Can My Cruising Guests Sue Me in a Mexico Court?

I own a U.S.-documented recreational fishing boat that I take to Mexico frequently on extended fishing trips with friends. A question came up recently concerning a possible injury that occurred aboard the boat while we were in Mexican waters. If the injured guest wants to take legal action, would he need to file a lawsuit in a Mexican court or can we force him to file the suit in the U.S.? Will Mexican or U.S. law apply? 
The question of where a lawsuit must be filed requires an understanding of the legal principles of “jurisdiction” and “venue.”

“Jurisdiction” refers to the power and authority of a particular court system (such as the federal courts or state courts) over the subject matter and the parties involved in a dispute. “Venue” refers to the location of the actual courthouse in which litigation will be conducted. Jurisdiction is further divided into “subject matter jurisdiction” (is the court authorized to hear this type of case?) and “personal jurisdiction” (is the court authorized to exert its judicial power over the particular parties in the lawsuit?).

I will refer you to your local law school for a comprehensive discussion of jurisdiction and venue, but these issues are often resolved by answering the personal jurisdiction question. Who are the parties and where will they fall within the personal jurisdiction of a court?

The reader’s question involved an injury aboard a U.S.-documented boat in Mexican waters. The likely defendants would include the boat owner, the captain, and perhaps certain other guests aboard the boat if they are alleged to have contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries.

Assuming that the defendants are all U.S. residents, the lawsuit would probably be filed in the United States since a U.S. court will always have jurisdiction over its residents while they are actually in the country. Since the injury occurred in Mexican waters, a Mexican court may also have personal jurisdiction over the defendants for this particular claim. However, as a practical matter, a defendant must be served with the lawsuit, and international service of process is a complicated and expensive undertaking.

Since this was a maritime injury, the boat itself would be another likely defendant. A lawsuit against a vessel is known as an “in rem” action, and it may be filed in any location where the boat may be found, regardless of where the incident occurred or where the boat’s homeport is located or where the other defendants may reside. The boat is treated as the offending party, similar in many ways to a claim against a corporation. In this country, the boat is “served” with the lawsuit when it is taken into custody by federal marshals.

The reader was also concerned about whether U.S. law or Mexican law would apply to the lawsuit. The short answer is that, in a personal injury lawsuit such as this, the law of the court in which the lawsuit is filed will apply to the case.

However, a suit such as this will allege that the defendants were negligent in some way, and the legal principles which define negligence are fairly uniform throughout the world. There are, nonetheless, procedural differences between various court systems that will require local knowledge, and as such, a local attorney with experience in this area of the law should always be consulted.

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