Court of Appeals of Texas, El Paso.
IN RE: RUDOLPH AUTOMOTIVE, LLC D/B/A RUDOLPH MAZDA and RUDOLPH CHEVROLET, LLC, Relators.
December 30, 2020
AN ORIGINAL PROCEEDING IN MANDAMUS
Before Alley, C.J., Rodriguez, and Palafox, JJ.
Alley, C.J., dissenting
GINA M. PALAFOX, Justice
This mandamus proceeding filed in a negligence suit pits the dignity of a jury’s verdict against the authority of a trial court to grant a new trial based on multiple grounds raised in post-verdict motions. Real party in interest Andrea Juarez, acting individually and in a representative capacity for her mother, Irma Vanessa Villegas,1 moved for a mistrial and a judgment notwithstanding the jury’s verdict based on: (1) the jury’s conflicting answers on liability and percentage of fault, (2) the jury’s award of zero and low dollar amounts for disfigurement and other line-item damages, and (3) the trial court’s rulings on admission of evidence and other matters.2 Similarly, but more narrowly, relators Rudolph Automotive LLC d/b/a Rudolph Mazda and Rudolph Chevrolet, LLC (collectively, Rudolph or “the dealership”) filed a motion to disregard the jury’s answer to the question on comparative responsibility asserting that the jury’s assignment of 10% fault to the dealership conflicted with its earlier no-liability finding on negligence.
The trial court ordered a new trial based on the following grounds: (1) the verdict included a fundamentally defective determination of comparative responsibility in which the jury assigned a percentage of responsibility that could not be reconciled or disregarded, and prevented the 100% total comparative responsibility required by law; (2) the determination of zero damages for several line items completely ignored undisputed facts, while other awards of damages fixed an amount that was neither authorized nor supported by the evidence, and was contrary to the great weight of the evidence; (3) that a defense expert witness intentionally injected unreliable double hearsay, non-responsive to the question asked, in an attempt to inject an improper inference before the jury, and even though the court admonished the witness and instructed the jury to try and eliminate the harm, it remained obvious to the court that the harm done could not be eliminated or removed; and 4) that the Painter v. Amerimex Drilling I, Ltd.,3decision from the Supreme Court of Texas, handed down on the same day as the verdict, altered a major legal assumption underpinning the trial. Given its order granting a new trial, the trial court further found that the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and motion to disregard jury findings were rendered moot. Following these rulings, Rudolph filed this mandamus action asking this Court to direct the Honorable Patrick Garcia, Judge of the 384th District Court of El Paso County, to vacate his order granting a new trial, harmonize the verdict consistent with Rudolph’s interpretation of the jury’s verdict, render judgment on the harmonized verdict, and award costs and other appropriate relief.
Because we conclude that Rudolph has not established that the trial court clearly abused its discretion in ordering a new trial, we deny the petition for writ of mandamus.
At the end of 2013, the Rudolph car dealership scheduled its sales team to work long hours to include eleven-hour shifts. Employees worked Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., with the business occasionally closing as late as 10 p.m. Relevant here, the sales team included manager Marcelo Flores, and salespersons, Irma Villegas and Christian Ruiz, among others.
On December 27, 2013, Flores sent Ruiz to go buy beer—paid for by Flores—for the employees to drink. That evening, the sales team, including Flores, Ruiz, and Villegas, drank the beer while on the dealership’s premises. After 8 p.m., Ruiz brought a beer to Flores who had been working at his desk on a sales report. A short time later, Flores went to the salesroom and ordered everyone who remained to leave for the day. Ruiz left the building and got into his truck to drive home. He had parked in the front sales area of the dealership lot. Close in time, Villegas also left the building and walked toward her car.
As Ruiz drove forward toward the exit of the lot, he struck Villegas with his vehicle. The impact caused Villegas to fall and strike her head on the ground; and, as a result, she sustained a severe traumatic brain injury which left her permanently paralyzed on her left side. Due to her medical treatment, a portion of her skull was necessarily removed which caused a facial deformity. As of trial, Villegas resided in a nursing home, while her daughter, Andrea Juarez, assumed responsibility for her care.4
After the incident occurred, police officers soon arrived after receiving a call at 8:40 p.m. During the ensuing investigation, an officer on scene administered a standard field sobriety test as Ruiz admitted he had consumed two beers that evening.5
Juarez, individually and as guardian of Villegas, filed suit against the Rudolph defendants (the dealership and its employees) alleging that Ruiz had negligently struck Villegas with his vehicle, while on the premises and acting in furtherance of the business of selling vehicles, after he had consumed alcohol which was authorized and provided to him by Flores.6 Additionally, as alternative claims, plaintiffs alleged that Rudolph had control over safety of the dealership and its premises generally, and made little or no safety policies for the protection of plaintiff and other persons to prevent injury from recognized hazards on the premises. Villegas further alleged that Rudolph failed to provide a safe work place and failed to adequately train and supervise its employees. Lastly, as an independent claim, Villegas filed a claim of negligence against Ruiz.
Prior to trial and relevant to this mandamus, Villegas filed a motion for partial summary judgment asserting that the evidence established that both she and Ruiz were acting in the course and scope of employment at the time of her injury as a matter of law. Villegas described that the collision occurred “on Rudolph’s premises at a place intended by Rudolph for use by its employees to drive their vehicles and park, and in an area where employees performed services for Rudolph.” Villegas asserted that the long-standing access/premises doctrine applied such that Ruiz and Villegas were deemed as acting in the course of employment at the time of the incident regardless of whether they were “off the clock” when it occurred.
Responding to this motion, Rudolph asserted that Villegas had applied the wrong legal standard and misinformed the court on the correct analysis of course and scope of employment. Rudolph asserted it was “known and undisputed that Rudolph [is] a non-subscriber,” and as a consequence, “Texas common law governs this Court’s analysis of the course and scope issue.” Rudolph further asserted that Ruiz and Villegas were not acting in the course and scope of employment at the time of the incident as both were leaving the dealership after they had finished their work. In footnote one, Rudolph pointedly argued as follows:
Ruiz is the only relevant actor for the course and scope analysis when considering whether Rudolph is either vicariously liable or liable via respondeat superior. The question of whether Ms. Villegas was in the course and scope of employment is only relevant to whether Rudolph has access to certain common law defenses, including contributory negligence. If Ms. Villegas was in the course and scope of her employment at the time of the accident, then Rudolph may lose its ability to use certain common-law defenses.
Rudolph cited to Painter v. Amerimex Drilling I, Ltd., 511 S.W.3d 700, 701 (Tex. App.—El Paso 2015) (Painter I), rev’d, 561 S.W.3d 125 (Tex. 2018) (Painter II), a vicarious liability case from this Court which had been, by then, granted discretionary review by the Supreme Court of Texas but had not yet been finally resolved. After quoting from Painter I, Rudolph argued that the proof necessary to place an employee within the course and scope of employment in a vicarious liability case versus a workers’ compensation case differed and required a higher standard of proof. Arguing her claim fell under the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act, Villegas replied that there was “no reason to use a double standard to determine course and scope of employment in direct action (non-subscriber) cases and workers’ compensation cases, especially where the plaintiff was an employee injured by a fellow employee on the premises of the employer with the manager on duty ....” And more specifically addressing and distinguishing from Painter I, Villegas argued the case involved a different legal theory than hers given that the underlying collision which caused the injury had occurred miles away from the jobsite, not on the work premises.
Neither party points us to a ruling on Villegas’s motion for partial summary judgment. Yet, we can surmise from our record that the trial court remained unconvinced that the course and scope issue could be decided as a matter of law. Our record shows that once plaintiffs rested their case in chief, the trial court again considered the course and scope issue, but this time raised by Rudolph. By a motion for directed verdict, Rudolph argued that the evidence established that Ruiz had not been acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the occurrence as a matter of law. After the trial court denied a directed verdict, the issue of course and scope, relative to all three employees, Villegas, Ruiz, and Flores, was submitted to the jury as a fact question (Question 1), along with corresponding questions of negligence and comparative responsibility (Questions 2, 3, and 4).
Trial and the Jury’s Verdict
Following a nearly three-week trial, the jury ascribed negligence to Flores, Ruiz and Villegas, but none to Rudolph. On the question of course and scope, the jury found that manager Flores was acting in the course of his employment, but Villegas and Ruiz were not. The jury assigned percentages of fault as follows: Rudolph (10%), Flores (25%), Ruiz (35%), and Villegas (30%).
In total, the jury awarded roughly $4 million in damages to plaintiffs. At issue here, the jury found zero for past disfigurement yet determined $200,000 for future disfigurement; zero for Juarez’s provision of past household services to her mother, but $150,000 for such provision of future services; zero for past or future loss of parental consortium; and, lastly, $25,000 to Villegas for past and future pain and suffering and a like amount for past and future impairment.7
After the jury returned its verdict, they were discharged by the trial court without objection. That same day, the Supreme Court of Texas handed down its decision in Painter v. Amerimex Drilling I, Ltd., 561 S.W.3d 125, 139 (Tex. 2018) (Painter II), in which it reversed our judgment and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. In Painter II, the Supreme Court found that genuine issues of material fact precluded summary judgment in favor of the employer on the issue of course and scope of employment. Id.
Following the verdict and discharge of the jury, Rudolph filed a motion to disregard the jury’s finding to Question 4, in which the jury assigned 10% comparative fault to the dealership, and for entry of judgment on the remainder of the verdict. Because the jury answered that Rudolph was not negligent in Question 2, the dealership argued that the jury’s answer to Question 4 was immaterial. Rudolph asked the trial court to disregard the jury’s answer to Question 4, as to it only, and apart from that one change, to sign a judgment on the remaining jury findings. Villegas also asked for post-verdict relief by filing a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and to enter judgment, as well as a motion for mistrial. In the motion for mistrial, Villegas and Juarez asserted eight grounds in support of the granting of a new trial.
The trial court granted the motion for mistrial, and in doing so, identified as meritorious some but not all grounds advanced by Villegas. This mandamus action followed.
Rudolph’s petition for mandamus review presents six issues with the first being an overarching issue questioning the validity of the new trial order. Five sub-issues then follow which challenge the four grounds articulated by the trial court in the new trial order. Overall, Rudolph generally contends that none of the grounds articulated by the trial court support the grant of a new trial either on their face or on their merits.
To begin, we first detail the standards required of mandamus review.
A. General Mandamus Standard
To obtain a writ of mandamus, a relator must show two things: (1) a clear abuse of discretion by the trial court and (2) no adequate remedy by appeal. In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 148 S.W.3d 124, 135-36 (Tex. 2004). The Supreme Court of Texas has recognized that there is no adequate appellate remedy when a trial court issues an erroneous order for new trial. In re Columbia Med. Ctr. of Las Colinas, 290 S.W.3d 204, 209-10 (Tex. 2009). As such, the second prong of the mandamus test is established in this instance. We focus our inquiry, then, on the first prong only, the question of whether the trial court clearly abused its discretion.
