Distribution Center Deemed “Principal Office” Under Venue Statute

Deere & Co. v. Bernal
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-22-00916-CV (January 17, 2023)
Justices Pedersen (Opinion, linked here), Goldstein, and Smith
Bernal had a fatal accident in Comanche County, Texas while he was operating a tractor manufactured by Deere. Bernal’s next of kin sued Deere and Bernal’s employer in Dallas County. They pleaded venue was proper in Dallas County under section 15.002(a)(3) of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code, which provides for venue in a county where at least one defendant has a “principal office.” Plaintiffs alleged that Deere has a principal office in Dallas County. Deere moved to transfer venue, denying that it had a principal office in Dallas County and arguing the case should be transferred to Comanche County, where the accident occurred, or Lamar County, where Bernal’s employer purportedly had its principal office. The trial court denied the motion to transfer, and Deere brought an interlocutory appeal.

When a defendant challenges venue, the plaintiff has the burden of presenting a prima facie case that venue is proper in the county in which it brought the lawsuit. Any venue facts pleaded by the plaintiff and not specifically denied by the defendant are treated as true. As to venue facts the defendant has specifically denied, the plaintiff must submit affidavits and documents authenticated by its affidavits to support its pleaded venue facts. Deere specifically denied the plaintiffs’ pleaded venue facts, so the plaintiffs had the burden of establishing a prima facie case that Deere had a principal office in Dallas County.

The venue statute defines “principal office” as the “a principal office of the corporation … in this state in which the decision makers for the organization within this state conduct the daily affairs of the organization.” A principal office must have decision makers for the company who have at least substantially equal authority and responsibility to other company officials in Texas. The plaintiffs submitted evidence that Deere operates a 230,000-square-foot regional distribution center in Dallas County that distributes parts to dealers in several states. The manager of the distribution center supervises over fifty-five employees, including several employees who themselves have supervisory responsibilities, and the manager does not report to anyone above him in Texas. The court of appeals concluded that these facts established that the Dallas County distribution center was “a principal office” in Texas and therefore affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to transfer.
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