Abor v. Black, C-4047

Citation695 S.W.2d 564
Decision Date17 July 1985
Docket NumberNo. C-4047,C-4047
PartiesSharon Ann ABOR et al., Relators, v. The Honorable William C. BLACK, Judge et al., Respondents.
CourtSupreme Court of Texas

Kidd, Whitehurst and Harkness, William O. Whitehurst, Austin, for relators.

Bowmer, Courtney, Burleson, Pemberton and Normand, Bob Burleson, Temple, Mehaffey, Weber, Keith and Gonsoulin, O.J. Weber, Beaumont, Roark and Fernandez, David Fernandez, Temple, for respondents.

SPEARS, Justice.

The question presented is whether a potential defendant in a negligence action can choose the time and forum for trial by beating the potential plaintiff to the courthouse and filing suit seeking a declaration of non-liability under Tex.Rev.Civ.Stat.Ann. art. 2524-1 (Vernon 1965). Sharon Abor seeks mandamus relief to compel the Bell County District Court to abate a declaratory judgment action and defer to the Harris County District Court in which she is the plaintiff in a negligence action. We agree the respondents have attempted an unauthorized use of the Declaratory Judgment Act, but for reasons stated herein decline to grant mandamus relief.

Sharon Abor brought her daughter, Demeatrick Latoya Jones, to Scott & White Hospital for leukemia chemotherapy on February 11, 1982. The doctor picked up the wrong syringe and mistakenly injected the drug Vincristine into Demeatrick's spinal column. The nurse who set up the tray caught the mistake and notified the doctor. The doctor consulted the package insert provided with the drug by the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, but the insert did not indicate the significance of a spinal injection. The doctor then consulted other doctors at Scott & White, and the decision was made to simply send the child home without telling the mother of the mistake. The little girl became ill that night, and wasted away for sixty days before succumbing on April 18, 1982. The Vincristine had slowly absorbed and attacked brain and other nerve tissue.

On February 10, 1984, Abor filed a wrongful death action against Eli Lilly in Harris County. Eli Lilly removed the lawsuit to federal district court. Abor subsequently joined Scott & White Hospital, and various hospital staff members as defendants in the federal court action. The Scott & White parties filed a motion to dismiss for want of diversity jurisdiction. The federal court granted the motion on August 29, 1984. While no suit was pending, the Scott & White parties brought a declaratory judgment action in Bell County asking for a declaration of non-liability. Eli Lilly intervened in the Bell County suit. Abor then refiled her wrongful death action in Harris County. After Abor's refiling, the Scott & White parties added an action for sworn account to their pleadings. Abor filed a plea in abatement in the Bell County action, contending that suit was an improper use of the declaratory judgment act. The plea in abatement was denied by Judge Black on January 16, 1985.

The Texas Declaratory Judgment Act provides:

Section 1. Courts of record within their respective jurisdictions shall have power to declare rights, status, and other legal relations whether or not further relief is or could be claimed. No action or proceeding shall be open to objection on the ground that a declaratory judgment or decree is prayed for. The declaration may be either affirmative or negative in form and effect; and such declarations shall have the force and effect of a final judgment or decree.

Art. 2524-1 § 1. The act enumerates several permissible actions such as construction of contracts, wills, and determinations of the rights and duties of executors as suitable for declaratory judgments, but indicates that the listed actions do not restrict the scope of the act. Art. 2524-1 §§ 2-5.

Abor argues that the declaratory judgment act is unavailable to parties attempting to determine non-liability in a personal injury suit. In K.M.S. Research Laboratories v. Willingham, 629 S.W.2d 173, 174 (Tex.App.--Dallas 1982, no writ), the court recited that "litigation of liability by a potential defendant in a tort action is an improper use of declaratory judgment legislation."

The respondents argue that such is a proper use of the act, and cite Serna v. Cochrum, 290 S.W.2d 383 (Tex.Civ.App.--San Antonio 1956, writ ref'd n.r.e.). The parties in Serna did use the declaratory judgment act to litigate a potential defendant's liability in a personal injury action. However, the potential plaintiffs who were sued under the act, immediately set up cross-actions for damages and did not dispute the use of the act. Therefore, unauthorized use of the act was never an issue in the case.

Because this is a uniform act and because the legislature has indicated that this act is to be interpreted in conformity with the other states which have enacted it, we will examine its construction by other jurisdictions. The majority of jurisdictions addressing the question have held that a trial court should not exercise jurisdiction over a suit for declaration of non-liability by a potential negligence defendant.

