Texas Supreme Court Expands Appellate Review of New Trial Orders

In an 8-0 decision handed down last Friday, the Texas Supreme Court set aside a district court’s order granting a new trial in a Hurricane Ike insurance case. This opinion continues the high court’s trend since 2009 toward sharply limiting Texas courts’ discretion to grant new trials in civil cases.

The case, In re Stacey Bent and Mark Bent, involved a Texas couple’s suit against USAA, their homeowners’ insurer, for breach of the insurance policy and violations of the Texas Insurance Code springing from a dispute over a claim for damage to their home resulting from Hurricane Ike. At trial, the jury returned a verdict finding that USAA did not breach the insurance policy but that it violated the Insurance Code by misrepresenting the terms of the policy. However, the trial court granted the Bents’ motion for a new trial on the grounds that the finding that USAA did not breach the policy was against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence, that USAA had violated an order in limine, and that the evidence and law did not support several of the jury’s other findings.

Texas courts, like those of other states, have the power to grant a new trial “for good cause,” such as irregularities or the admission of improper evidence that prevented a party from receiving a fair trial, or to set aside a jury verdict that is unsupported by the evidence or against the great weight of the evidence. A Texas court’s grant of a new trial is not normally appealable, and Texas courts once enjoyed nearly unfettered discretion to grant new trials in the interest of justice. It was often reasoned that the trial judge is in a better position than a panel of appellate judges-who were not present at trial-to determine whether justice demands a new trial. The Texas Supreme Court had even held that a trial court had discretion to grant a new trial for no reason other than it was “in the interest of justice.”

However, since the Texas Supreme Court’s landmark 2009 decision in In re Columbia Medical Center of Las Colinas, Texas appellate courts have been increasingly willing to grant the “extraordinary” remedy of a writ of mandamus-an procedure normally reserved for the correction of “clear abuses of discretion” by trial courts where parties lack an “adequate appellate remedy”-to set aside orders granting a new trial. Prior to Columbia Medical Center, appellate review of a new trial order was largely unheard of. After Columbia Medical Center and United Scaffolding, handed down a year later, trial courts have been required to give specific reasons for granting a new trial, and may not rely on broad statements such as “in the interest of justice.”

Having required trial courts to specifically explain the grant of new trials, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the Texas Supreme Court would take the next logical step. In 2013, in In re Toyota Motor Sales, USA, the Texas Supreme Court took that step and held that an appellate court may now examine the reasons stated by the trial court for granting a new trial and set aside the order if “the record does not support” those reasons. In addition, where the Court suggested in Columbia Medical Center that mandamus setting aside a new trial order was only appropriate in “extraordinary circumstances,” that language, along with the attendant judicial restraint, had disappeared from the Court’s jurisprudence by the time of Toyota Motor Sales.

In Bent, the Texas Supreme Court has further constrained the trial court’s discretion. In United Scaffolding, the Court had previously held that the trial court’s reasoning “‘need not provide a detailed catalog of the evidence’ as long as it provides a ‘cogent and reasonably specific explanation’ of its reasoning,'” In Bent, however, the Court set aside the trial court’s order granting a new trial even though the trial court gave several reasons for its grant of a new trial. The reasons were “invalid” because the trial court failed to point to specific evidence undermining the verdict and because the Supreme Court disagreed with the trial court’s finding that USAA had violated a motion in limine.

After Bent, it is clearer than ever that practitioners moving for a new trial should provide proposed orders with very specific reasoning for a new trial and with specific citations to the trial record. Texas appellate courts now have great authority to second-guess a trial judge’s grant of a new trial, and a lawyer should be prepared to defend any new trial order on appeal.

If you or someone you know are or expect to be involved in civil litigation, contact one of the experienced attorneys at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner for a free consultation by calling (713) 222-7211 or toll free at 713-222-7211.