High court addresses new trial issue in Columbia Medical Center opinion

Marilyn Tennissen Jul. 9, 2009, 2:14am


When the Texas Supreme Court recently ordered Jefferson County District Court Judge Donald Floyd to explain his reasons for granting plaintiff Willis Whisnant a new trial against DuPont, both the majority and the dissenting opinions relied on another decision the court issued the same day.

On In re Columbia Medical Center of Las Colinas, the court ruled that a new trial would be "in the interest of justice and fairness" was not a sufficient explanation from the trial court judge.

Justice Phil Johnson wrote the majority opinion on July 3 for Justices Nathan Hecht, Dale Wainwright, David Brister and Don Willett. The same justices also released the DuPont opinion on July 3, citing In re Columbia.

"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," Johnson wrote.

"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."

Case background

The In re Columbia case began when Donald Creech Jr. entered Columbia Medical Center in Irving with kidney stones. Court papers say that while at the hospital, he received the pain medication Dilaudid intravenously.

When he continued to complain of severe pain, the licensed vocational nurse attending to Donald Creech increased the amount and frequency of his doses.

Several hours after his largest dose, Donald Creech died.

Donald's widow, Wendy Creech, filed suit in Dallas County, alleging that the hospital staff violated the standard of care by administering such a large amount of Dilaudid to Donald Creech when he suffered from sleep apnea.

She alleges that because the medication is a respiratory depressant, it interacted with Donald's sleep apnea to cause his death by asphyxiation.

After a nearly four-week trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of the defendants.

Creech filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial in the alternative. She argued that the trial court should grant a new trial because the jury's answer to the negligence question was unjust and against the weight and preponderance of the evidence.

A new trial should be granted in the interest of justice and fairness, Creech argued.

The trial court agreed, and granted the motion for new trial for two nurses and Columbia. A final take-nothing judgment was entered in favor of the other defendants.

Columbia petitioned the appeals court for a writ of mandamus over the trial court's failure to be specific in its reasons for disregarding the jury's verdict. When it was denied, Columbia then sought a writ of mandamus from the state Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court agreed with Columbia in part and ordered the trial court to give specific reasons. However it denied without prejudice Columbia's request that the high court direct the trial court to set aside its new trial order and enter judgment on the verdict.

The majority decision

Johnson wrote that because of the significance of the issue – the protection of the right to jury trial – the circumstances are exceptional and mandamus review is justified.

He wrote that while Texas trial courts have historically been afforded broad discretion in granting new trials, that discretion is not limitless.

"Parties to a dispute who choose to have the dispute resolved by a jury and endure the personal and financial inconvenience of such a trial are entitled to know why the verdict was disregarded, regardless of whether the verdict was disregarded by one judge or a panel of judges," Johnson wrote.

"So are the jurors whose lives were interrupted so they could serve, and the public that finances the judicial system and depends on its open operations to assure fair processes for dispute resolution."

The opinion mentioned that more than 40 other states and the District of Columbia require trial courts, in certain circumstances, to specify the reasons for setting aside jury verdicts.

The dissenters speak

Justice Harriet O'Neill, for Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, Justice David Medina and Justice Paul Green, wrote a forceful dissenting opinion for In re Columbia Medical Center, and referred to it in the dissent of the Whisnant v DuPont opinion.

"I agree that trial courts should not set aside jury verdicts without valid reasons," O'Neill wrote. "And I might agree that a change in the procedural rules to require trial judges to state good cause more particularly than 'in the interests of justice and fairness' would be well advised, though the Legislature has only seen fit to impose such a requirement in criminal cases.

"But declaring such a rule by judicial fiat on interlocutory review, and issuing mandamus relief against the trial court for not following it, turns our mandamus jurisprudence on its head."

O'Neill disagreed with Johnson that the Columbia case presented exceptional circumstances, and found that the trial court "followed one of our most well-established legal principles."

The majority "simply changes the rules," she wrote, and opens the door to mandamus review of any unexplained interlocutory ruling.

Trial court judges are given broad discretion in assessing whether a new trial is warranted because they are in a unique position to observe the proceedings and participants firsthand, O'Neill wrote.

"Because the Court ventures far beyond the boundaries of our mandamus jurisprudence, I respectfully dissent," O'Neill wrote.

In the majority opinion, Johnson disagreed that granting relief to Columbia would expand the use of mandamus review.

He also rejected the suggestion that the majority's decision was motivated "by an underlying fear that some trial courts might abuse the privilege of their discretion."

"We have faith in the integrity of our trial bench as well as that of the appellate bench," Johnson wrote. "Nevertheless, we believe it important enough to the transparency of our judicial system and to its apparent fairness to the public that even if a trial judge on occasion gives specious reasons for setting aside a jury verdict, the balance still weighs heavily in favor of requiring trial courts to give their reasons for setting aside or disregarding verdicts."

Supreme Court of Texas Case No. 06-0416

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