B. Mandamus Review of New Trial Orders: Columbia Medical Center, United Scaffolding, and In re Toyota
The use of mandamus to challenge new trial orders has been subject to much change in recent years. Historically, however, Texas trial judges wielded virtually unfettered discretion to order new trials. Cummins v. Paisan Const. Co., 682 S.W.2d 235, 236 (Tex. 1984) (trial court’s order setting aside a default judgment and granting a new trial is not reviewable on appeal); see also Johnson v. Fourth Court of Appeals, 700 S.W.2d 916, 918 (Tex. 1985) (“Trial courts have always had broad discretion in the granting of new trials.”). Indeed, prior to 2004, appellate courts could not review orders granting a motion for new trial rendered within the trial court’s plenary power period except in very limited circumstances. See Wilkins v. Methodist Health Care Sys., 160 S.W.3d 559, 563 (Tex. 2005) (citing Johnson, 700 S.W.2d at 918).
Notably, in 2009, the Supreme Court of Texas observed that the significance of protecting the right to a jury trial made the issuance of a new trial order an “exceptional” circumstance that justified mandamus review. Columbia Med. Ctr., 290 S.W.3d at 209. The Court recognized that certain harm resulted when a trial court’s new trial order failed to sufficiently articulate its reasoning. Id. The Columbia Court described that “even if an unfavorable verdict were reversed and rendered in Columbia’s favor, Columbia would have lost the benefit of a final judgment based on the first jury verdict without ever knowing why, and would have endured the time, trouble, and expense of the second trial. Under the circumstances, Columbia does not have an adequate appellate remedy.” Id. at 209-10.
Consequently, the Supreme Court imposed a new specificity requirement on new trial orders, stating that even while it was not “retreat[ing] from the position that trial courts have significant discretion in granting new trials,” trial judges could no longer simply state that they made the decision to grant a new trial “in the interest of justice.” Id. at 212-13. “[S]uch a vague explanation in setting aside a jury verdict[,]” the Court wrote, “does not enhance respect for the judiciary or the rule of law, detracts from transparency we strive to achieve in our legal system, and does not sufficiently respect the reasonable expectations of parties and the public when a lawsuit is tried to a jury.” Id. at 213. Instead, Columbia determined that trial judges were required to give an “understandable, reasonably specific explanation” in their new trial orders. Id.
Shortly thereafter, when deciding the case of In re United Scaffolding, Inc., 377 S.W.3d 685, 688 (Tex. 2012), the Supreme Court further addressed the information that would constitute an understandable, reasonably specific explanation. There, in addressing the level of detail needed for a facially valid order, the Supreme Court particularly noted that trial courts were not expected to meet the same standard as is imposed on appellate courts. Id. at 687-88 (describing the review standard imposed by Pool v. Ford Motor Co., 715 S.W.2d 629, 635 (Tex. 1986)). “Imposing a Pool-like standard on trial courts would weigh too heavily against trial courts’ discretion, since that standard would frequently be impossible for a trial court to meet.” Id. at 687. For it is recognized that an appellate court is able to (and must) go into detail as to its reasons for overturning a jury verdict because the appellate court has a court reporter’s record at its disposal, whereas trial courts largely “must rely on their own observations” about what happened at trial at the time they render their decisions. Id. at 688.
Given these distinctions, United Scaffolding concluded that trial courts are afforded considerable discretion in ordering new trials based on two justifications, one being jurisprudential and the other practical. Id. at 687. Regarding jury trials, the Supreme Court acknowledged that “trial judges actually attend[ed] the trial and are best suited to evaluate its deficiencies ....” Id. Consequently, it further explained that “most trial judges are understandably reluctant, after presiding over a full trial, to do it all over again.” Id. When considering how detailed a trial court’s new-trial order must be and what level of review to apply, reviewing courts are thus instructed to afford jury verdicts appropriate regard but also to respect trial courts’ significant discretion in the matter of granting a new trial. Id.
United Scaffolding clarified that the specificity standard could be met if the trial judge provided “a cogent and reasonably specific explanation of the reasoning that led the court to conclude that a new trial was warranted.” Id. at 688. To pass muster, the new trial order must demonstrate on its face that “the jury’s decision was set aside only after careful thought and for valid reasons.” Id. More specifically, United Scaffolding described that a trial court did not abuse its discretion if the stated reason for granting a new trial: (1) is a reason for which a new trial is legally appropriate (such as a well-defined legal standard or defect that probably resulted in an improper verdict); and (2) it is specific enough to indicate that the trial court did not simply parrot a pro forma template, but rather derived the articulated reasons from the particular facts and circumstances of the case at hand. Id. at 688-89.8
Moving beyond facial validity, the Supreme Court next addressed “whether an appellate court may, in an original proceeding, determine whether the reasonably specific and legally sound rationale is actually true.” In re Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., 407 S.W.3d 746, 749 (Tex. 2013). Overturning decades of precedent and describing its decision as the next step in the logical progression set by Columbia and United Scaffolding, the In re Toyota Court determined that, “an appellate court may conduct a merits review of the bases for a new trial order after a trial court has set aside a jury verdict[,]” and that if “the record does not support the trial court’s rationale for ordering a new trial, the appellate court may grant mandamus relief.” Id.
Condensed down to core principles, the Columbia, United Scaffolding, and In re Toyota line of cases established a two-step analysis for deciding whether a trial court acted within the scope of its discretion in ordering a new trial. First, we determine whether the ground stated in the new trial order is specific enough to indicate that the trial court did not simply parrot a pro forma template, but rather derived the articulated reason from the particular facts and circumstances of the case at hand. Second, we then determine whether the reason articulated is one for which a new trial is legally appropriate (such as a well-defined legal standard or defect that probably resulted in an improper verdict). See United Scaffolding, 377 S.W.3d at 688-89; see also In re Toyota, 407 S.W.3d at 749. Under the first prong, our focus is “not on the length or detail of the reasons a trial court gives, but on how well those reasons serve the general purpose of assuring the parties that the jury’s decision was set aside only after careful thought and for valid reasons.” United Scaffolding, 377 S.W.3d at 688. When a trial court order facially complies with those requirements, the second prong then requires a review of the correctness of the trial court’s decision on its merits. In re Toyota, 407 S.W.3d at 758. If a trial court’s articulated reasons for granting a new trial are not supported by the underlying record, the new trial order cannot stand. Id.
A. The Comparative Responsibility Answer as to Rudolph
In Issue Two, the first sub-issue, Rudolph asserts that the trial court abused its discretion by granting a new trial based on the jury’s answer to questions on negligence and comparative-responsibility. Rudolph asserts a series of arguments: (1) that the trial court’s reason is facially invalid, (2) that there is no irreconcilable conflict, as to Rudolph, between the jury’s findings of negligence and comparative-responsibility, (3) that the trial court was obligated to harmonize the jury verdict, and (4) even if the findings were irreconcilably conflicted, a new trial was improper because Villegas did not object on a timely basis.
Although we proceed out of order, we necessarily begin with the last argument raising an issue of error preservation.
Even when reviewing error from the procedural posture of mandamus as opposed to direct review, we must address the threshold matter of preservation of error as errors not properly preserved cannot generally form the basis for a grant of new trial under the merits review of In re Toyota. 407 S.W.3d at 761-62 (reversing a new trial grant that was based in part on error that was not preserved); In re State, No. 14-18-01036-CV, 2018 WL 6722351, at *3-*4 (Tex.App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Dec. 21, 2018, orig. proceeding) (mem. op.) (failure to obtain a ruling on a motion in limine and failure to object when evidence was admitted waived both errors and prevented them from being used as a basis for a new trial grant); In re Waste Management of Tex., Inc., 392 S.W.3d 861, 870 n.13 (Tex.App.—Texarkana 2013, orig. proceeding) (preservation requirement applies in mandamus proceedings). That said, there are some instances in which a motion for new trial itself acts as a vehicle for preservation of error. The question here, then, is whether Villegas’s post-verdict motion could serve to preserve error sufficient to allow this Court to perform a merits review of the trial court’s grant of a new trial based on purportedly conflicting answers in the jury verdict.
Rule 295 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure provides that if a jury’s answers to questions in a purported verdict are in conflict, the trial court must instruct the jury of the nature of the problem, give the jury additional instructions as necessary, and allow the jury to deliberate further. TEX. R. CIV. P. 295. In light of this rule, we have previously held that if a party wants to preserve error with regard to a defective jury verdict, “[t]he trial court must be made aware of the conflict before the jury is discharged because, once the jury is discharged, a conflict in the jury’s answers cannot be reformed.” Rhey v. Redic, 408 S.W.3d 440, 464-65 (Tex.App.—El Paso 2013, no pet.) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Here, it is undisputed that after the jury rendered its verdict, but before it was discharged, the Villegas plaintiffs did not bring the issue to the trial court’s attention.
However, in Rhey, we were not asked to address nor did we face the issue of whether a post-discharge motion for new trial could also serve to preserve error. Thus, while Rhey confirmed that a motion to correct the verdict is one way of preserving error in a conflicting jury verdict, it did not preclude or otherwise address the possibility that there are other ways to preserve such error. To date, the Supreme Court of Texas has not definitively answered that question—indeed, the last time the issue arose, the Court splintered into three plurality positions, none of which garnered a majority. See USAA Texas Lloyds Company v. Menchaca, 545 S.W.3d 479, 517-19 (Tex. 2018).9 Absent guidance from our highest court, we find this to be an open question.
We turn, then, to Rule 33.1, the general standard for preservation of error set by the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure. See TEX. R. APP. P. 33.1(a). To demonstrate preservation of a complaint for appellate review, Rule 33.1 requires the record to show:
(1) the complaint was made to the trial court by a timely request, objection, or motion that:
(A) stated the grounds for the ruling that the complaining party sought from the trial court with sufficient specificity to make the trial court aware of the complaint, unless the specific grounds were apparent from the context; and
(B) complied with the requirements of the Texas Rules of Evidence or the Texas Rules of Civil or Appellate Procedure; and
(2) the trial court:
(A) ruled on the request, objection, or motion, either expressly or implicitly; or
(B) refused to rule on the request, objection, or motion, and the complaining party objected to the refusal.
TEX. R. APP. P. 33.1(a).
