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Gooch v. Packaging Corp.

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

July 17, 2019

JOE GOOCH, Individually and as Personal Representative of the ESTATE OF JODY LYNN GOOCH, Plaintiff,
v.
PACKGING CORP. OF AMERICA, INC. and ELITE SPECIALTY WELDING, LLC, Defendants.

          MEMORU OPINION A ORDER

          SIM LAKE SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the court is Defendant Packaging Corporation of America's Motion for Summary Judgment ("PCA's MSJ") (Docket Entry No. 57). After considering the Plaintiff's and Intervenors' Response to Defendant Packaging Corp. of America's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Plaintiff's Response") (Docket Entry No. 5 9), Defendant Packaging Corporation of America's Reply to Plaintiff and Intervenors' Response to Its Motion for Summary Judgment ("PCA's Reply") (Docket Entry No. 60), the state court pleadings, and the applicable law, the court concludes that PAC's MSJ should be granted.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         On April 25, 2017, plaintiff, Joe Gooch, initiated this action individually and as the personal representative of the estate of his son, Jody Lynn Gooch ("Decedent"), in the 129th Judicial District Court of Harris County, Texas, Cause No. 2017-27526, against defendants, Packaging Corporation of America ("PAC") and Elite Specialty Welding, L. L. C. ("Elite"), asserting claims for negligence and gross negligence and seeking damages arising from the Decedent's wrongful death on February 8, 2017.[1] Plaintiff's petition describes the factual background of this case as follows:

12. An explosion occurred at approximately 11 am CST on Wednesday, February 8th at the PCA DeRidder Containerboard Mill owned by [PCA] . The facility was located in DeRidder, LA . Jody Lynn Gooch was a contractor working for Elite ... at the time of the explosion. Elite ... is principally located in Texas and hired decedent Jody Gooch in Texas. He was killed in the blast along with two other men, William Rolls, Jr[.] and Sedrick Stallworth, while they were engaged in contract work at the DeRidder facility.
13. It is presently unclear exactly what the cause of the blast was, but both the United States Chemical Safety Board ("CSB") and OSHA are invest [igat] ing the blast. The preliminary results from the CSB indicate that a 30 foot tall tank exploded killing Jody Lynn Gooch. It also intimates that welding or "hot work" was being performed and it is likely that the Defendants failed to assure the workers that the equipment being worked on had been purged, blocked or otherwise "cleared" of any potential combustible materials. The Defendant PCA is no stranger to such tragedies and had a similar incident for possibly similar reasons only a few years ago which resulted in fatalities.[2]

         The Decedent is survived by his father (plaintiff Joe E. Gooch), his mother (Intervenor Evelyn Tauber), two siblings (Intervenors Bobby Gooch and Lameshia Machelle Springfield), and by one son (Derrick G. Gooch) .[3] Decedent's son has an action pending in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. [4]

         PAC removed plaintiff's action to this court on June 5, 2017.[5]On July 5, 2017, plaintiff filed a motion to remand.[6] On August 14, 2017, the court denied plaintiff's motion to remand upon concluding that defendant Elite had been improperly joined. [7]

         On September 28, 2017, plaintiff filed a motion seeking to voluntarily dismiss defendant Elite, [8] which the court granted.[9]

         On January 10, 2018, PCA filed a motion seeking to consolidate the action styled Estate of William Rolls, Jr. and Jackie Cormier v. Elite Specialty Welding, LLC, et al., 4:17-CV-03284, pending before a different judge of this court.[10]

         On February 6, 2018, Intervenors - the Decedent's surviving mother, brother, and sister - filed a Motion for Leave to Intervene as Plaintiffs Under Rule 24 (b), [11] which the court granted.[12] The Intervenors assert claims for negligence and gross negligence and seek damages for mental anguish and loss of consortium; the Decedent's mother also seeks damages under the Texas Wrongful Death Statute, Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 71.001, et seq.[13]

         At a hearing held on September 21, 2018, the court denied PCA's motion to consolidate without prejudice.[14]

         On November 16, 2018, PCA filed an Amended Motion to Consolidate, [15] which the court denied on January 7, 2019.[16]

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is authorized if the movant establishes that there is no genuine dispute about any material fact and the law entitles it to judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Disputes about material facts are "genuine" if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2511 (1986). A "party moving for summary judgment must 'demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact,' but need not negate the elements of the nonmovant's case." Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en bane) (per curiam) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553 (1986)). "If the moving party fails to meet this initial burden, the motion must be denied, regardless of the nonmovant's response." Id. If, however, the moving party meets this burden, Rule 56 requires the nonmovant to go beyond the pleadings and show by admissible evidence that specific facts exist over which there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. "[T]he court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 120 S.Ct. 2097, 2110 (2000). Factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the nonmovant, "but only when there is an actual controversy, that is, when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts." Little, 37 F.3d at 1075.

