City of Keller v. Wilson

Decision Date02 September 2005
Docket NumberNo. 02-1012.,02-1012.
PartiesThe CITY OF KELLER, Petitioner, v. John W. WILSON, Grace S. Wilson, Johnny L. Wilson and Nancy A. Wilson, Respondents.
CourtTexas Supreme Court

Dabney D. Bassel, Larry Bracken, Law Snakard & Gambill, P.C., Fort Worth, Douglas H. Conner III, L. Stanton Lowry, Boyle & Lowry, L.L.P., Irving, for petitioner.

James B. Barlow, Barlow & Garsek, Fort Worth, Robert L. Russell Bush, Bush & Morrison, Arlington, David R. Casey, Hurst, for respondents.

Jay Doegey, Assistant City Attorney for the City of Corpus Christi, Texas, Corpus Christi, Theodore P. Gorski Jr., Office of the City Attorney, Mark G. Daniel, Evans Gandy Daniel & Moore, Fritz Quast, Taylor Olson Adkins Sralla & Elam, LLP, Fort Worth, Monte Akers, Texas Municipal League, Austin, Michael A. Bucek, Senior Assistant City Attorney, Irving, Robert F. Brown, Brown & Hofmeister, L.L.P., Richardson, Bruce S. Powers, Assistant County Attorney, Michael A. Stafford, Harris County Attorney, Houston, for Amicus Curiae.

Justice BRISTER delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice JEFFERSON, Justice HECHT, Justice WAINWRIGHT, and Justice GREEN joined, and in which Justice O'NEILL and Justice MEDINA joined as to Parts I through IV.

Must an appellate court reviewing a verdict for legal sufficiency start by considering all the evidence or only part? Over the years, we have stated both as the proper scope of review. While some see the standards as opposing, we disagree; like a glass that is half-full or half-empty, both arrive at the same point regardless of where they start.

But both standards must be properly applied. Rules and reason sometimes compel that evidence must be credited or discarded whether it supports a verdict or contradicts it. Under either scope of review, appellate courts must view the evidence in the light favorable to the verdict, crediting favorable evidence if reasonable jurors could, and disregarding contrary evidence unless reasonable jurors could not. As we find the evidence here meets neither standard, we reverse.

I. Factual and Procedural History

The City of Keller is one of several fast-growing communities on the outskirts of Fort Worth.1 As part of that growth, the City approved plans for two new subdivisions, Estates of Oak Run and Rancho Serena, including plans for storm water drainage.

The Wilsons own property southeast of the new subdivisions, with a tract owned by Z.T. Sebastian lying between. Before development, surface water flowed generally north to south from the land where the subdivisions were built, across the Sebastian and Wilson properties, and into the Little Bear Creek Watershed.

In 1991, the City adopted a Master Drainage Plan providing for drainage easements across both the Sebastian and Wilson properties, and thence into Little Bear Creek. The City's codes require developers to comply with the Master Plan, to provide drainage for a 100-year rain event, and to avoid increasing the volume or velocity of water discharged upon downhill properties.

The developers of Oak Run and Rancho Serena submitted plans to the City indicating they would buy a drainage easement and build a ditch forty-five feet wide and more than two hundred yards long across the Sebastian property, and deed both to the City upon completion.2 The plans also included detention basins on the subdivision properties, but omitted any drainage easement or ditch across the Wilsons' property. The City's director of public works approved the developers' plans, and the City accepted the works on completion.

In accordance with the Master Plan, the City built a box culvert south of the Wilsons' property. But as the developers' drainage ditch ended at the Wilsons' north property line, there was no link between the two. The Wilsons alleged and the jury found this omission increased flooding on the Wilsons' property, ruining eight acres of farmland the jury valued at almost $300,000.

To recover damages for inverse condemnation, the Wilsons had to prove the City intentionally took or damaged their property for public use, or was substantially certain that would be the result.3 They do not allege the City intentionally flooded their land, but do allege it approved revised plans that it knew were substantially certain to have that effect.