Rule 33.1 governs the preservation of error unless another rule applies. Although Rule 295 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure governs the procedure for correcting a verdict, the rule itself does not address the issue of error preservation. As such, we may rely on Rule 33.1 of the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure to determine if error was preserved. We hold that, in addition to a motion to correct the verdict under TEX. R. CIV. P. 295, a motion for new trial can also preserve a defect in a jury charge under TEX. R. APP. P. 33.1 because the post-trial motion brings the error to the trial court’s attention close enough in time to provide it an opportunity to correct the error by ordering a new trial before appellate proceedings begin. We agree with the four-justice plurality in Menchaca that “[g]enerally, a party should object to conflicting answers before the trial court dismisses the jury. The absence of such an objection, however, should not prohibit us [as an appellate court] from reaching the issue of irreconcilable conflicts in jury findings.” Menchaca, 545 S.W.3d at 526-28 (Green, J., plurality op.).
In the absence of a motion to correct the verdict or a post-verdict motion such as a motion for mistrial or new trial—which cites a purportedly conflicting verdict as a basis for seeking relief—Rhey would apply, and error would not be preserved. But given that Villegas filed post-verdict motions that identified the conflicting jury answers as a ground for relief, we conclude that this basis for granting a new trial was properly raised with the trial court and not waived.
Rudolph next contends the new trial order is facially invalid in that it fails to state why the trial court could not harmonize and reapportion the percentages of fault as it was required to do.
As earlier stated, a trial judge has significant discretion in ordering new trials. Columbia Med. Ctr., 290 S.W.3d at 212. Such discretion, however, does not permit a trial judge to substitute his or her own views for that of the jury without a valid basis. Id. To be valid, the trial court’s reason must be understandable and reasonably specific. Id. at 213. It must serve the general purpose of assuring the parties that the jury’s decision was set aside only after careful thought and for valid reasons. United Scaffolding, 377 S.W.3d at 688. In other words, it must indicate that the trial court did not simply parrot a pro forma template but derived its reasons from the particular facts and circumstances of the case at hand. Id. at 689.
Regarding this ground, the new trial order states as follows:
The Court finds that the jury determination of comparative responsibility of Rudolph Mazda in Question 4 is error that cannot be reconciled nor disregarded, and prevents the 100% total comparative responsibility required by law. Without 100%, the comparative responsibility finding is fundamentally defective.
In post-verdict motions, both parties addressed the jury’s answer to Question 4. Although both sides agreed that the answer to Question 4 created a conflict with other answers, they advocated for directly opposite responses from the trial court. Considering the whole verdict, Villegas argued the answer to Question 4 was fatally irreconcilable and could not be disregarded. In Question 1 and 2, Villegas asserted that the jury concluded that Rudolph’s manager, Flores, was negligent in the course and scope of his employment and proximately caused the occurrence. Villegas further noted that the jury had been instructed that Rudolph acted by and through its employees, agents, and representatives. Yet, in the negligence questions, Question 2 and 3, the jury found no negligence as to Rudolph. Nonetheless, Question 4, on comparative responsibility, the jury attributed 10% fault to Rudolph, which amount was included in arriving at 100% responsibility. As to Rudolph, Villegas argued the jury’s answers to this series of questions was fatally irreconcilable and could not be voided.
Rudolph countered that the jury’s answer to Question 4 was immaterial given its findings of no liability in Questions 2. Rudolph asserted that the answer to Question 4, as to it, should simply be disregarded.
Here, we understand the trial court to say that the apportionment of 10% responsibility to Rudolph in Question 4 is irreconcilable with the jury’s other findings of no negligence as shown in Question 1 (course and scope), Question 2 (general negligence), and Question 3 (premises liability). The new trial order articulates that the court found that “Question 4 is error [in] that [it] cannot be reconciled nor disregarded” and “prevents the 100% total comparative responsibility required by law.” The basis given, which is supported by the record, provides an understandable and reasonably specific explanation for granting a new trial, particularly when it is considered in context with the parties’ post-verdict arguments. See Columbia Med. Ctr., 290 S.W.3d at 213.
Facial validity is established. We proceed to an analysis of the merits of this new trial ground.
Having decided that the explanation is facially valid, we next review the new trial order on its merits as required by In re Toyota. Rudolph argues that the trial court could not have granted a new trial on the ground of conflicting jury answers because a no-negligence finding in one part of the verdict controls over a corresponding apportionment of liability in another, and the no-negligence finding renders the apportionment finding immaterial for purposes of entering judgment.
In discussing conflicting jury findings such as this one, this Court has previously validated the general principle advanced by Rudolph, holding that “a trial [c]ourt properly harmonizes any apparent conflict between a specific finding of no negligence as to a defendant in the liability issues and an apportionment of negligence in the subsequent comparative negligence” by “enter[ing] a judgment for the defendant, the rule being that the specific finding directed toward the liability aspect of the verdict controls over the general finding of comparative negligence.” See Garza v. Waco Scaffold & Shoring Co., 576 S.W.2d 442, 446 (Tex.App.—El Paso 1978, writ ref’d n.r.e.). Likewise, the proposition that there is no fatal conflict when “the jury finds a party is not negligent but then apportions to it a percentage of fault” because “[i]ssues establishing or negating liability control over the issue which apportions, rather than establishes negligence” is the law as understood by several of our sister courts. See Beltran v. Brookshire Grocery Co., 358 S.W.3d 263, 269-70 (Tex.App.—Dallas 2011, pet. denied) (surveying cases from the San Antonio, Houston [1st Dist.], Tyler, Corpus Christi, Waco, and Dallas courts of appeals holding that a no-negligence finding in a verdict renders a subsequent apportionment finding as to that party immaterial).
Having reviewed this mandamus record, however, we conclude that this case does not present a circumstance where the jury found Rudolph not liable and then assigned it a percentage of liability. If such were the case, then Garza would apply. Instead, the jury in this instance found that Rudolph employee Marcelo Flores was negligent (Question 1), while acting in the course and scope of his employment (Question 2), but that Rudolph itself was not negligent (Question 3), yet also finding that Flores was 25% responsible and Rudolph was 10% responsible (Question 4) for plaintiff’s injuries. By instruction number two, the jury was informed that “[a] corporation acts by and through its employees, agents and representatives.” These findings are conflicting and do not allow for neat harmonization. In fact, these findings, all of which deal in part with Rudolph’s negligence and its apportioned responsibility, cannot be reconciled particularly in light of the fact that the jury attributed negligence to Flores while he was acting in the course and scope of his employment as a Rudolph manager. Because these determinations cannot be harmonized, we conclude that Garza does not apply.
The findings are irreconcilable, and the trial court did not err by basing its decision to grant a new trial on this ground. We find that this ground is sufficient to support the grant of a new trial.
Accordingly, we overrule Issue Two.
B. The Course and Scope of Employment, the Exception to the Coming-and-Going Rule, and the Impact of Painter v. Amerimex
In Issue Three, the second sub-issue, Rudolph argues that the trial court abused its discretion in granting a new trial to reconsider whether Rudolph’s two employees, Villegas and Ruiz, were acting in the course and scope of employment as a matter of law based on the Supreme Court of Texas’s decision in Painter v. Amerimex (Painter II). By directly citing Painter II, the trial court essentially identified that Painter I, which operated as controlling authority in our district during the trial, impacted the trial court’s rulings on pretrial motions, the presentation of evidence during trial, and the charge given to the jury.
Rudolph first contends that we need not reach the merits of the debate over Painter II’s impact because the new trial order is facially invalid in describing its reasoning. We disagree.
Recall that the portion of the trial court’s new trial order dealing with the effect of Painter reads as follows:
As an additional and independent basis for new trial, the Court finds that the Texas Supreme Court decision in Painter v. Ameri[m]ex rendered on April 213, 2018, [sic] the day of this Jury Verdict, was important law that affected the earlier decision s [sic] of this Court on motions filed by the parties, the evidence presented at trial and the charge given to the Jury. Based on the Painter opinion and other relevant decisions and authority as set forth in Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment NOV, it appears to this Court that it needs to reconsider whether Irma Vanessa Villegas and Christian Ruiz were injured in the course of employment as a matter of law which would make Plaintiff’s claim a non-subscriber negligence case under 406.33 of the Texas Labor Code, and combined with the evidence admitted at trial, find negligence as a matter of law, thereby leaving only the issue of damages for determination [sic].
As earlier stated, United Scaffolding merely requires a cogent and reasonably specific explanation of the reasoning that led the court to conclude that a new trial was warranted. 377 S.W.3d at 688. Although the order need not provide a Pool-like detailed analysis, it will not stand if it provides little or no insight into the judge’s reasoning. Id. at 687-88.
In this instance, we find that the trial court’s order was cogent, reasonably specific, and demonstrated that the trial court did not merely parrot legal standards without consideration of the facts. We understand the trial court to say generally that Painter I so permeated trial proceedings from beginning to end that a new trial was warranted. Specifically, the trial court states that the decision affected (1) its rulings on motions brought by the parties, including previous motions for summary judgment; (2) the evidence presented at trial; (3) the charge given to the jury; and (4) whether under the Painter II standard the trial court needed to find that Villegas and Ruiz were injured in the course of employment as a matter of law, leaving only damages as an issue for jury resolution.
Facial validity is established. Thus, we proceed to an analysis of the merits of whether this ground supports a grant of new trial.
A threshold issue in this case required the trial court to determine whether Villegas and Ruiz were deemed as acting in the course and scope of employment as a matter of law given that Rudolph had not only conceded the employee status of both individuals, but also conceded its ownership of the premises where Villegas sustained her injury. Basing its case in the trial court largely on a distinction this Court drew in Painter I, Rudolph argued that, under a task-based right to control standard, neither Villegas nor Ruiz were acting in the course and scope of their employment with Rudolph at the time of the incident. Specifically, Rudolph argued it did not exercise control over the actions of either employee at the time of the incident, as both were off duty when the incident occurred.
To resolve the mandamus challenge as to this disputed issue, we must answer three questions. First: Did the Painter I decision affect the way this case was tried by wrongfully demanding a task-based, on-the-clock versus off-the-clock approach to determining course and scope of employment rather than relying on precedents applicable when employment status is not at issue? Second: If so, was Rudolph subject to direct liability—as a nonsubscriber employer—due to Villegas sustaining injuries, while on premises, proximately caused by a fellow employee; or, did the coming-and-going rule preclude recovery? Third: If the exception to the coming-and-going rule, or the so-called premises/access doctrine, should be applied to this case, was error harmless given that Villegas received a jury instruction that included language from that doctrine?
a. The Change in Law from Painter I to Painter II
The Painter cases involved a vehicle accident that occurred after a group of Amerimex employees working on an oil drilling project had finished their shift and were in transit, on a remote public road, headed to a bunkhouse located thirty or forty miles from the worksite. Painter I, 511 S.W.3d at 702. Amerimex provided the bunkhouse as living quarters for the crew. Id. Employee J.C. Burchett, a crew leader, drove the vehicle. Id. Amerimex provided Burchett with daily bonus payments if he provided other employees with transportation to the drill site to ensure they were not hired away by other drillers in the area. Id. Following the accident, Burchett sought workers’ compensation benefits from Amerimex’s insurance carrier, but the passengers in the vehicle forewent any such claims, and instead, filed suit against Amerimex not as employees but as third-party plaintiffs. Id. at 703. One of the passengers’ theories of liability, which was severed from other theories, contended that Amerimex was vicariously liable for Burchett’s actions because Burchett was acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Amerimex on that theory, finding no vicarious liability under the circumstances. Painter and the other passengers appealed to this Court. Id. at 703-04.