In construing the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act, the court of appeals for the third circuit held "that to compel potential personal injury plaintiffs to litigate their claims at a time and in a forum chosen by the alleged tortfeasor would be a perversion of the Declaratory Judgment Act." Cunningham Brothers, Inc. v. Bail, 407 F.2d 1165, 1168 (7th Cir.1969) cert. den. 395 U.S. 959, 89 S.Ct. 2100, 23 L.Ed.2d 745. The Cunningham court suggested that the primary purpose of the Act is to prevent the accrual of avoidable damages to those not certain of their rights, and reasoned that allowing a potential negligence defendant to obtain a declaration of non-liability would force an injured person to litigate a claim that the party may not wish to litigate at a potentially inconvenient forum, and perhaps at a time before the full extent of damages can be determined. The seventh circuit in Cunningham agreed with the conclusion reached by the third circuit in Sun Oil Co. v. Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Corp., 108 F.Supp. 280, 282 (E.D.Pa.1952) aff'd (opinion adopted), 203 F.2d 957 (3rd Cir.1953) that "it is not one of the purposes of the declaratory judgment acts to enable a prospective negligence action defendant to obtain a declaration of non-liability." See 10A Wright, Miller & Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2760 (2nd ed. 1983).

The Illinois Supreme Court has held that a declaration of non-liability for past conduct is not normally a function of the declaratory judgment statute because it deprives the potential plaintiff of the right to determine whether to file, and if so, when and where. Howlett v. Scott, 69 Ill.2d 135, 13 Ill.Dec. 9, 12, 370 N.E.2d 1036, 1039 (1977). See Bankers & Shippers Ins. Co. of New York v. Kildow, 9 Ark.App. 86, 654 S.W.2d 600, 603 (1983); Watson v. Sansone, 19 Cal.App.3d 1, 96 Cal.Rptr. 387, 389 (1971); Employer's Fire Ins. Co. v. Beals, 103 R.I. 623, 240 A.2d 397, 402 (1968). See also Campbell 66 Express, Inc. v. Thermo King of Springfield, Inc., 563 S.W.2d 776, 779 (Mo.App.1978), Utility Blade & Razor Co. v. Donovan, 33 N.J.Super. 566, 111 A.2d 300, 303 (1955).

Because our statute appears to give the courts jurisdiction over declarations of non-liability of a potential defendant in a tort action, we find that the Bell County District Court had jurisdiction over the suit. However, we hold that the trial court should have declined to exercise such jurisdiction because it deprived the real plaintiff of the traditional right to choose the time and place of suit.

This court has consistently held that it lacks jurisdiction to issue writs of mandamus to supervise or correct incidental rulings of a trial judge when there is an adequate remedy by appeal. Grimm v. Garner, 589 S.W.2d 955, 956 (Tex.1979); Pope v. Ferguson, 445 S.W.2d 950, 954 (Tex.1969) ...

To continue reading

Request your trial
230 cases
  • Walker v. Packer
    • United States
    • Texas Supreme Court
    • February 19, 1992
    ...of discovery sanction); Johnson v. Fourth Court of Appeals, 700 S.W.2d 916, 917 (Tex.1985) (grant of new trial); Abor v. Black, 695 S.W.2d 564, 566 (Tex.1985) (denial of plea in abatement); State v. Walker, 679 S.W.2d 484, 485 (Tex.1984) (refusal to reinstate temporary injunction); Pat Walk......
  • Mbm Financial v. Woodlands Operating Co.
    • United States
    • Texas Supreme Court
    • August 28, 2009
    ...had been repealed). 38. Bonham State Bank v. Beadle, 907 S.W.2d 465, 468 (Tex. 1995). 39. 800 S.W.2d 838, 841-42 (Tex.1990). 40. 695 S.W.2d 564, 566 (Tex. 1985). 41. See, e.g., Mustang Pipeline Co. v. Driver Pipeline Co., 134 S.W.3d 195, 200 (Tex.2004) (per curiam); Bennett v. Cochran, 96 S......
  • Ryder Truck Rental, Inc. v. Rollins
    • United States
    • Nebraska Supreme Court
    • July 1, 1994
    ...jurisdiction over a suit for declaration of nonliability by a potential or, in some instances, actual defendant. See, Abor v. Black, 695 S.W.2d 564 (Tex.1985) (declaratory judgment filed by potential defendant in tort action seeking declaration of nonliability should not be entertained beca......
  • Perry v. Del Rio
    • United States
    • Texas Supreme Court
    • September 12, 2001
    ...but imperative. Finally, in Curtis v. Gibbs, we held that mandamus is appropriate to resolve disputes over dominant jurisdiction.97 In Abor v. Black, we declined to grant mandamus relief directing a court to abate a case in deference to another court's dominant jurisdiction absent "any orde......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT