IN RE: UNITED SCAFFOLDING, INC., Relator.
Argued Oct. 6, 2011. -- August 31, 2012
Mike A. Hatchell, for Amicus Curiae.Christopher Michael Portner, Dominic M.V. Braus, J. Trenton Bond and Timothy W. Ferguson, for Real Party in Interest.Kathleen Marie Kennedy, for Relator.
In In re Columbia Medical Center of Las Colinas, we held that a trial court's order granting a motion for new trial must provide a reasonably specific explanation of the court's reasons for setting aside a jury verdict. 290 S.W.3d 204, 213 (Tex.2009). We rejected a new-trial grant that was premised solely “in the interest of justice.” Id. at 213. Because the trial court's order in this case can be read to do just that, we conditionally grant the writ of mandamus. We also deny United's request for a writ of mandamus compelling the trial court to render judgment on the verdict.
In James Levine's 2008 negligence lawsuit against United Scaffolding, a jury assigned fifty-one percent responsibility for Levine's injuries to United. The jury declined to find past damages, even though it awarded $178,000 in projected future medical expenses. Following this verdict, the trial court granted Levine's motion for new trial “in the interest of justice and fairness.” In light of In re Columbia, we conditionally granted United's writ of mandamus in January 2010. In re United Scaffolding, Inc., 301 S.W.3d 661, 663 (Tex.2010) (“We direct the trial court to specify its reasons for disregarding the jury verdict and ordering a new trial.”).
The trial court amended its order to add three alternative rationales:
After re-considering Plaintiff James and Lisa Levine's Motion for New Trial, the Court GRANTS the motion and orders New Trial based upon:
A. The jury's answer to question number three 1 (3) is against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence; and/or
B. The great weight and preponderance of the evidence supports a finding that the determined negligence of Defendant was a proximate cause of injury in the past to Plaintiff, James Levine; and/or
C. The great weight and preponderance of the evidence supports a finding that the determined negligence of Defendant supports an award of past damages; and/or
D. In the interest of justice and fairness.
(Emphasis added). United again sought mandamus relief, but the court of appeals found the order reasonably specific and denied the petition, with one justice dissenting. 315 S.W.3d 247.
United argues that the amended order still fails to provide adequate reasoning. In addition to attacking the order's use of “and/or” and the retention of “in the interest of justice,” United (supported by amicus curiae E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co.) urges that we require trial courts to conduct, in new-trial orders based on factual sufficiency, the same detailed analysis we required of appellate courts in Pool v. Ford Motor Co., 715 S.W.2d 629, 635 (Tex.1986). United also invites us to review the evidence and conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in granting a new trial on factual insufficiency grounds. We should, United contends, order the trial court to render judgment on the verdict. Levine counters that requiring reasoning any more specific than that used here would waste trial court resources, and that substantive review of these types of orders would be improper.
II. New–Trial Order Requirements
In In re Columbia, we reiterated the considerable discretion afforded trial judges in ordering new trials. 290 S.W.3d at 212 (citing Johnson v. Fourth Court of Appeals, 700 S.W.2d 916, 917 (Tex.1985)). That rule has both jurisprudential justifications (trial judges actually attend the trial and are best suited to evaluate its deficiencies), and practical justifications (most trial judges are understandably reluctant, after presiding over a full trial, to do it all over again). Therefore, in considering how detailed a trial court's new-trial order must be, as well as what level of review it is subject to, we must both afford jury verdicts appropriate regard and respect trial courts' significant discretion in these matters.
Imposing a Pool-like standard on trial courts would weigh too heavily against trial courts' discretion, since that standard would frequently be impossible for a trial court to meet. In Pool, we said:
In order that this court may in the future determine if a correct standard of review of factual insufficiency points has been utilized, courts of appeals, when reversing on insufficiency grounds, should, in their opinions, detail the evidence relevant to the issue in consideration and clearly state why the jury's finding is factually insufficient or is so against the great weight and preponderance as to be manifestly unjust; why it shocks the conscience; or clearly demonstrates bias. Further, those courts, in their opinions, should state in what regard the contrary evidence greatly outweighs the evidence in support of the verdict.