On appellate review, this Court held that the definition of course and scope used in the workers’ compensation context differed from the definition used in the common-law-vicarious-liability context because the workers’ compensation definition was grounded in a statute that required liberal construction of its terms in favor of injured workers, whereas the common law definition that applied to third-party claims imposed no such presumption. Id. at 708-09. We further held that while Painter may have raised a fact issue on course and scope under the workers’ compensation standard, he could not raise a fact issue under a vicarious liability standard because:
(1) workers’ compensation law arose in the context of a pervasive statutory scheme enacted by the Legislature to carefully balance competing interests, whereas vicarious liability was a matter of pure policy determination and risk-shifting under the common law, making the analytical approach between the two areas of law substantively different; and, consequently,
(2) the common law vicarious liability standard was more stringent than the workers’ compensation standard and required specific proof that the employer had the right to control the activity in question, which the Court defined under the circumstances to include specific control over the manner of travel or the route. See id. at 708-09 & 711.
Based on this distinction, we affirmed the trial court’s grant of a no-evidence summary judgment motion, on the course and scope of employment element, finding no evidence showing that “Amerimex had or exercised any control over the manner of transportation—the type of vehicle used, the qualifications of the driver, the number of passengers, or any other issues which might implicate the kind of control that justifies shifting the risk of loss from one party to another.” Id. at 712-13.
Finding error with our analysis, the Supreme Court of Texas reversed Painter I and remanded the case for further proceedings. Painter II, 561 S.W.3d at 128. As a starting point, the Supreme Court described the doctrine of respondeat superior, or vicarious liability, as meaning “liability for one person’s fault may be imputed to another who is himself entirely without fault solely because of the relationship between them.” Id. at 130. This common law doctrine reflects, “a deliberate allocation of risk in line with the general common law notion that one who is in a position to exercise some general control over the situation must exercise it or bear the loss.” Id. at 131 (internal quotations omitted). Notably, Painter II highlighted the employer-employee relationship as “one implicating the doctrine’s risk-shifting policies.” Id.
To recover on a third-party claim based on vicarious liability, Painter II reiterated that a plaintiff must show that, at the time of the allegedly negligent conduct, the worker (1) was an employee and (2) was acting in the course and scope of his employment. Id. Generally, as Painter II explained, an employer “is insulated from liability for the tortious acts of its independent contractors.” Id. Accordingly, disputes may arise over whether a particular worker acted as an independent contractor rather than as an employee. Id. As to the first element, then, courts examine “whether the employer has the right to control the progress, details, and methods of operations of the work.” Id. (citing Limestone Prods. Distrib., Inc. v. McNamara, 71 S.W.3d 308, 312 (Tex. 2002)). Elaborating on the course-and-scope element when employment status is not disputed, Painter II further described that vicarious liability arises only if the tortious act falls within the scope of the employee’s “general authority in furtherance of the employer’s business and for the accomplishment of the object for which the employee was hired.” Id. (citing Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Mayes, 236 S.W.3d 754, 757 (Tex. 2007). “[T]he act must be of the same general nature as the conduct authorized or incidental to the conduct authorized.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). “[I]f an employee deviates from the performance of his duties for his own purposes, the employer is not responsible for what occurs during that deviation.” Id.
Contrary to our decision in Painter I, the Supreme Court held that the task-based, right-to-control test was not relevant to the second prong of the analysis, that is, the determination of whether an employee was acting within the course and scope of employment. Id. at 132. Rather, the right-to-control test applied solely to the first prong of determining whether an actor is deemed an employee or independent contractor, and whether a third party can hold the employer liable (for actions of an employee) or not liable (for actions of an independent contractor). Id. at 131-32. Painter II reiterates that when an employer-employee relationship “is undisputed, the employer essentially concedes the existence of the right to control that is necessary to give rise to the relationship.” Id. at 132. Because Amerimex conceded that Burchett worked as its employee, the focus of the inquiry shifted to whether he was acting within the course and scope of employment at the time he was driving from the drill site to the bunkhouse. Id. The Court clarified that “[t]he employer’s right to control the work, having already been determined in establishing the employer-employee relationship, is not part of this analysis.” Id. at 132-33.
Pursuant to the so-called coming-and-going rule, Amerimex argued that an employer is generally not liable for the acts of its employees while the employee traveled to and from work. Id. at 135. As to this argument, Painter II acknowledged: “[w]e have long recognized a version of this principle in the workers’-compensation context, holding that as a general rule an injury received while using the public streets and highways in going to or returning from the place of employment is not compensable because not incurred in the course of employment.” Id. at 136 (citing Tex. Gen. Indem. Co. v. Bottom, 365 S.W.2d 350, 353 (Tex. 1963) (a case arising under the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act) and TEX. LABOR CODE ANN. § 401.011 (12) (defining “course and scope of employment in Workers’ Compensation Act to exclude, with limited exceptions, “transportation to and from the place of employment”)) (internal quotations omitted). Painter II thus confirmed that the coming-and-going rule and the special assignment exception to that rule, both of which are concepts borne from workers’ compensation jurisprudence, continued to apply when determining vicarious liability. Id. This holding ran contrary to Painter I, in which we held that the standard for determining course and scope of employment under the vicarious liability standard was both different and more stringent than the standard set forth under applicable workers’ compensation law.
Applying the coming-and-going rule and its exceptions to the question of whether an employee was acting within the course and scope of employment, Painter II concluded that a fact issue existed with regard to the third-party claims of the passengers: that is, the evidence showed that one of Burchett’s specific duties included his provision of transportation of his crew to and from the drilling site, which benefitted Amerimex, who needed the crew to show up for each shift as planned. Id. at 135. The fact that Amerimex chose not to control the specific details of the transportation arrangement did not change the fact that Amerimex inherently retained the ability to control those details given Burchett’s employment. Id. Because the evidence raised at least a fact issue, the Supreme Court reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. Id.
In summary, Painter I, which operated as controlling law during the bulk of trial proceedings in this case, wrongly held that even if an employee was acting within the course and scope of employment as understood under the Workers’ Compensation Act, the evidence must further show that the employer exercised actual control of the specific task to impose third party liability. In short, Painter I demanded a standard that required courts or a trier of fact to look at the specific task being performed and determine whether that task was subject to the employer’s actual control. If so, the employee was deemed as acting in the course and scope of employment and vicarious liability could attach; if not, vicarious liability could not attach.
By confirming the application of concepts borne from workers’ compensation jurisprudence, Painter II rejected the task-based control approach to vicarious liability when employee status is undisputed and only course and scope remained a contested issue. For imposition of liability, Painter II clarified that the dispositive issue simply questioned “whether the employee was performing the tasks generally assigned to him in furtherance of the employer’s business” by “acting with the employer’s authority and for the employer’s benefit[,]” not whether the employer controlled the manner and means in which the employee performed the activity at the time of the occurrence. Painter II, 561 S.W.3d at 138-39.
b. The Effect of Painter II on this Case
It is fair to say that Rudolph tried this case largely in the shadow of Painter I. Villegas asserted she sought recovery for injuries incurred while working for a non-subscribing employer pursuant to section 406.033 of the Texas Labor Code. In furtherance of her claim, she argued that she and Ruiz were employed by Rudolph and were working on Rudolph’s premises when she sustained an injury in the course of her employment. Despite conceding the employment status of both Villegas and Ruiz, Rudolph opposed liability based on an argument that neither Ruiz nor Villegas were acting in the course and scope of their employment at the time of the incident. Rudolph relied on a task-specific, on-the-clock versus off-the-clock standard for establishing course and scope.
Rudolph argued it could not be held liable for Villegas’s injuries, either directly or vicariously, because it did not control the actions of either employee at the time of the injury, as the incident occurred after the close of business while the employees were engaged in leaving the premises. Indeed, Rudolph explicitly cited to Painter I in its response to the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment in arguing for a control-based definition of “in the course and scope of employment” that was more stringent than how that term was traditionally defined in the workers’ compensation context. But Painter I created a distinction in how course and scope of employment was defined that Painter II expressly refuted when employment status of an employee is not disputed.
Explaining the general framework of vicarious liability, Painter II reiterated that “liability for one person’s fault may be imputed to another who is himself entirely without fault solely because of the relationship between them.” Painter II, 561 S.W.3d at 130 (citing St. Joseph Hosp. v. Wolff, 94 S.W.3d 513, 540 (Tex. 2002) (plurality op.)). Painter II described the reasoning for not applying a task-based test in the vicarious liability context as follows:
Amerimex would have us reevaluate the worker’s employment status for vicarious-liability purposes by isolating the task the worker was performing at the moment of the accident and conducting an independent evaluation of the employer’s control with respect to that particular task. This position is inconsistent with the framework we have described. Further, it results in an unworkable paradigm that conceivably could result in an individual shifting between employee and independent contractor status countless times in a given work day. (Internal quotations omitted).
See Painter II, 561 S.W.3d at 133 (citing Mid-Continent Cas. Co. v. Andregg Contracting, Inc., 391 S.W.3d 573, 578 (Tex.App.—Dallas 2012, pet. denied)).
