In re Columbia Medical Center

Decision Date03 July 2009
Docket NumberNo. 06-0416.,06-0416.
Citation290 S.W.3d 204
PartiesIn re COLUMBIA MEDICAL CENTER OF LAS COLINAS, SUBSIDIARY, L.P. d/b/a Las Colinas Medical Center, Antonette Conner, and Anna Mathew, Relators.
CourtTexas Supreme Court

Law Office of Peter M. Kelly, P.C., Houston, TX, for Amicus Curiae.

Justice JOHNSON delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justice HECHT, Justice WAINWRIGHT, Justice BRISTER, and Justice WILLETT joined.

The Texas Constitution provides that the right of trial by jury "shall remain inviolate." TEX. CONST. art. 1, § 15. The issue before us is whether, after a jury has rendered its verdict, the trial court may disregard that verdict, grant a new trial, and explain its action only as being "in the interests of justice and fairness." We conclude that just as appellate courts that set aside jury verdicts are required to detail reasons for doing so, trial courts must give more explanation than "in the interest of justice" for setting aside a jury verdict. We conditionally grant mandamus relief directing the trial court to more specifically set out the reasons for which it set aside the jury verdict and granted a new trial.

I. Background

Donald Creech, Jr. entered Columbia Medical Center with kidney stones and died two days later while still in the hospital. As a result of Donald's death, his wife, Wendy Creech, on behalf of herself, their children, and Creech's estate (collectively, "Creech"), sued Columbia and several of its staff members. After a nearly four-week trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of defendants.

Creech filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and in the alternative for a new trial. Creech urged that the trial court should grant a new trial because (1) the jury's answer to the negligence question was manifestly unjust and against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence, (2) the evidence conclusively established defendants' negligence, and (3) a new trial was warranted in the interests of justice and fairness.

The trial court granted the motion for new trial as to two nurses and as to Columbia in its capacity as their employer (collectively, "Columbia"). The order stated that a new trial was ordered "in the interests of justice and fairness." A final take-nothing judgment was entered in favor of the other defendants. The court of appeals denied Columbia's petition for a writ of mandamus challenging the trial court's failure to be specific as to the reasons for disregarding the jury's verdict and granting a new trial. 290 S.W.3d 238, 2006 WL 1309583.

Columbia sought a writ of mandamus from this Court directing the trial court to specify why it granted a new trial and, in the alternative, directing the trial court to enter judgment on the jury verdict. After the case was briefed and argued, the trial judge who granted the new trial was succeeded in office by the Honorable Craig Smith. We abated the proceeding pursuant to Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure 7.2(b) and remanded so Judge Smith could reconsider the order granting new trial. By order dated March 13, 2009, he reaffirmed the prior order without setting out reasons for granting the new trial:

IT IS ORDERED, ADJUDGED and DECREED that this Court reaffirms the Order of December 8, 2004 granting Plaintiffs' Motion for New Trial.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED, ADJUDGED, and DECREED that this Court reaffirms the February 22, 2006 Order Denying Motion to Reconsider Court's Ruling Granting Plaintiffs' Motion for New Trial.

On March 27, 2009, we lifted the abatement and reinstated the petition on the Court's active docket.

Columbia argues that mandamus review of the trial court's order disregarding the jury verdict and granting a new trial is appropriate because these circumstances are extraordinary and it has no adequate remedy by appeal. It asserts that the trial court abused its discretion by (1) granting the partial new trial, (2) not specifying any grounds for granting the partial new trial other than "in the interests of justice and fairness," and (3) not entering judgment on the verdict.

Creech contends that this Court's precedent precludes appellate review of new trial orders and mandamus review should not be expanded to include review of this order. She also asserts that even if mandamus review is available, Columbia cannot show that the trial court's decision was a clear abuse of discretion or that Columbia is without an adequate remedy on appeal.

We agree with Columbia in part and conditionally grant relief as to part of Columbia's request. We direct the trial court to specify its reasons for disregarding the jury's verdict and granting a new trial, to the extent it did so. We deny, without prejudice, Columbia's request for mandamus relief directing the trial court to set aside its new trial order and enter judgment on the verdict.

