Texas Supreme Court Reviews New Trial Order

In a recent case, the Texas Supreme Court continued its review of orders granting new trial. The ruling involved a worker who had been seriously injured when he fell from scaffolding. He and his wife sued the scaffolding company and won at trial, but they sought a new trial because the damages were far too low. The trial court granted the motion and ordered a new trial “in the interest of justice and fairness,” which, until recently, was the standard for granting new trials in effect for about a century. However, last year, the Supreme Court overruled all of that precedent with its opinion in a case named In re Columbia Med. Ctr. of Las Colinas, 290 S.W.3d 204, 212-13 (Tex. 2009). In Columbia, the Supreme Court held that providing a new trial “in the interest of justice” is insufficient; the trial court must detail all of the evidence requiring a new trial.

In the present case, entitled In re United Scaffolding, Inc., the worker argued that his motion for new trial – which set forth the reasons necessitating a new trial – was granted by the trial court, and thus the trial court had, in effect, provided the basis for its ruling. The Supreme Court disagreed.

The Supreme Court held that a “trial court acts arbitrarily and abuses its discretion if it disregards a jury verdict and grants a new trial, but does not specifically set out its reasons. [Citing Columbia.] We also held that (1) stating the new trial is granted ‘in the interests of justice and fairness’ is not a sufficiently specific reason, and (2) a relator challenging such an order does not have an adequate remedy by appeal.” This case is not distinguishable from Columbia, even though the trial court “generally granted the motion” in which the reasons were set forth, because it “specified one reason for granting it: in the interest of justice and fairness.”

The Supreme Court further rejected the worker’s argument that mandamus was not the proper vehicle and that the “benefits of a prompt retrial outweigh the detriments of interlocutory review.” The Supreme Court further held that “an erroneous legal conclusion is an abuse of discretion, even if it may not have been clearly erroneous when made.” Finally, the Supreme Court refused to consider the defendant’s substantive argument about the correctness of the jury’s findings: “Because we do not know the reason the trial court granted the new trial, we will not grant relief other than directing the trial court to specify its reasons for granting the new trial.” Therefore, the Supreme Court “direct[ed] the trial court to specify its reasons for disregarding the jury verdict and ordering a new trial . . . [and denied] United’s petition seeking mandamus directing the trial court to set aside its order granting a new trial.”

The effect of this is that, rather than immediately conducting another trial, the trial court will have to enter an order reviewing the evidence to state the various reasons for a new trial, and then the parties will face the prospect an appeal concerning the sufficiency of those reasons, before the new trial can resolve the suit.