At least when it comes to the element of course and scope and whether employer liability may be imputed for injuries that occur while going to and from a workplace, the standards of direct and vicarious liability are one and the same. Id. at 136. We agree with the trial court that the Painter line of decisions had a substantial effect on the way this case was tried by wrongly pulling the focus from our long-standing jurisprudence inherent to employer-employee relationships to a task-based approach that more aptly applies to cases involving independent contractors and supervisory liability. See Painter II, 561 S.W.3d at 136; see also Kroger v. Keng, 23 S.W.3d 347, 349 (Tex. 2000) (“[Texas] Labor Code § 406.033, which is part of the Workers’ Compensation Act, governs an employee’s personal-injury action against his or her employer, when the employer is a nonsubscriber under the Act.”).10
On mandamus, Rudolph retreats somewhat from direct reliance on the logic of Painter I and instead argues generally that the jury’s determinations on course and scope of employment (including the question of whether Villegas and Ruiz’s actions were done in furtherance of Rudolph’s business interests) are supported by substantial evidence because: (1) Ruiz and Villegas had both clocked out and were leaving the dealership to go home when the accident occurred, (2) both were parked in front of the dealership, “which was not the sole or primary designated parking area for employees,” (3) the accident occurred after Ruiz backed his truck out of the parking space and was pulling forward to leave the parking lot to go home, and (4) Villegas had been approaching her vehicle in the same parking lot but changed direction and walked into the path of Ruiz’s truck just before he hit her. But, as to this detailed list of factors, Painter II established that the task-based on-the-clock/off-the-clock distinction cited as item 1 is not dispositive and largely an artificial distinction that unnecessarily subjects a nonsubscriber case to double scrutiny on the issue of control. Here, it is undisputed that both Villegas and Ruiz were employees subject to Rudolph’s general authority by virtue of their employment status. Moreover, items 2, 3, and 4 simply confirm that the incident occurred on the premises, not on a public street or highway.
c. No Fact Issues
Applying the on-premises/access doctrine to this case, we conclude that the trial court’s determination that it needed to reconsider whether Villegas and Ruiz were acting in the course and scope of employment as a matter of law was a plausible consequence of Painter II’s issuance on the day of the verdict. Undoubtedly, such reconsideration would impact the characterization of Villegas’s claim as a negligence suit brought pursuant to section 406.033 of the Texas Labor Code. But even still, as a third-party claim based on vicarious liability, the course-and scope analysis applied to Ruiz would not include a task-based analysis. The change from a fact-intensive, task-based approach to a premises-based approach represents a significant shift in a major assumption that permeated this entire trial.
As such, the trial court’s determination that it would have conducted the trial differently is reasonable under the circumstances as shown by the mandamus record. With respect to the motion for summary judgment specifically, we find it to be plausible that the trial court would reconsider the denial of summary judgment on the course and scope issue had it had the benefit of Painter II. All that is required to establish course and scope under the on-premises rule, and its extension into the access doctrine, is a showing that an employer has evinced an intention that a particular area of premises or access route can be used by the employee in going to and from work and the area or access route is so closely related to the employer’s premises as to be fairly treated as part of the premises. See Tex. Comp. Ins. Co. v. Matthews, 519 S.W.2d 630, 631 (Tex. 1974); see also Nabors Drilling, U.S.A., Inc. v. Escoto, 288 S.W.3d 401, 404-05 (Tex. 2009) (“An employer ordinarily will not be liable for torts committed by off-duty employees except when the torts were committed on the employer’s premises or with the employer’s chattels.”).
It is undisputed that Villegas and Ruiz were employees of Rudolph at the time of the incident. It is also undisputed that Villegas was injured while on Rudolph’s premises, not on a public street or highway. We conclude that the trial court’s reasoning is sound on the merits, and as a court reviewing this matter for abuse of discretion from a cold record, we must give the trial judge, who sat through the trial in its entirety and who presumably would not elect to redo it over again but for an adequate reason, some berth and leeway in this mandamus posture.
d. Harmful Error Analysis
Rudolph argues that even if the access doctrine should have applied in this case, Villegas cannot obtain a new trial under these circumstances because the trial court granted a charge that she requested which instructed the jury on this doctrine. Specifically, Question 1, which asked the jury if Flores, Villegas, and Ruiz were acting in the course and scope of their employment at the time of the accident, contained an instruction stating:
An injury occurring while the employee is traveling to or from work is in the course of employment only if the employee is injured at a place where the employer has evidenced an intention that a particular route or area be used by the employee in going to or from work and where the route or area is owned by the employer or is so closely related to the employer’s premises as to be fairly treated as a part of the employer’s premises.
The jury found that Flores was acting in the course and scope of employment, but that Villegas and Ruiz were not. Rudolph takes this answer as conclusive evidence that the jury considered this issue and declined to find that Villegas was acting in the course and scope of employment. In other words, all other factors aside, Rudolph argues the jury was directed to answer the course and scope question having received an instruction about the premises/access doctrine.
While Rudolph is correct that the jury received such instruction, the problem with this argument is that it wholly ignores Villegas’s argument on summary judgment and reframes the matter into questions of charge error and legal insufficiency. But here, we are not tasked with determining whether the jury was correctly instructed or whether the evidence supported the verdict. Rather, we must determine on mandamus review whether the trial court’s stated reason provides a legally sound rationale that is based on the record. See In re Toyota, 407 S.W.3d at 749. Based on Painter II and other authorities cited by Plaintiffs’ motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, the trial court stated that it needed to reconsider whether Villegas was acting in the course and scope of her employment as a matter of law. The implication attributed to Painter II makes sense, as the clarification from the Supreme Court of Texas shifted the focus of inquiry from whether Villegas and Ruiz were “on the clock” or “off the clock” at the time of the incident (i.e. whether their individual activities at the time of the incident were subject to Rudolph’s task-by-task control under Painter I) or whether the incident occurred on Rudolph’s premises.
Rudolph, in its mandamus petition, does not argue that there is a fact issue that would preclude summary judgment and create a triable issue under an on-premises/access doctrine framework. It argues only that any error in trying the case was harmless because the jury charge was substantially correct as to its inclusion of the doctrine. But that reasoning only applies if there are relevant fact issues for the jury to decide. Because we find that the trial court stated a legally plausible explanation for its ruling on Painter II grounds, and because Rudolph did not refute the proposition that there were no material fact questions for determination under the access/premises doctrine that Villegas was injured on premises belonging to Rudolph, the grant of a new trial on this ground is not a clear abuse of the trial court’s discretion.
We find that this ground, either standing alone or taken in concert with others, is sufficient to support the grant of a new trial.
Accordingly, we overrule Issue Three.
C. The Expert Testimony
In Issue Four, the third sub-issue, Rudolph contends that the trial court abused its discretion by granting a new trial based on expert testimony, which it also contends, the jury unequivocally stated it could disregard pursuant to the trial court’s limiting instructions. In its order, the trial court stated that defense expert Gary Wimbish “intentionally injected unreliable double hearsay, non-responsive to the question asked him in an attempt to inject an improper inference before the jury.” The court further stated, “[t]hough the Court did admonish the witness as well as instruct the jury to try to eliminate the harm, it is obvious to this Court that the harm done could not be eliminated or removed.” Based on its observation, the trial court concluded that “this improper evidence and behavior to impugn the character of Irma Vanessa Villegas did cause the rendition of an incorrect verdict by the Jury as the evidence showed Irma Vanessa Villegas was a hardworking dependable and responsible mother, grandmother and sister; there was no negative evidence or detracting evidence other than expert Wimbish’s testimony.” We agree that the record establishes that this basis constituted a valid ground on which to grant a new trial such that Rudolph failed to show a clear abuse of discretion.
As with the other grounds, Rudolph attacks this ground as being facially invalid and vague. In arguing that the effect of Dr. Wimbish’s testimony cannot be firmly established, Rudolph rhetorically asks whether this improper testimony led the jury to find Villegas to be partially negligent, whether it led the jury to assign her a higher percentage, or whether it had an effect on damages. Rudolph concludes that because the trial court’s order does not specify which of those options are at play, the order for new trial is facially invalid.
Again, we reiterate that a trial court has a duty to “explain how the evidence (or lack of evidence) undermines the jury’s findings.” United Scaffolding, 377 S.W.3d at 689. On this ground, the trial court articulates that it granted a new trial because Dr. Wimbish’s testimony “injected unreliable double hearsay, non-responsive to the question asked him in an attempt to inject an improper inference before the jury” and the harm from those comments “could not be eliminated or removed” by the trial court’s instructions. In order words, the trial court articulated that it found that Dr. Wimbish made improper, potentially inflammatory comments in violation of the Rules of Evidence that prejudiced the jury against Villegas. We conclude that this reasoning is specific enough to meet the standard for facial sufficiency.
Having determined that the trial court’s order on this ground meets the facial requirements, we next assess the stated ground on its merits but within the prism of a mandamus review. We review the trial court’s admission or exclusion of evidence for abuse of discretion. Hernandez v. Moss, 538 S.W.3d 160, 167 (Tex.App.—El Paso 2017, no pet.). A trial court abuses its discretion on evidentiary issues if it acts arbitrarily or unreasonably, or without reference to guiding principles or rules. Id. A trial court’s erroneous decision to admit or exclude evidence is not reversible unless the error probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment. TEX. R. APP. P. 44.1(a).
Dr. Wimbish, a board-certified forensic toxicologist with more than 40-years’ experience, was called to testify regarding Villegas’s and Ruiz’s respective blood-alcohol content, whether alcohol affected Ruiz on the night of the accident, and if so, to what extent. Dr. Wimbish testified that Ruiz had a BAC of .02 and Villegas had a BAC of .04, both under the legal limit of .08. During cross-examination by plaintiff’s counsel, Dr. Wimbish made comments relaying information he had gleaned from the deposition of another worker at Rudolph—testimony that was otherwise not admitted at trial—suggesting that Villegas had an alcohol problem:
Q.... You’ve been telling the jury about naive drinkers and nonnaive drinkers and what you eat and all that stuff. You’ve been telling us all about that, but I’m talking about the black-and-white language on the chart that you provided. So on the chart that you provided it shows impairment listed as a clinical sign and symptom between .01 and .05. Correct?
A. That’s correct. But if we believe in those charts, we wouldn’t need toxicologists or the police officers.
Q. Okay. Now, in terms of Ms. Villegas, you listed her as a. 04. So according to your listing, I guess she’d fall in both categories?
A. She could fall in either one.
Q. The alcohol she consumed was consumed on the premises of Rudolph Mazda?
A. And that’s the only information I have.
Q. And the information that you have includes that the alcohol was allowed by Rudolph’s head person in charge on that night?
A. My information is a bit different from that.
Q. What information do you have that’s different from that?
A. Well, in the information that I have received, she brings alcohol with her to work, and --
A. -- and it’s the information that I have -- and had been drinking out of her cup on her own supply of alcohol that day.
Q. So you are taking the testimony of Lisa Melbourne who said -- is that where you’re getting that from?
A. I don’t remember the exact person, but that information was available to me. And then there’s clinical information -- and I’m not being derogatory. I’m just trying to say this is information that I considered. Okay? She verified in her statement she may have a problem with alcohol because having to wake up in the middle of the night and drink alcohol so she can go back to sleep.
Q. Okay, sir. I’m not --
[Plaintiffs’ attorney]: Yeah. Can we approach actually?
Following a discussion at the bench, Villegas moved for a mistrial. The record shows the trial judge commented on the “disturbing” testimony injected by Wimbish at the very end of trial, and he debated granting a mistrial in full, but ultimately found that the comment came as the result of a broadly worded question and decided to admonish the jury to disregard the comments. The trial court’s decision to deny a mistrial and grant a new trial came after the jury’s verdict was received.