The City contends no evidence supports the jury's finding of an intentional taking. It presented evidence that engineers for the developers, for the City, and for an outside firm the City retained all certified that the revised drainage plan complied with the City's codes and regulations — including the ban against increasing downstream runoff. Thus, the City asserts it had no reason to be substantially certain the opposite would occur, until it did.

A divided court of appeals rejected this contention.4 In its legal sufficiency review, the court refused to consider the various engineers' certifications because "we are to consider only the evidence and inferences that tend to support the finding and disregard all evidence and inferences to the contrary."5 The City challenges this omission as applying the wrong scope of review.

We have on many occasions stated the scope of review precisely as the court of appeals says (the "exclusive" standard).6 But we have also stated that a reviewing court must consider "all of the evidence" in the light favorable to the verdict (the "inclusive" standard).7 Sometimes we have mentioned neither reviewing all evidence nor disregarding some part of it.8 Finally, we have sometimes expressly mentioned both.9

Although this Court has used both the exclusive and the inclusive standards interchangeably over the years, commentators say the two are different.10 Because this important issue is dispositive here, we address it in some detail, and reserve for another day the City's arguments that a governmental entity cannot be liable for approving a developer's plans, or accepting rather than constructing the works at issue.

II. Contrary Evidence That Cannot Be Disregarded

The question presented here is not a new one. More than 40 years ago, then Justice Calvert11 addressed the standards for reviewing legal and factual sufficiency in the most-cited law review article in Texas legal history.12 Frustrated that despite this Court's efforts to explain those standards "a growing number of recent decisions indicate a continuing misunderstanding,"13 the author summarized and attempted to clarify Texas law up to 1960.14 The article's impact remains substantial today, having been cited more than 100 times by Texas courts in the last five years.

According to the article:

"No evidence" points must, and may only, be sustained when the record discloses one of the following situations: (a) a complete absence of evidence of a vital fact; (b) the court is barred by rules of law or of evidence from giving weight to the only evidence offered to prove a vital fact; (c) the evidence offered to prove a vital fact is no more than a mere scintilla; (d) the evidence establishes conclusively the opposite of the vital fact.15

We have quoted a similar formulation on many occasions.16

Notably, Justice Calvert then proceeded to put the question before us in the proper context:

It is in deciding "no evidence" points in situation (c) that the courts follow the further rule of viewing the evidence in its most favorable light in support of the finding of the vital fact, considering only the evidence and the inferences which support the finding and rejecting the evidence and the inferences which are contrary to the finding.17

Clearly, the traditional rule in Texas has never been that appellate courts must reject contrary evidence in every no-evidence review. Instead, the traditional scope of review does not disregard contrary evidence if there is no favorable evidence (situation (a) above), or if contrary evidence renders supporting evidence incompetent (situation (b) above) or conclusively establishes the opposite (situation (d) above).

As the following examples show, this has remained the rule since. We do not presume to categorize all circumstances in which contrary evidence must be considered in a legal sufficiency review. Evidence can be disregarded whenever reasonable jurors could do so,18 an inquiry that is necessarily fact-specific. But it is important that when courts use the exclusive standard and disregard contrary evidence, they must recognize certain exceptions to it.

A. Contextual Evidence

In Justice Calvert's first situation — a complete absence of evidence of a vital fact — it is generally irrelevant whether a reviewing court considers contrary evidence.19 If supporting evidence is absent, opposing evidence cannot change that result. But in a number of cases, the lack of supporting evidence may not appear until all the evidence is reviewed in context.

For example, publications alleged to be defamatory must be viewed as a whole — including accompanying statements, headlines, pictures, and the general tenor and reputation of the source itself.20 A court reviewing legal sufficiency cannot disregard parts of a publication, considering only false statements to support a plaintiff's verdict or only true ones to support a defense verdict.21

Similarly, reviewing courts must construe contracts as a whole; we do not consider only the parts favoring one party and disregard the remainder, as that would render the latter meaningless.22 Even writings executed at different times must be considered together if they pertain to the same transaction.23

It is not just writings that reviewing courts must consider in context. For example, in reviewing intentional infliction of emotional distress claims for legal sufficiency, "we consider the context and the relationship between the parties."24 Acts...

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