715 S.W.2d at 635. We cited that standard in In re Columbia, and United and DuPont make much of our comparisons of a trial court's new-trial review with the type of review conducted by appellate courts. See, e.g., 290 S.W.3d at 211–12 (“[T]here is no meaningful difference to the parties between an appellate court reversing a judgment based on a jury verdict and a trial court setting the verdict aside․”). But in that same opinion, we also observed that appellate courts normally have a court reporter's record at their disposal, while trial courts must rely on their own observations.2 Id. at 211. This distinction advocates both for giving substantial deference to the trial court's new-trial determinations (since the trial judge may have observed irregularities not wholly apparent in a cold record), and for not requiring Pool-level detail (since a trial judge usually does not have a record from which to draw detailed recitations of the evidence presented).
Moreover, a large part of our rationale for prescribing Pool review for courts of appeals—concern that, “without that mental process being reflected by the opinion,” we could not be sure that a court of appeals had “considered and weighed all the evidence before arriving at a decision of insufficiency,” Pool, 715 S.W.2d at 635—is less potent as to trial courts. Unlike a court of appeals, which must affirmatively choose to read and consider the entire record (or selectively ignore portions of it, as we feared in Pool ), a trial judge who rules on a motion for new trial has, in most instances, been present and a participant in the entire trial. We conclude that the Pool standards are not appropriate for trial court orders granting motions for new trial.
Consistent with these concerns, we focused in In re Columbia not on the length or detail of the reasons a trial court gives, but on how well those reasons serve the general purpose of assuring the parties that the jury's decision was set aside only after careful thought and for valid reasons. 290 S.W.3d at 213. Indeed, our opinion expressly touched on the substance of a trial court's reason only in explaining what that reason could not be: to substitute the trial court's judgment for that of the jury. Id. at 212 (citing Scott v. Monsanto Co., 868 F.2d 786, 791 (5th Cir.1989)). A trial court need not provide a detailed catalog of the evidence to ensure that, however subject to differences of opinion its reasoning may be, it was not a mere substitution of the trial court's judgment for the jury's. That purpose will be satisfied so long as the order provides a cogent and reasonably specific explanation of the reasoning that led the court to conclude that a new trial was warranted. Furthermore, in most cases a new trial will be granted for reasons stated in a motion for new trial, so that such an explanation will alert the parties to the reason the judge found persuasive, further illuminating the substantive basis for the order.
In light of these considerations, we hold that a trial court does not abuse its discretion so long as its stated reason for granting a new trial (1) is a reason for which a new trial is legally appropriate (such as a well-defined legal standard or a defect that probably resulted in an improper verdict); and (2) is specific enough to indicate that the trial court did not simply parrot a pro forma template, but rather derived the articulated reasons from the particular facts and circumstances of the case at hand.
For example, an order granting a new trial may amount to a clear abuse of discretion if the given reason, specific or not, is not one for which a new trial is legally valid. See id. at 210 n. 3 (“The good cause for which [Texas Rule of Civil Procedure] 320 allows trial courts to grant new trials does not mean just any cause .”). Or, mandamus would lie if the articulated reasons plainly state that the trial court merely substituted its own judgment for the jury's, see id. at 210; or that the trial court simply disliked one party's lawyer, In re BMW, 8 S.W.3d 326, 328 (Tex.2000) (Hecht, J., dissenting from the denial of rehearing of a petition for mandamus); or that the reason is based on invidious discrimination, id.
Moreover, mandamus may lie if the order, though rubber-stamped with a valid new-trial rationale, provides little or no insight into the judge's reasoning. Usually, the mere recitation of a legal standard, such as a statement that a finding is against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence, will not suffice. The order must indicate that the trial judge considered the specific facts and circumstances of the case at hand and explain how the evidence (or lack of evidence) undermines the jury's findings. A trial court abuses its discretion if its new-trial order provides no more than a pro forma template rather than the trial judge's analysis. This two-part test adequately ensures that jury verdicts are not overturned without specific and proper reasons, while still maintaining trial courts' discretion in granting new trials.