Villegas argues that the trial court could have correctly granted the new trial based on Dr. Wimbish’s testimony because he was cloaked in the aura and authority of an expert in the eyes of a jury. Rudolph argues that even if Dr. Wimbish’s testimony was error, it was harmless, since there was adequate testimony to support the jury’s comparative negligence finding against Villegas. As support, Rudolph argues that Ruiz testified that immediately before the accident that he saw Villegas appear in front of his truck with her hands in the air and saying his name. Rudolph also pointed out that the evidence showed that Villegas had findings of a .04 BAC and may have stepped in front of Ruiz’s truck. Rudolph points out that an instruction to disregard testimony is generally presumed to cure any error. See Lee v. State, 779 S.W.2d 913, 916 (Tex.App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1989, pet. ref’d) (“An instruction to disregard cures any error unless the evidence is clearly calculated to inflame the minds of the jury and is of such a character as to suggest the impossibility of withdrawing its impression on the jury.”). Rudolph also downplays Dr. Wimbish’s importance as a witness, saying his testimony was “obscure” especially when considering the many witnesses that the Plaintiffs called to testify about Villegas’s condition and her relationship with Juarez.
Again, to obtain mandamus relief from the new trial order, Rudolph bears the burden of showing that the trial court clearly abused its discretion. Villegas has offered a plausible explanation for the trial court’s decision—namely, the weight an expert witness’s opinion would carry on the jury, particularly when the expert revealed information that had been subject to a motion in limine. Rudolph has not shown that the trial court’s decision to grant a new trial based on Dr. Wimbish’s comments constituted a clear abuse of discretion for which mandamus must issue. As such, mandamus relief is improper as to this ground. This ground may justify the grant of a new trial in its entirety either individually or standing in concert with another ground.
Accordingly, we overrule Issue Four.
D. Line-Item Awards of Zero Damages
Because each of the foregoing grounds, standing alone or collectively, would justify the grant of a new trial in its entirety, we decline to address Rudolph’s remaining two sub-issues which challenge the grant of new trial based on the jury’s award of zero damages on several line items of damages, which, if meritorious, would result in a new trial grant as to damages only. We conclude in this instance that resolution of the remaining sub-issues is unnecessary to the disposition of this appeal. See TEX. R. APP. P. 47.1.
Accordingly, we overrule Issue One, the overarching issue, as well as Issues Five and Six, the two remaining issues on damages.
As provided above, there are several grounds, individually and collectively, that would support the trial court’s new trial order in its entirety. Because no clear abuse of discretion has been demonstrated, we conclude that the order granting a new trial is not subject to mandamus correction by this Court. Rudolph’s petition for a writ of mandamus is denied.
JEFF ALLEY, Chief Justice
Who loses when a trial court grants a motion for new trial after a three-week trial? Well, the party that prevailed, or partially prevailed certainly does. But so do the twelve jurors who took three weeks out of their life to hear and decide an important dispute. Other litigants that could have used that three weeks to have their cases heard are also the losers, as they missed the opportunity to utilize valuable court time. And whenever the case is reset, another twelve jurors (plus alternates) will have to put their lives on hold for three weeks to possibly decide a gut-wrenching case. Moreover, another set of litigants will have to sit on the sidelines waiting their turn to try a case. We could add to the list of losers the third-party witnesses who may have to testify again, and of course the taxpayers who foot the bill for the court staff and facilities.
In sum, the cost to society is tangible, and accordingly, our Supreme Court has laid out a framework for review whenever a trial court exercises its discretion to grant a new trial. In my opinion, under that framework the real-parties-in-interest successfully challenge each of the four grounds advanced by the trial judge to set aside the three-week trial in this case. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent.
The Court correctly sets out a statement of the case and the standards for mandamus relief. In summary, the trial court’s stated reason must be (1) legally appropriate and (2) specific enough to show that the trial court derived its reasons from the facts and circumstances of the case before it. In re United Scaffolding, Inc., 377 S.W.3d 685, 688-89 (Tex. 2012). And if the stated reasons are appropriate, we are directed to also determine whether the trial court’s articulated reasons find support in the underlying record. In re Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., 407 S.W.3d 746, 756 (Tex. 2013). In this case, the trial court granted a new trial based on (1) an apparent conflict in the jury findings, (2) its purported reliance on one of our decisions that was later overturned, (3) an expert who violated a motion in limine, and (4) alleged inconsistency between the damages evidence and the damages findings. I address each in turn.
Conflict in Jury Findings
The jury failed to find that Rudolph was negligent in Question Two and Three, but contrary to a conditioning instruction, assigned it a percentage of responsibility (10%) in Question Four. I agree with Rudolph that any conflict between the answers to those questions was waived when the issue was not raised before the trial court discharged the jury, and that in any event, the problem has a simple mathematical fix.
If a trial court intends to grant a new trial based on error occurring during trial, the error must have been the kind that would be reversible if appealed. That was the case in In re Toyota, where the trial court granted a new trial because it thought Toyota violated a limine order excluding certain testimony. In re Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., 407 S.W.3d 746, 749 (Tex. 2013) (orig. proceeding). Yet the Texas Supreme Court held that the record did not support the trial court’s new trial order because the plaintiffs had not preserved the complaint at trial. Id. at 760 (“where, as here, the party that requested the limine order itself introduces the evidence into the record, and then fails to immediately object, ask for a curative or limiting instruction or, alternatively, move for mistrial, the party waives any subsequent alleged error on the point.”). And here, no party objected that there was a conflict in the jury findings before the jury was discharged.
The majority blunts this point by holding that a post-trial motion can also preserve error, citing a plurality from USAA Tex. Lloyds Co. v. Menchaca, 545 S.W.3d 479 (Tex. 2018). In Menchaca, four Justices agreed that a party should object to conflicting answers before the trial court dismisses the jury, but they went on to write that “[t]he absence of such an objection, however, should not prohibit us from reaching the issue of irreconcilable conflicts in jury findings.” Id. at 526 (C.J. Hecht, J. Green, J. Guzman, and J. Brown, dissenting). Three Justices, however, opined that irreconcilable jury responses do not constitute fundamental error, and concluded that an objection was required prior to the jury’s discharge. Id. at 510–20 (J. Boyd, J. Lehrmann, and J. Devine, plurality op.). Nonetheless, those same three Justices agreed that the case should be remanded for a new trial in the interest of justice, a power unique to the Texas Supreme Court, because of prior confusion in the error preservation requirements for irreconcilable jury responses. Id. at 520-21; see also TEX.R.APP.P. 60.3 (authorizing Texas Supreme Court to remand in interest of justice).
I would hew to the basic proposition that any error in conflicting jury findings needs to be raised while the jury is still present to resolve the conflict, and that post-trial motions do not preserve error. See Critical Path Resources, Inc. v. Huntsman Intl., LLC, No. 09-17-00497-CV, 2020 WL 1291327, at *17 n.66 (Tex.App.--Beaumont Mar. 19, 2020, no pet.) (mem. op.) (holding under Menchaca that a post-verdict motion failed to preserve right to complain about any alleged conflict in jury findings). That is how Rule 295 reads. See TEX.R.CIV.P. 295 (if the “answers to the [jury] questions are in conflict, the court shall in writing instruct the jury in open court of the nature of the incompleteness, unresponsiveness, or conflict, provide the jury such additional instructions as may be proper, and retire the jury for further deliberations.”). That is closest to our prior precedent. Rhey v. Redic, 408 S.W.3d 440, 464 (Tex.App.--El Paso 2013, no pet.). And that is in accord with the requirement for a “timely” objection which is an express requirement of Rule 33.1. TEX.R.APP.P. 33.1 (prerequisite for appeal requires a “a timely request, objection, or motion”). By raising the issue in a motion for new trial, the real-parties-in-interest leave the trial judge with only one remedy—declare the entire trial a nullity and start anew. Following Rule 295, however, would have at least provided the opportunity to fix any conflict between Question 2, 3, and 4. Borrowing from our criminal jurisprudence, the key to error preservation is for a litigant “to let the trial judge know what he wants, why he thinks himself entitled to it, and to do so clearly enough for the judge to understand him at a time when the trial court is in a proper position to do something about it.” Lankston v. State, 827 S.W.2d 907, 909 (Tex.Crim.App. 1992) (emphasis supplied). The difference in possible remedies makes preservation through a motion for new trial a poor cousin to fixing the problem while the jury is still in the box. For that reason, I decline to join the majority approach of allowing for post-jury-discharge objections to conflicting findings.
But even beyond that preservation issue, I disagree that the conflict here is fatal and cannot be harmonized. This is not the first time that a jury has answered the negligence inquiry “no” but assigned a percentage of fault to the same party. See Beltran v. Brookshire Grocery Co., 358 S.W.3d 263, 269 (Tex.App.--Dallas 2011, pet. denied) (collecting cases). And courts facing that predicament have concluded that “[i]ssues establishing or negating liability control over the issue which apportions, rather than establishes, negligence.” Id.; see also Garza v. Waco Scaffold and Shoring Co., 576 S.W.2d 442, 446 (Tex.App.--El Paso 1978, writ ref’d n.r.e.) (“the specific finding directed toward the liability aspect of the verdict controls over the general finding of comparative negligence”). And when faced with that prospect here, the trial court could still formulate a verdict by proportionally distributing the erroneous 10% finding over the three remaining percentages of responsibility. See Garza, 576 S.W.2d at 446; Beltran, 358 S.W.3d at 269; Ingles v. Cohen, 543 S.W.2d 455, 456–57 (Tex.App.--Waco 1976, writ ref’d n.r.e.). The real-parties-in-interest discount these cases because they predate broad form submission. But whether a jury answered a series of specific negligence questions “no” or one broad form question “no,” and then answered an apportionment question inconsistently seems a distinction without a difference.
The Painter Decision
The trial court also based its new trial motion on the change in law when our decision in Painter v. Amerimex was overturned by the Texas Supreme Court just as the trial ended. Painter v. Amerimex Drilling I, Ltd., 511 S.W.3d 700 (Tex.App.--El Paso 2015), rev’d, 561 S.W.3d 125 (Tex. 2018). In Painter, the crew leader of an oil drilling rig drove his crew from a remote drilling site to company housing in a nearby town. The crew leader was in his personal vehicle and work had finished for the day. While en route, he collided with another vehicle and the resulting accident killed and injured several crew members. The victims sued the crew leader and his employer.
The employer obtained a summary judgment based on the argument that the employer could not be vicariously liable for the crew leader’s conduct unless the employer controlled his actions at the time of the accident. Id. at 709. Attempting to reconcile conflicting authority on that issue, we agreed with the trial court and upheld the summary judgment. 511 S.W.3d at 710-11, citing, e.g., London v. Texas Power & Light Co. 620 S.W.2d 718, 719-20 (Tex.App.--Dallas 1981, no writ) (“The test of a master’s liability for the negligent acts of his servant is whether at the time and occasion in question, the master has the right and power to direct and control the servant in the performance of the causal act or omission at the very instance of its occurrence.”) (emphasis supplied) and J & C Drilling Co. v. Salaiz, 866 S.W.2d 632, 636 (Tex.App.--San Antonio 1993, no pet.) (“When the employer does not require any particular route, the employee is not engaged in the furtherance of the employer’s business.”).
