Texas Supreme Court Reverses Sanctions Award Against Defendant Who Refused to Admit Negligence Until Day of Trial

While each east Texas car accident case is unique, it is not unusual for a case to take several years to fully resolve.

This can be extremely frustrating on those involved, especially in situations in which liability appears clear but a negligent defendant refuses to admit that a crash was his or her fault.

A case recently reviewed by the state’s highest court addressed such a situation, ultimately deciding that it was wrong for a trial court to impose sanctions on a defendant who refused to admit that he was negligent until the day of trial, despite previously written requests from the plaintiff that he do so.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in a recent case was a woman who was struck by the defendant driver as she was jogging in the vicinity of a high school parking lot. Both the defendant and the plaintiff’s daughter were students at the school, and both had come to the school on a Sunday to feed livestock as part of the school’s agricultural program. The defendant had driven himself; the plaintiff had driven her daughter to the school and then went for a jog. The accident happened as the defendant was exiting the school parking lot and preparing to turn onto a public street. According to the plaintiff’s accident reconstructionist, the defendant was going approximately 19 miles per hour when the accident happened. He admitted that he did not stop and that he did not look to his right before exiting.

After filing negligence and gross negligence claims against the defendant, as well as a negligent entrustment claim against his parents, the plaintiff served the defendant with several requests for admissions, including a request to admit that the defendant’s negligence was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. The defendant refused these admissions, and the matter proceeded to trial. The trial court severed the plaintiff’s claims against the defendant from the claims against his parents. At trial, the defendant indicated for the first time that he would not contest the issue of ordinary negligence. The jury found in the plaintiff’s favor on the issue of gross negligence and awarded her damages. The trial court also granted the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions, in the form of attorney’s fees and expenses, for the defendant’s failure to admit the issue of ordinary negligence prior to the day of the trial.

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth District of Texas affirmed, and the defendant appealed.

Decision of the Court

The Supreme Court of Texas reversed the lower courts’ rulings as to both issues. With regard to the sanctions awarded by the trial court due to the defendant’s failure to admit his ordinary negligence prior to the day of trial, the court first noted that the plaintiff bore the burden of proof as to the defendant’s negligence. According to the court, it would be wrong to impose sanctions on a defendant “for not admitting what he was entitled to deny.” While merits-preclusive requests for admissions are permissible, at least technically speaking, the court observed that there are due process limits as to the extent to which sanctions can attach to a denial of such requests. The court also noted that the defendant’s counsel believed that he had a reasonable ground to think that he might prevail on the issue of negligence at the time the requests for admissions were served. Specifically, counsel had considered a third-party action against the school district due to its failure to erect a stop sign at the location where the accident occurred, but, for tactical reasons, this claim was, ultimately, not pursued.

With regard to the defendant’s challenge to the trial court’s finding that he was grossly negligent, the court agreed that a reversible error had occurred. Under Texas law, gross negligence occurs when a defendant acts with an extreme degree of risk, considering the probability and magnitude of potential harm to others. Given that there was no stop sign in place and no posted speed limit in the parking lot, the appellate court’s opinion was that the defendant’s conduct, while “thoughtless, careless, and risky,” did not involve the type of extreme risk necessary to support a finding of gross negligence. In so holding, the court noted that the accident occurred on a Sunday, not a regular school day, and that video surveillance footage revealed only a handful of pedestrians on campus at the time of the accident, not the much higher number that would have been present on a regular school day.

Talk to an Experienced Texas Injury Attorney

Board certified east Texas personal injury attorney Earl Drott is here to help, if you or a family member has been involved in an automobile accident. Call us at 903-531-9300 to schedule a free case review.