         III. Analysis

         PCA moves the court for summary judgment arguing that the claims asserted in this action are governed by Louisiana law, and that neither plaintiff nor intervenors have capacity to assert claims under Louisiana law.[17] PCA argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because

Plaintiff Joe Gooch has brought suit as both the legal representative of the estate of Decedent and also as his surviving father. Intervenors have brought suit as the mother and siblings of Decedent. Plainly, under Louisiana law, not one of these individuals has capacity to maintain a claim against PCA. It is undisputed that Decedent has a surviving son, Derrick Gooch, who has filed a wrongful death and survival action in Louisiana. Louisiana Civil Code Article 2315.1 (survival action) and Article 2315.2 (wrongful death) establish a hierarchy of those that have a right of action. That is, suit may only be brought by the spouse and child of the deceased. Only in the event there exists no spouse or child may the parents of a decedent bring suit, and only if there exist no spouse, child or parents may the siblings of a decedent bring suit.[18]

         Asserting that "Texas Has the Most Significant Relationship With The Instant Litigation, "[19] Plaintiff and Intervenors respond:

While the fact that the Decedent was killed at a PCA facility in Louisiana weighs in favor of the application of Louisiana law, that fact alone is not determinative of which state law should be applied. The parties agree that the "most significant relationship" test is appropriate for the analysis of choice of law, but Plaintiff disagrees with the outcome upon the application to the facts of this matter. Additionally, Plaintiff disagrees that Defendant's Motion (even if granted) would destroy all of the remaining claims brought by the Plaintiffs.[20]

         Plaintiff and Intervenors argue that plaintiff "would still have a right to maintain any claims brought on behalf of the estate of Jody Lynn Gooch, "[21] and that they all "would still be able to bring claims for their own mental anguish and loss of consortium which are actions independent of survivorship or wrongful death."[22] Plaintiff and Intervenors also argue that

Texas law has already been applied to this matter when [he] and Evelyn Tauber were awarded workers compensation benefits by the Texas Department of Insurance - Division of Workers Compensation. A decision to apply Louisiana law at this late juncture would deprive the insurance carrier of their right to seek subrogation for these funds .[23]

         A. Choice of Law Analysis Requires Application of Louisiana Law

         1. Applicable Law

         "In diversity cases, federal courts apply the choice-of-law rules of the forum state." National Union Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania v. American Eurocopter Corp., 692 F.3d 405, 408 (5th Cir. 2012) (citing Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Electric Manufacturing Co., 61 S.Ct. 1020, 1021 (1941)). "Texas courts initially determine whether there is a conflict between Texas law and the other potentially applicable law." Bailey v. Shell Western E&P, Inc., 609 F.3d 710, 722 (5th Cir. 2010). See also Duncan v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 665 S.W.2d 414, 419 (Tex. 1984) ("[W]e must first determine whether there is a difference between the rules of Texas and New Mexico on this issue."). When a conflict of laws exists in a tort case, "Texas courts generally follow the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Law's 'most significant relationship' test, which entails considering the contacts listed in Restatement § 145 in light of the factors set forth in Restatement § 6." National Union Fire Insurance Co., 692 F.3d at 408 (citing Torrington Co. v. Stutzman, 46 S.W.3d 829, 848 (Tex. 2000), and Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws, § 173 (2010)).

         Section 145 sets forth the following contacts to be considered:

(1) The rights and liabilities of the parties with respect to an issue in tort are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties under the principles stated in§ 6.
(2) Contacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of§ 6 to determine the law applicable to an issue include:
(a) the place where the injury occurred,
(b) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred,
(c) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties, and
(d) the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.
These contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.

Id. § 145.

[T]he number of contacts with a particular state is not determinative. Some contacts are more important than others because they implicate state policies underlying the particular substantive issue. Consequently, selection of the applicable law depends on the qualitative nature of the particular contacts.

Duncan, 665 S.W.2d at 421 (citing Gutierrez v. Collins, 583 S.W.2d 312, 319 (Tex. 19 7 9)) . See also Crim v. International Harvester Co., 646 F.2d 161, 163 (5th Cir. 1981) (recognizing that the court's analysis under the most significant relationship test "does not turn on the number of contacts the event had with each jurisdiction, but, more importantly, on the qualitative nature of those contacts as they are affected by the policies of the rule"). Section 6 of the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts sets forth the following factors to be considered:

(1) A court, subject to constitutional restrictions, will follow a statutory directive of its own state on choice of law.
(2) When there is no such directive, the factors relevant to the choice of the applicable rule of law include
(a) the needs of the interstate and international systems,
(b) the relevant policies of the forum,
(c) the relevant policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue,
(d) the protection of justified expectations,
(e) the basic policies underlying the particular field of law,
(f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and
(g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.

         Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws§ 6 (1971). Section 146, governing personal injuries, and§ 175, governing wrongful death, create a presumption that

the local law of the state where the injury occurred determines the rights and liabilities of the parties, unless, with respect to the particular issue, some other state has a more significant relationship under the principles stated in section 6 to the occurrence and the ...

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