The Texas Supreme Court disagreed with this Court, and some of the cases we relied on, instead holding that the relevant inquiry to impose vicarious liability was whether at the time of the negligent conduct, “the worker (1) was an employee and (2) was acting in the course and scope of his employment.” Painter II, 561 S.W.3d at 131, 132. The element of control is bound up in the first question—employment status—and not the course and scope question. Id. at 132 (“Accordingly, we disagree with those courts of appeals that have tied the right-to-control analysis to the course-and-scope element of a vicarious-liability claim.”). Moreover, that control should not be evaluated on a task-by-task basis. Id. at 138. And the course and scope question “hinges on an objective assessment of whether the employee was doing his job when he committed a tortious act.... The employer’s right to control the work, having already been determined in establishing the employer-employee relationship, is not part of this analysis.” Id. at 132-33. The Supreme Court remanded the case because the summary judgment record revealed factual disputes over whether the crew leader was in the course and scope of his employment by driving the crew to its housing. Id. at 139.
In this case, the trial court granted a new trial here in part because:
[T]he Texas Supreme Court decision in Painter v. Ameritex [sic] rendered on April 213,2018, [sic] the day of this Jury Verdict, was important law that affected the earlier decision s [sic] of this Court on motions filed by the parties, the evidence presented at trial and the charge given to the Jury. Based on the Painter opinion and other relevant decisions and authority as set forth in Plaintiff s Motion for Judgment NOV, it appears to this Court that it needs to reconsider whether Irma Vanessa Villegas and Christian Ruiz were injured in the course of employment as a matter of law which would make Plaintiff s claim a non-subscriber negligence case under 406.33 [sic] of the Texas Labor Code, and combined with the evidence admitted at trial, find negligence as a matter of law, thereby leaving only the issue of damages for determination.
I agree with Rudolph that the trial court’s claim that Painter affected its earlier decisions on (1) pending motions, (2) the evidence presented at trial, and (3) the jury charge is either conclusory or is not supported by the record. The only motions that the parties point to were competing motions for summary judgment on the course and scope issue. Rudolph argued for a summary judgment in part based on our Painter decision (before it was reversed) but the trial court denied that motion. The trial court also denied the real-parties-in-interest’s motion for summary judgment, but I fail to see how Painter II would have changed that ruling. In Painter II, after all, the court remanded the case for trial based on the existence of a fact issue. Consistent with that outcome, the trial court also submitted a course and scope question to the jury.
The majority’s elongated discussion of Painter fails to point to a single evidentiary ruling, or other trial ruling colored by Painter I. Nor have the parties identified any defect in the charge occasioned by the trial court’s reliance on Painter I. The accident at issue in Painter occurred well away from the worksite, and parties there argued the “coming and going” rule and cases applying that rule. 511 S.W.3d at 706.1 The accident here occurred in Rudolph’s parking lot. And the parties disputed whether the “access doctrine” which is an exception to the coming and going rule would apply. That doctrine allows employees to recover workers’ compensation benefits if they are “injured while going to or from work, if on routes designated by their employers and at locations near where they work, ... ‘where such access route or area is so closely related to the employer’s premises as to be fairly treated as a part of the premises.’ ” OCI Beaumont LLC v. Barajas, 520 S.W.3d 83, 85 n.1 (Tex.App.--Beaumont 2017, no pet.), quoting Tex. Comp. Ins. Co. v. Matthews, 519 S.W.2d 630, 631 (Tex. 1974). Moreover, the trial court actually included—at the real-parties-in interest’s request—an access doctrine instruction in the charge. Neither the trial court, nor the real-parties-in-interest articulate any additional or different charge language that would have been included had Painter II been released before, rather than after trial.
At most, the trial court states it might conclude that Irma Vanessa Villegas and Christian Ruiz were in the course and scope of employment as a matter of law based on the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Painter. Setting aside whether that is even correct, nothing would have prevented the trial court from granting that relief post-trial based on the arguments and relief sought in “Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict and to Enter Judgment.” Our rules specifically allow a party to file motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which the real-parties-in-interest did here. TEX.R.CIV.P. 301. But rather than grant that motion, the trial court set aside the results of a three-week jury trial because it might grant a JNOV or equivalent motion in the future. I would find that to be an abuse of discretion. If the trial court believes the law places certain of these actors in the course and scope of employment as a matter of law, the court should simply grant the JNOV and let that ruling be tested on appeal.2
The Expert’s Testimony
As one of the last trial witnesses, Rudolph put on an expert toxicologist, Dr. Gary Wimbish, to opine in part that the alcohol that Ruiz drank would not have affected him on the night of the accident. Ruiz had a blood alcohol content of .02. Ms. Villegas had a BAC of .04. As the majority sets out, when Wimbish was cross-examined by plaintiffs’ counsel, he was asked to agree that all the alcohol that Villegas had that day was provided by the Rudolph. He responded that “[m]y information is a bit different from that.” Villegas’s counsel then asked him what other information he had. He then relayed that Villegas was reported to have imbibed alcohol she brought to work. And when Villegas’s counsel continued with that line of questioning—asking where he got that information from—Dr. Wimbish gratuitously added that he had seen clinical information that Ms. Villegas had a problem with alcohol such that she would wake up in the middle of the night and need to drink to get back to sleep. At that point, Villegas’s counsel asked to approach the bench and moved for a mistrial. The trial court denied the mistrial (noting that Villegas had opened the door) but then formulated this specific instruction that each juror individually had to agree that they would abide by:
COURT: You heard testimony from the witness that is not credible, is unreliable, and not evidence in this case. You are instructed to disregard the witness’s testimony – Dr. Wimbish’s testimony – on all evidence concerning Vanessa Villegas’ prior use of alcohol before the date in incident – before this incident.
Do you understand that, ladies and gentlemen?
THE JURORS: Yes, sir.
I could certainly agree that the injection of some of the drinking testimony was error. The specific reference to a drinking problem and that Villegas needed to drink to go to sleep was not responsive to the question asked. The bench conference also suggests that the information was based on double, if not triple hearsay. The injection of these matters, accordingly, could be a valid ground for ordering a new trial.
But for an error to serve as a valid basis for a new trial, it must be harmful which we define as probably causing the rendition of an improper verdict. TEX.R.APP.P. 44.1(a); Diamond Offshore Servs. v. Williams, 542 S.W.3d 539, 551 (Tex. 2018); Loera v. Fuentes, 511 S.W.3d 761, 776 (Tex.App.--El Paso 2016, no pet.). And that is where I get stumped. The trial court pointedly told the jury that the evidence was unreliable; each juror individually agreed to abide by that instruction. We generally presume that jurors will follow a court’s instructions, and only a narrow class of statements defy our ability to instruct jurors. See Living Centers of Texas, Inc. v. Penalver, 256 S.W.3d 678, 680 (Tex. 2008) (“Typically, retraction of the argument or instruction from the court can cure any probable harm, but in rare instances the probable harm or prejudice cannot be cured.”). Those rare circumstances include appeals to racial prejudice, unsupported and extreme attacks on opposing parties and witnesses, and accusing without evidence the opposing parties of witness manipulation or evidence tampering. Id. at 681 (collecting cases). The statement here falls somewhere outside that line of cases.
Nor does the record support that the jury violated the trial court’s instruction. On liability, the jury found Villegas (who had more to drink than Ruiz) slightly less at fault than Ruiz. The accident occurred when Ruiz, who had just backed out of a parking spot, put his truck into drive and drove into Villegas who was walking in front of his truck. The jury could have concluded that both driver and pedestrian failed to keep a proper look-out. Stated otherwise, there is nothing surprising about the finding of fault, or the apportionment of liability. Nor does a $3.87 million verdict call out that the jury disregarded the damages testimony because of the single isolated statement of the witness.
The Damages Findings
The majority does not reach the fourth basis for the trial court’s order—the amount of non-economic damages awarded. Because I would find each of the stated reasons for the new trial improper, I briefly address the issue.
The jury awarded a total of $4.02 million in damages, $3.87 million to Villegas (who was hit by the truck) and $150,000 to Juarez (Villegas’s adult daughter). The jury awarded Villegas these specific sums:
Medical care in the past: $630,000
Medical care in the future: $2,500,000
Physical pain and suffering in the past: $25,000
Physical pain and suffering in the future: $25,000
Physical impairment in the past: $25,000
Physical impairment in the future: $25,000
Past disfigurement: $0
Future disfigurement: $200,000
Loss of past earning capacity: $150,000
Loss of future earning capacity: $240,000
Past mental anguish: $25,000
Future mental anguish: $25,000
The awards for Juarez are as follows:
Past household services: $0
Future household services: $150,000
Past loss of parental consortium: $0
Future loss of parental consortium: $0
The trial court also granted a new trial based on the jury’s answers to eight of the damage categories, stating as follows:
As an additional and independent basis for new trial, the Court finds that the determination of Zero (-0-) Damages for past disfigurement of Irma Vanessa Villegas ... as well as Zero (-0-) Damages for daughter Andrea Juarez for Past household services and for Past and future loss of parental consortium completely ignore the undisputed facts, and the other damages [for past and future physical pain and physical impairment] fix an amount neither authorized nor supported by the evidence and is contrary to the great weight of the evidence. (Internal reference to the damage question numbers omitted).
The trial court further stated, and I accept as true, that the “undisputed evidence proved that Irma Vanessa Villegas suffered permanent irreversible traumatic brain injury and was paralyzed on one side of her body[.]” The trial court summarized the trial evidence as including “controverted evidence of constant daily pain” and her “impairment in virtually every movement.” Villegas was confined to a bed and wheelchair, and she needed round-the-clock assistance. She suffered “permanent damage to her mental faculties” such that at times she did not know her daughter, her grandchildren, and her sisters.
Rule 320 expressly provides that “[n]ew trials may be granted when the damages are manifestly too small or too large.” TEX.R.CIV.P. 320. And our high court has stated “If the jury’s failure to award damages or the amount of damages awarded is so against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence as to be manifestly unjust, shock the conscious, or clearly demonstrate bias, then a new trial would be required.” Golden Eagle Archery, Inc. v. Jackson, 116 S.W.3d 757, 773 (Tex. 2003).
