First Rule 91a Opinion From the Dallas Court of Appeals

In what appears to be only the third opinion in the state reviewing a motion to dismiss under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 91a, the Dallas Court of Appeals has affirmed a trial court’s order that granted in part and denied in part a motion to dismiss on the pleadings. Similar to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), Rule 91a allows a party to move to dismiss a cause of action “on the grounds that it has no basis in law or fact,” based solely on the claimant’s pleadings. In this case, the plaintiffs sued the City of Dallas after emergency services failed to respond to a 911 call reporting their son’s drug overdose. The plaintiffs attempted to plead their way around governmental immunity by claiming the City had negligently used or misused the 911 system’s telephone and computer systems. The Court affirmed dismissal of negligence claims that the City had failed to properly respond to the 911 call, but also affirmed the denial of the motion as to claims that the equipment itself had failed or malfunctioned.

City of Dallas v. Sanchez, No. 05-13-01651-CV

We Didn’t Start the Fire, Part 2

For the second time this month, the Court of Appeals has decided that Oncor Electric Delivery Company was not responsible for causing a fire that damaged a plaintiff’s property. In this instance, Schepp’s Dairy alleged that Oncor’s negligence led to a fire starting with a transformer at Schepp’s facility. At trial, three different electrical engineering experts variously testified that the fire was caused on either Schepp’s side or Oncor’s side of the transformer. The jury specifically rejected the conclusions of two of those experts, leaving only one expert for Schepp’s. In a highly fact-specific opinion, the Court of Appeals held that the last expert’s opinion was unreliable. Among other problems, the witness had failed to exclude other possible causes of the fire, and he had only testified as to Oncor’s negligent maintenance of the transformer without opining as to what was the direct cause of the fire. Without that testimony, Schepp’s had no evidence of causation, and the judgment against Schepp’s was therefore reversed.

Oncor Elec. Deliv. Co. LLC v. So. Foods Gp. LLC, No. 05-12-01223-CV

Like Cracked Concrete on Your Wedding Day

An architectural firm subcontracted with Pavecon Commercial Concrete to pour the foundation for a wedding facility in Carrollton. The architect failed to pay the last of Pavecon’s invoices, prompting Pavecon to sue the architect and the owner of the facility. The defendants counterclaimed for breach of contract and negligence, alleging that the concrete services had been performed improperly. Pavecon moved for summary judgment on the counterclaims. The trial court granted the motion and the Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the architect had failed to submit admissible evidence of any specific pecuniary loss and that the negligence claims were barred by the economic loss doctrine. Justice Moseley dissented in part, arguing that the trial court should not have sustained Pavecon’s objection that the defendants’ summary judgment affidavit was conclusory in averring their damages.

Trebuchet Siege Corp. v. Pavecon Commercial Concrete Ltd., No. 05-12-00945-CV

Trebuchet Siege Corp. v. Pavecon Commercial Concrete Ltd. (dissent)

Negotiable Instruments Opinion II

In this commercial paper case, Jason Kang signed several checks made out to various businesses and drawn on the bank account of his business, Ever Construction.  Unfortunately, the checks ended up the hands of wrongdoer Kwan Sup Choi, who was not the named payee on the checks but took and cashed them at Lee’s Check Cashing.  When Kang found out that his intended payees did not receive their money, Lee’s Check Cashing was forced to bear the loss and pay them.

Lee’s, however, blamed Kang for the forgery and sued him and Ever Construction under theories of negligence and fraud.  After a bench trial, the trial court awarded judgment in favor of Lee’s, and Kang and Ever Construction appealed.  The Court of Appeals reversed, holding, among other things, that Kang and Ever Construction had no duty to ensure that the checks it wrote were only presented to third parties for payment by persons who were authorized to cash them.

Ever Constr. Corp. v. Su

 

No Governmental Immunity for Unsecured Whiteboard

Last November, the Texas Supreme Court reversed and remanded for further consideration in a case where the Dallas Court of Appeals had concluded that the plaintiff had sufficiently pleaded a waiver of sovereign immunity through the use of tangible property. The Supreme Court held that the plaintiff had not alleged a “use” of property for a whiteboard that fell on his head, because Dallas Metrocare had only made the board available for use by patients. On remand, the Court of Appeals had to consider the alternative question of whether the plaintiff’s claims alleged injury through a “condition” of property. The Court concluded that he had pleaded such a claim, based on the allegation that the whiteboard was in an unsafe condition because it was not properly secured. The case was therefore remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

Dallas Metrocare Servs. v. Juarez, No. 05-11-01144-CV

Please Do Not Focus on the Rollerblading Man

This negligence lawsuit arises from a prior medical malpractice lawsuit in which Darwin Flores sued his doctor for causing him to suffer monocular vision.  This doctor hired appellees, an investigative firm, to surreptitiously record Flores to show the true extent of his injury.  On the videotape, the defendants mistakenly included video of a man rollerblading (who they determined was not Flores), and informed the doctor’s counsel that it was in fact not the plaintiff.  Flores lost his malpractice trial (though it’s unclear whether the rollerblading videotape was played or had anything to do with the loss).  Nevertheless, he followed up by suing the investigators for creating a “misleading perception” of him.  He is seeking $1 billion dollars in damages.

