she and Gutierrez were common-law married around June of 2014. However, Grumbles herself admitted at trial that she only specifically told two individuals about her common-law marriage: her best friend Daren and her mother. Grumbles admitted that she did not even tell her brother, with whom she has a "close relationship," that she was common-law married to Gutierrez. Instead, her brother testified that it was Gutierrez that revealed to him that they were common-law married. Grumbles also testified that after she and Gutierrez agreed to be common-law married, they opened a joint checking account together and they renewed their lease together. Gutierrez and Grumbles never filed their taxes jointly as married; instead, they filed their taxes separately.

         In November of 2014, approximately seven months after Gutierrez and Grumbles allegedly agreed to be common-law married, Gutierrez submitted an employee enrollment form to his employer, Zachry. He listed himself as "single" as opposed to "married" and designated his mother, Karen, as his emergency contact and as the sole beneficiary of his life insurance.

         Gutierrez's mother, father, and step-father all testified that they did not believe that Gutierrez and Grumbles were common-law married. Michael Boudreaux, a friend of Gutierrez's step-father, testified that he went on a hunting trip with Gutierrez in December of 2014; Boudreaux averred that Gutierrez told him on that trip that he did not want to marry Grumbles because he and Grumbles had been fighting a lot recently. Gutierrez's parents testified that Gutierrez also told them that he did not want to marry Grumbles due to ongoing conflict in their relationship. Several of Gutierrez's close friends and coworkers agreed that even though Gutierrez and Grumbles were open about their love for each other, Gutierrez never mentioned being married. None of Gutierrez's friends or coworkers thought he was married.

         Gutierrez's parents additionally testified that Grumbles was present at the funeral home when funeral arrangements were being made. According to Gutierrez's parents, they told the funeral director to list Grumbles as Gutierrez's fiancée in his obituary, to which Grumbles allegedly responded, "I tried every way I could for three years to get him to marry me, and he wouldn't. So don't put me as fiancé[e]. Just put me as 'girlfriend.'" The funeral home director also collected information from Grumbles and Gutierrez's parents to prepare the official death certificate, which listed Gutierrez as "never married." Grumbles's Facebook page indicated that she was "in a relationship" rather than "married."

         As the jury charge was being prepared, the appellees requested the following additional instruction be included in the jury charge:

Isolated references to each other as husband and wife, without more, are insufficient to establish that [Gutierrez] and [Grumbles] each represented to others that they were married. Whether [Gutierrez] and [Grumbles] had a reputation in the community for being married to one another is a significant factor in your determination of whether [Gutierrez] and [Grumbles] each represented to others that they were married.

         Grumbles objected to the proposed instruction, arguing that it was an inaccurate statement of the law and constituted an improper comment on the weight of the evidence. Grumbles ...


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