But any view of damages is also tempered by the jury’s wide discretion in awarding non-economic damages. Sanchez v. Balderrama, 546 S.W.3d 230, 237 (Tex.App.--El Paso 2017, no pet.) (“Because there are no objective guidelines to assess the monetary equivalent to [mental anguish or pain and suffering], the jury is given broad discretion in awarding an amount of damages it determines appropriate.”). This is because the “process of awarding damages for amorphous, discretionary injuries such as mental anguish or pain and suffering is inherently difficult because the alleged injury is a subjective, unliquidated, nonpecuniary loss.” Id. We recently quoted a prior sister court’s view that it is the jury’s province “to resolve the speculative matters of pain and suffering, future pain and suffering, future disfigurement, and future physical impairment, and set the amount of damages attributable thereto.” Id., quoting Duron v. Merritt, 846 S.W.2d 23, 26 (Tex.App.--Corpus Christi 1992, no writ).
We also must acknowledge the possible overlap between the damage categories here--physical impairment, physical pain and suffering, disfigurement, and pain and mental anguish. See Golden Eagle Archery, Inc., 116 S.W.3d at 771 (noting that physical impairment, physical pain and suffering, disfigurement, and mental anguish can encompass the same loss). None of these terms were defined by the charge. So, while we assume the jury followed the instruction not to award the same damages in more than one damage category, we must look to all the awards in the several categories to determine if the jury failed to properly award damages. Id.
The trial court here first focused on the failure of the jury to award any sum for past disfigurement (while awarding a substantial sum for future disfigurement). The accident resulted in a portion of Villegas’s skull being removed, leaving an indentation on her forehead and other scarring from one side of her skull to the other. There was some testimony that she bemoaned the misshapenness of her head and was given to frequent crying. “Disfigurement has been defined as that which impairs the appearance of a person, or that which renders unsightly, misshapen or imperfect, or deforms in some manner.” Doctor v. Pardue, 186 S.W.3d 4, 18 (Tex.App.--Houston [1st Dist.] 2006, pet. denied). “The matter of future disfigurement is necessarily speculative and there is no mathematical yard stick by which one can measure damages for it.” Mauricio v. Cervantes, No. 04-16-00260-CV, 2017 WL 2791324, at *3 (Tex.App.--San Antonio June 28, 2017, no pet.) (mem. op.).
Rudolph postulates that the jury awarded nothing in the past for disfigurement because Villegas as of the time of trial did not perceive her own change in appearance. It suggests that the large future disfigurement award evidences the jury’s belief she would later improve and come to learn of her disfigurement, and only then suffer the loss.3 I am unpersuaded by that specific argument. But I agree that the compensable aspect of disfigurement is how it affected Villegas, which surely encompasses her mental suffering from the injury. It could also encompass the loss of enjoyment of life that is part and parcel of physical impairment. See Golden Eagle Archery, Inc., 116 S.W.3d at 772. That overlap necessitates that a court also consider any awards for mental anguish, pain and suffering, and physical impairment in deciding if the jury truly ignored the disfigurement. And the jury did collectively award $75,000 in those categories to Villegas. Accordingly, it is incorrect to conclude the jury failed to consider at all the disfigurement in its damage calculations.4
The trial court also focused on the lack of awards for loss of parental consortium. The relationship here was between an adult child and parent. Juarez presented testimony of her belief as to the destruction of that relationship. Relators point out, however, that her credibility was challenged through cross examination on at least two matters where the jury might have concluded that Juarez was untruthful or prone to embellishment. It of course is not our role to decide whether she was truthful or not—that is reserved for the jury. Benoit v. Wilson, 239 S.W.2d 792, 796 (Tex. 1951) (“The jury, not the court, is the fact finding body. The court is never permitted to substitute its findings and conclusions for that of the jury. The jury is the exclusive judge of the facts proved, the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given to their testimony.”). Accordingly, the jury was entitled to disbelieve her testimony and not award consortium damages. Perez v. Lopez, 74 S.W.3d 60, 66 (Tex.App.--El Paso 2002, no pet.) (in upholding award of no damages for loss of consortium “it was [the jury’s] function to accept or reject any, part, or all of the witnesses’s testimony ....”).
The trial court also found fault with the jury’s answer to the loss of household services question. An award for household services compensates a family member for the loss of household services that the injured party would have provided the family member but for the injury. See COMM. ON PATTERN JURY CHARGES, STATE BAR OF TEX., TEXAS PATTERN JURY CHARGES: GEN. NEGLIGENCE, PJC 28.4 (2016). The jury question here, however asked for the “[r]easonable value of household services and personal care in the past provided by Andrea Juarez for the benefit of Irma Vanessa Villegas.” There was no evidence that Juarez provided household services to Villegas (as opposed to Villegas providing services to Juarez). While that may have been a typographical error as the real-parties-in-interest suggest, it was the charge given and which the jury answered.
The balance of the trial court’s rationale is that the series of $25,000 awards for past and future physical impairment, and past and future pain and suffering are “neither authorized nor supported by the evidence and is contrary to the great weight of the evidence.” It is unclear if the rationale here is grounded solely in a factual sufficiency challenge or includes legal sufficiency as well. See In re Bent, 487 S.W.3d 170, 179 (Tex. 2016) (noting trial court’s muddled legal- and factual-sufficiency evaluation of the evidence). As a legal insufficiency matter, the argument fails because the evidence could never establish a particular sum for a non-pecuniary award as a matter of law. As a factual insufficiency challenge, the order fails to explain how the particular amounts—given the jury’s wide latitude, shock the conscious or point to an award based on some bias.
For these reasons, I respectfully dissent.
We will refer to the plaintiffs collectively as “Villegas” unless context requires us to draw a distinction between them.
We note that we have characterized Juarez’s motion for mistrial as a motion for new trial based on the impact of the trial court’s ruling. The title of the motion is immaterial where it ultimately returned the case “to the posture in which it had been before trial[,]” thereby rendering the post-verdict ruling “functionally indistinguishable from an order granting a new trial.” State v. Garza, 774 S.W.2d 724, 726 (Tex.App.—Corpus Christi 1989, pet. ref’d).
See Painter v. Amerimex Drilling I, Ltd., 561 S.W.3d 125 (Tex. 2018).
On September 13, 2020, Villegas died during the pendency of this appeal.
During trial, toxicologists retained by both sides agreed that Ruiz’s blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) was estimated as .02 percent, as shown by later testing, at the time of the impact.
Our mandamus record includes “Plaintiff’s Supplemental Petition of January 12, 2018.”
For completeness, we detail here the other damages awarded by the jury not otherwise listed above: past medical care of $630,000, and future medical care of $2,500,000; past physical impairment of $25,000, and future physical impairment of $25,000; past loss of earning capacity of $150,000, and future loss of earning capacity of $240,000; past mental anguish of $25,000, and future mental anguish of $25,000.
In United Scaffolding, the trial court’s order articulated four reasons—including the impermissible reason “in the interest of justice and fairness”—that were all linked together by the connector “and/or.” Because the use of and/or left open that possibility that “in the interest of justice” was the sole rationale, the Supreme Court of Texas granted mandamus relief, vacated the amended order based on the ambiguity, and outlined further steps the trial court needed to take to make its order facially valid. Id. at 689-90. The United Scaffolding Court identified the following as reasons that would not pass muster under Columbia:
• The reason given is legally invalid.
• The reason plainly stated that the trial court merely substituted its own judgment for the jury’s.
• The reason was that the trial court simply disliked one party’s lawyer.
• The reason was based on invidious discrimination.
• The reason is “rubber-stamped with a valid new-trial rationale” but “provides little or no insight into the judge’s reasoning” (i.e. it involves the “mere recitation of a legal standard” that does not show “the trial judge considered the specific facts and circumstances of the case at hand and explain[ed] how the evidence (or lack of evidence) undermines the jury’s findings”).
• The order provides “no more than a pro forma template ....”
Id. at 689.
In Menchaca, a three-justice plurality held that a post-discharge motion for new trial was not sufficient to preserve error; instead, a motion to correct the verdict prior to discharge of the jury was required. 545 S.W.3d at 517-19 (plurality op. by Boyd, J., joined by Lehrmann and Devine, JJ.). Yet, a four-justice plurality held that the failure to object to conflicting answers before the trial court discharged the jury should not prevent appellate courts from reviewing the merits of the conflict. Id. at 526-31 (Green, J., dissenting, joined by Hecht, C.J., and Guzman and Brown, JJ.). Justice Blacklock concurred in the Court’s judgment without opinion, and Justice Johnson did not participate in the decision. Id. at 521. Neither plurality opinion thus commanded the five votes necessary to become binding precedent. See Univ. of Tex. Med. Branch at Galveston v. York, 871 S.W.2d 175, 177 (Tex. 1994) (Texas Supreme Court plurality opinions do not constitute binding authority “[b]ecause the principles of law involved have not been agreed upon by a majority of the sitting court”).
Rudolph maintains that Villegas reads too much into Painter II and argues that Painter II does not apply here because it does not deal explicitly with the access doctrine. We agree that Painter II does not explicitly reference the access doctrine itself. However, Painter II does state that the coming-and-going rule applies to both workers’ compensation and vicarious liability cases. Painter II, 561 S.W.3d at 136. In defining a version of the rule, Painter II describes: “a general rule [that] an injury received while using the public streets and highways in going to or returning from the place of employment is not compensable because not incurred in the course of employment.” Id. The coming-and-going rule is ordinarily applied to employee transit occurring on public streets and highways. Painter II dealt with and applied an exception to the coming-and-going rule known as the special mission exception to hold that there was a fact question on vicarious liability in the nonsubscriber context. It would follow that if the Supreme Court of Texas held in Painter II that the coming-and-going rule applies across both the subscriber and nonsubscriber contexts, and that one exception to the rule also applied, then logically speaking, another exception to the coming-and-going rule (the on-premises/access doctrine) could equally apply with force here. Although we find that the general principles enunciated in Painter II applied here, we do not otherwise decide whether there is a need for an access instruction as that issue is not now before us.
And a careful examination of the briefing when the case was before our Court would show that the plaintiffs primarily relied on a claimed exception to the coming and going rule carved out for travel to and from drilling rigs in remote locations. 511 S.W.2d at 706, citing, e.g., Johnson v. Pacific Employers Indemnity Co., 439 S.W.2d 824 (Tex.1969). None of those cases, however, would have any application to the accident here.
Nothing written here should be interpreted as suggesting that I would agree or disagree with such a ruling. That issue is not before us. I only conclude that a trial court cannot set aside a jury’s verdict in favor of a new trial because the court might grant one party relief as a matter of law, particularly when a motion seeking such relief is already teed up before the trial court.
Tragically, during the pendency of this appeal, the real-parties-in-interest informed us that Villegas has passed away.
This overlap also distinguishes the principal case that the real-parties-in-interest rely on, Doctor v. Pardue. In that case, the jury awarded no sums for any of the past categories of non-pecuniary loss, but substantial sums for all the future awards. 186 S.W.3d at 18.