II. Mandamus
A. General Law

Generally, mandamus will issue only to correct a clear abuse of discretion or the violation of a duty imposed by law, Walker v. Packer, 827 S.W.2d 833, 839 (Tex.1992), when an adequate remedy by appeal does not exist. Perry Homes v. Cull, 258 S.W.3d 580, 586 (Tex.2008); In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 148 S.W.3d 124, 135-36 (Tex.2004). Mandamus should not issue to correct grievances that may be addressed by other remedies. See Walker, 827 S.W.2d at 840.

Used selectively, mandamus can "correct clear errors in exceptional cases and afford appropriate guidance to the law without the disruption and burden of interlocutory appeal." In re Prudential, 148 S.W.3d at 138. For example, in In re Prudential, we determined that the issue of enforceability of a pre-suit waiver of jury trial was a circumstance justifying mandamus review:

The issue before us in the present case—whether a pre-suit waiver of trial by jury is enforceable—fits well within the types of issues for which mandamus review is not only appropriate but necessary. It is an issue of law, one of first impression for us, but likely to recur (it has already arisen in another case in the court of appeals, also on petition for mandamus). It eludes answer by appeal. In no real sense can the trial court's denial of Prudential's contractual right to have the [real party in interest] waive a jury ever be rectified on appeal. If Prudential were to obtain judgment on a favorable jury verdict, it could not appeal, and its contractual right would be lost forever. If Prudential suffered judgment on an unfavorable verdict, Prudential could not obtain reversal for the incorrect denial of its contractual right "unless the court of appeals concludes that the error complained of ... probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment". Even if Prudential could somehow obtain reversal based on the denial of its contractual right, it would already have lost a part of it by having been subject to the procedure it agreed to waive.

148 S.W.3d at 138 (citations omitted).

And in In re Barber, 982 S.W.2d 364 (Tex.1998), we considered availability of mandamus review for a trial court's order granting a new trial when the trial court refused to enforce its own order. The plaintiff obtained a default judgment, but the parties then submitted an agreed order setting it aside and granting a new trial. Id. at 365. The trial court approved the subsequent order, affixed it with a rubber-stamp signature, and left the original order unsigned. Id. After the sitting judge suffered a heart attack, another judge presided over the case and determined that the rubber-stamped order was invalid and that the trial court's plenary power had expired, making the default judgment final. Id. In granting mandamus relief, this Court held that the rubber-stamped order was signed during the trial court's plenary power within the meaning of Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 329b, and was effective to grant a new trial. Id. at 368. While recognizing that mandamus is not an appropriate means to review a final default judgment after the time for appeal has expired, this Court also determined that relator's complaint focused not on the default judgment but on the trial court's refusal to acknowledge the validity of the new trial order. Id. Because relator had no other realistic means of obtaining review for the specific set of circumstances, we held that mandamus relief was appropriate. Id.

Likewise, in In re Masonite Corp., 997 S.W.2d 194 (Tex.1999), we considered whether a trial court's improper venue transfer orders could be reviewed by mandamus. The trial court denied defendants' motions to transfer venue even though plaintiffs agreed that venue was improper and that defendants' motion was properly pled and proven. Id. at 196. At the time, venue determinations were not subject to mandamus review. Id. at 197 & n. 9. We concluded the trial court "ignored the pleadings, the facts, and the law," and the record reflected "a clear abuse of discretion." Id. at 197. We further noted that the trial court's actions showed "`such disregard for guiding principles of law that the harm ... is irreparable.'" Id. at 198 (quoting Nat'l Indus. Sand Ass'n v. Gibson, 897 S.W.2d 769, 776 (Tex.1995) (orig.proceeding)). Thus, this Court again recognized that, in certain cases, "exceptional circumstances" can justify mandamus relief. Id. at 198-99.

B. Application
1. Exceptional Circumstances

Our decisions have approved the practice of trial courts failing to specify reasons for setting aside jury verdicts. E.g., ...

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