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Ex parte Continental Motors, Inc.

Supreme Court of Alabama

June 29, 2018

Ex parte Continental Motors, Inc.
v.
Continental Motors, Inc., et al. In re: Gilbert Goldstein et al. Ex parte RAM Aircraft, LP In re: Gilbert Goldstein et al.
v.
Continental Motors, Inc., et al.

          Mobile Circuit Court, CV-11-900525

          PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS

          PARKER, JUSTICE.

         Numerous plaintiffs, identified below, filed a wrongful-death action under § 6-5-410, Ala. Code 1975, against Continental Motors, Inc. ("CMI"), and RAM Aircraft, LP ("RAM"), among others, in the Mobile Circuit Court ("the circuit court") on behalf of the heirs of Mark Goldstein, Marjorie Gonzalez, and Luis Angel Lopez Barillas (hereinafter collectively referred to as "the decedents"). CMI and RAM filed motions for a summary judgment arguing that none of the plaintiffs was a personal representative of the decedents and, thus, that the plaintiffs lacked the authority to pursue the wrongful-death claims. The circuit court denied CMI's and RAM's summary-judgment motions. CMI and RAM separately petition this Court for a writ of mandamus directing the circuit court to set aside its orders denying their summary-judgment motions and to enter an order granting their summary-judgment motions, thereby dismissing the plaintiffs' wrongful- death action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. We grant CMI's and RAM's petitions in part and deny them in part.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On March 10, 2010, the decedents died in an airplane crash in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The crash was allegedly a result of a defective starter-adapter assembly that had been manufactured by CMI and/or the failure of the airplane's engine, which had been refurbished by RAM. Mark and Marjorie were citizens and residents of Honduras; Luis was a citizen and resident of Guatemala. The administration of each of the decedents' estates was conducted in their respective countries of citizenship and residence.

         On June 23, 2010, Belinda Milagro Valladares Andino was appointed as the "administrator of the intestate will or testament" of Luis in Guatemala. On September 2, 2010, Adam Goldstein, Andrew Goldstein, and Karen Rosenthal were recognized by a Honduran court as the "intestate heirs of all goods, rights and shares left at [Mark's] death." There is no Honduran court order before this Court indicating that any individual was appointed as an administrator or personal representative of Marjorie's estate.

         On March 8, 2011, the following plaintiffs filed in the circuit court the underlying wrongful-death action against CMI and RAM, among others:

"Gilbert Goldstein, Alice Goldstein, individually, and as Personal Representatives of the Estate of Mark Goldstein, deceased; Adam Goldstein; Andrew Goldstein; David Goldstein; Jose Rolando Gonzalez, individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Marjorie Alexandra Gonzalez, and as guardian and next friend of Alanis Montserrath Gonzalez, a minor; Belinda Milagro Valladares Andino, individually, as the natural mother and next friend of Francisco Valladares, a minor, and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Luis Angel Lopez Barillas, deceased...."[1]

         The plaintiffs' complaint stated that, because the "subject crash and injuries occurred in Honduras[, ] ... the case will be governed by the substantive law of Honduras." Apparently, Honduran law allows a decedent's next-of-kin to pursue a wrongful-death action; Alabama law authorizes only a "personal representative" to pursue a wrongful-death action. See § 6-5-410.

         On October 31, 2011, Adam Goldstein and Rosenthal were appointed by a Florida court as personal representatives of Mark's estate. The Florida court's order appointing Adam Goldstein and Rosenthal as personal representatives states, in pertinent part:

"Whereas, Mark F. Goldstein ... died on March 10, 2010, owning assets in the State of Florida, and
"....
"Whereas ... Adam Joseph Goldstein and Karen Rosenthal have been appointed personal representatives of the Florida estate of the decedent and [have] performed all acts prerequisite to issuance of Letters of Administration in the estate,
"Now, therefore, I, the undersigned circuit court judge, declare Adam Joseph Goldstein and Karen Rosenthal duly qualified under the laws of the State of Florida to act as ancillary personal representatives of the estate of Mark F. Goldstein, deceased, with full power to administer the estate according to law; to ask, demand, sue for, recover and receive the property of the decedent; to pay the debts of the decedent as far as the assets of the estate will permit and the law directs; and to make distribution of the estate according to law."