On appeal, the Court rejected Flores’ argument that a “private detective who conducts surveillance on an adversary owes his adversary a duty to refrain from circulating work product that the private detective knows can be used as fake evidence.”  Instead, the Court pointed out the undisputed fact that there was no relationship between appellees and Flores, let alone one that would impose a duty of care.

Flores v. Intelligence Servs. of Tex., Inc.

Sports Negligence

The Court of Appeals has reversed and rendered a trial court judgment in favor of the victim of a serious softball injury. Coleman and Dunagan were teammates on a slow-pitch softball team, but Coleman also had experience as a high school baseball player. While warming up to pitch the first game of the season, Coleman threw a couple of overhand curveballs to Dunagan at the catcher’s position, followed by an overhand fastball that smashed Dunagan in the mouth and caused significant injury. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff on his claim for ordinary negligence, also finding that Coleman’s conduct had been reckless.

Citing its own precedent in Connell v. Payne, 814 S.W.2d 486 (Tex. App.–Dallas 1991, writ denied), the Court of Appeals held that a showing of mere negligence was insufficient for an injury occurring as a result of participation in a sports activity — instead, the defendant must have acted recklessly or intentionally. The Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston has adopted a nominally different standard for sports-related liability, holding that there is no negligence duty if the risk is one that is inherent to the sport, but that non-inherent risks are still subject to the duty of ordinary care. See Chrismon v. Brown, 246 S.W.3d 102 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 2007, no pet.).  However, the Court here did not view the two cases as establishing fundamentally different standards. Since being struck by a thrown ball is an inherent risk of the sport of softball, simple negligence alone could not justify a judgment for the plaintiff. And while the trial court had submitted the issue of recklessness to the jury, the Court of Appeals held that there was legally insufficient evidence to support that finding. As the Court noted, “inaccuracy is to be expected in every sport,” and nothing in the record showed that Coleman was aware his fastball created an unreasonable risk of harm that was substantially greater than mere negligence.

Given the novelty of the issue and the possibly different standards adopted by the intermediate appellate courts, this case could be a good candidate for review by the Texas Supreme Court. If the plaintiff takes it up to that Court, 600 Commerce will keep an eye on it.

Dunagan v. Coleman, No. 05-12-00171-CV

General Contractor Has No Duty To Ensure Sub-Contractor Works Safely

A roofer died after falling from the rooftop on one of his jobs.  His estate sued the general contractor for negligence, claiming that the general contractor maintained a duty to ensure the roofer operated with all proper safety equipment.  The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in the general contractor’s favor because it found that the general contractor did not owe the roofer, a sub-contractor, a duty to ensure he performed his job safely.  According to the Court, “a general contractor’s duty of reasonable care is commensurate with the control it retains over the subcontractor.” Because the general contractor here did not maintain either contractual or actual control over how the roofer performed his job, it did not owe him any duty to ensure his safe work habits.

Gonzalez v. VATR Construction

 

 

An Accident Alone Cannot Establish Negligence

PAM Transport’s truck driver, James Herdo, allegedly backed into one of Stevens Transport’s semi-tractors.  Stevens sued PAM for negligence because it claimed Herdo failed to keep a proper “lookout” when he was backing the truck up.  The trial court found that Stevens had established that Herdo’s negligence proximately caused the collision and granted Stevens’ motion for summary judgment.  The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that the mere occurrence of an accident does not establish negligence.  Instead, Stevens had to prove conclusively that Herdo’s failure to keep a lookout proximately caused the accident, not simply that Herdo backed into Steven’s tractor.

PAM v. Stevens

Didn’t Waive Gross Negligence

Van Voris was taking an aikido course at Chop Shop when he was injured during demonstration of a jiu-jitsu technique.  Van Voris sued Chop Shop for negligence and gross negligence.  Chop Shop moved for summary judgment based on its defense of pre-injury release from a one page “Release and Waiver of Liability and Indemnity Agreement.”  Chop Shop argued that the waiver barred the negligence claims, and that the gross negligence claim was inseparable from the negligence claim.

The court of appeals found that the one-page release met the fair notice requirements for purposes of releasing Chop Shop from liability for its own negligence.  The release was sufficiently conspicuous, and the language was specific and expressed the intent of exculpating Chop Shop. However, the court found that the waiver did not release the gross negligence claims and did not preclude proof of claims for negligence and actual damages.  The court pointed to Texas’s strong public policy prohibiting pre-injury releases of negligence, heightened concerns involving gross negligence and exemplary damages, and the distinct elements for proving negligence and gross negligence.  Thus, the court of appeals reversed the summary judgment against Van Voris regarding his gross negligence claims, and affirmed as to the negligence claims.

Van Voris v. Team Chop Shop, No. 05-11-01370-CV