         On February 29, 2012, representatives of the decedents filed in the Mobile Probate Court ("the probate court") petitions for the appointment of an administrator ad litem for each of the decedents' estates pursuant to § 43-2-250, Ala. Code 1975. The petitions stated that, "under Honduran law, the estate proceedings for the decedent[s] could be closed prior to the resolution of the pending [wrongful-death] action which would leave the estate ... without an administrator to continue the pending [wrongful-death] action on behalf of the decedent[s]." Each petition was assigned a different case number in the probate court. On March 2, 2012, the probate court entered identical orders in each of the three cases appointing Leslie T. Fields as the administrator ad litem of each of the decedents' estates "with the ... limited powers, duties, and responsibilities ... to pursue the claims of [the decedents], or [their] estate[s], as set forth in [the wrongful-death action] before the Circuit Court of Mobile County, Alabama."

         On March 7, 2012, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint adding the following parties as plaintiffs: "Adam Goldstein, individually, and as Co-Personal Representative of the Estate of Mark Goldstein, deceased"; Alice Goldstein; "Karen Rosenthal, as Co-Personal Representative of the Estate of Mark Goldstein, deceased"; and "Leslie T. Fields as Co-Personal Representative" of the estates of the decedents.

         During the pendency of this action, the Alabama Constitution was amended by the adoption of Amendment No. 884, now § 13.50, Ala. Const. 1901, effective December 1, 2014. In its answer to one of the plaintiffs' numerous amended complaints, CMI asserted as an affirmative defense that § 13.50 "barred in whole or in part" the plaintiffs' claims. Section 13.50 states, in pertinent part:

"(b) The law of Alabama provides:
"....
"(5) Different from the law of the State of Alabama is foreign law, which is any law, rule, or legal code, or system established, used, or applied in a jurisdiction outside of the states or territories of the United States, or which exist as a separate body of law, legal code, or system adopted or used anywhere by any people, group, or culture different from the Constitution and laws of the United States or the State of Alabama.
"....
"(c) A court, arbitrator, administrative agency, or other adjudicative, arbitrative, or enforcement authority shall not apply or enforce a foreign law if doing so would violate any state law or a right guaranteed by the Constitution of this state or of the United States."

         On June 10, 2015, the plaintiffs filed a motion stating that § 13.50 applied to the case and that Alabama law, rather than Honduran law, should be applied to the plaintiffs' wrongful-death action.

         On July 29, 2016, the circuit court entered an order stating that § 13.50 "requires the application of the substantive law of the State of Alabama in this wrongful death action. Therefore, it is hereby ordered, adjudged and decreed that this case is governed by the substantive law of the State of Alabama."

         On August 31, 2017, CMI filed a motion for a summary judgment. CMI argued that none of the plaintiffs had been appointed as personal representative of any of the decedents' estates for purposes of Alabama's wrongful-death statute and, thus, none had the authority under § 6-5-410 to file a wrongful-death action. Accordingly, CMI argued that the plaintiffs' complaint was a nullity. CMI also argued that the probate court did not have the authority to appoint Fields as the administrator ad litem of the decedents' estates and that, even if Fields had been properly appointed, an administrator ad litem does not have the authority to pursue a wrongful-death claim. On October 30, 2017, RAM filed a motion for a summary judgment, essentially joining CMI's summary-judgment motion.

         The circuit court denied CMI's and RAM's summary-judgment motions on November 13 and 27, 2017, respectively. CMI and RAM then separately petitioned this Court for a writ of mandamus directing the circuit court to vacate its judgments denying their summary-judgment motions and to enter an order ...


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