III. Application to This Order
Before turning to United Scaffolding's challenge to the substantive basis for the amended order, we first apply the two-part standard articulated above to this case. Under that standard, the amended order in this case (still) plainly violates our holding in In re Columbia. In Columbia, we made it indisputably clear that “[b]road statements such as ‘in the interest of justice’ are not sufficiently specific.” 290 S.W.3d at 215. And if an order based solely on “the interest of justice” is insufficient, so too is one that, though it contains alternative reasons, could just as well be construed as relying solely on “the interest of justice and fairness.”
Here, the trial court's four articulated reasons, including “in the interest of justice and fairness,” are all preceded or followed by “and/or.” Many courts and critics have denounced the use of “and/or” in legal writing. E.g., Texas Law Review Manual on Usage & Style § 1.42 (Texas Law Review Ass'n ed., 12th ed. 2011) (“Do not use and/or in legal writing.”); State ex rel. Adler v. Douglas, 339 Mo. 187, 95 S.W.2d 1179, 1180 (Mo.1936) (en banc) (“The use of the symbol ‘and/or’ ․ should be condemned by every court.”). The term inherently leads to ambiguity and confusion. William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 40 (4th ed.2000); see also Bryan A. Garner, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 1.80 (2nd ed.2006). In this order, the use of “and/or” leaves open the possibility that “in the interest of justice and fairness” is the sole rationale.3 Because that is never an independently sufficient reason for granting a new trial, the amended order violated the first prong of the test we announce above. Therefore, we conditionally grant the writ of mandamus in part and instruct the trial court to vacate its amended order.4 The trial court should issue a new order that resolves the ambiguity discussed above and elaborate, with reference to the evidence adduced at trial, how the jury's answers are contrary to the great weight and preponderance of the evidence.
IV. The Trial Court Need Not Render Judgment on the Verdict
We now turn to United's request that we also grant a writ of mandamus ordering the trial court, not merely to redraft the new-trial order, but to render judgment on the jury verdict. United contends that the amended order is so deficient in every respect that, rather than order the trial court to redraft its order, we should direct it to render judgment on the jury verdict. United argues that the first three reasons in the amended order—those based on the “great weight and preponderance of the evidence”—are just as much boilerplate as “in the interest of justice and fairness,” and that the factual record does not support them. We disagree that rendition on the jury verdict is warranted in this circumstance. First, as we have discussed, the actual basis for the trial court's order is unclear; if it rests on the greater-weight rationale, then our writ would compel the trial court to elaborate on that reasoning. The trial court's failure to properly state why it granted a new trial does not mandate a conclusion that it did not have a valid reason for doing so. And absent the trial court's having particularized its reason—or reasons—United would be entitled to mandamus directing the trial court to render judgment on the verdict only if it showed no valid basis exists for the new-trial order. It has not done so here—the record United has presented is only a partial one containing Levine's motion for new trial and the exhibits to that motion, such as deposition transcripts, and the transcript of the hearing on the motion for new trial. See Tex.R.App. P. 52.7.
Because of the ambiguity caused by the trial court's use of “and/or” and “in the interest of justice and fairness,” we conditionally grant the writ of mandamus in part and order the trial court to vacate its order. The writ will only issue if the trial court fails to comply. We are confident the trial court's next amended order will resolve all ambiguity, leaving behind only the specific and valid reasons that, in the context of this case, explain why it granted a new trial.
I agree with the Court that the order granting a new trial in this case fails to pass muster under In re Columbia Medical Center of Las Colinas, 290 S.W.3d 204, 213 (Tex.2009).
I respectfully disagree with some of the propositions in the Court's opinion. In considering the substantive support for new trial determinations, I disagree that a trial court's presumed lack of a trial record should be a basis for determining the scope of the sufficiency review of a trial court's grant of a motion for new trial. In this age of technology, trial courts have access to the record and more, including personal observations of the trial and their notes of the proceedings. Even more than a decade ago, the court reporter for my court provided this former trial judge with “real time” electronic transcripts of trial testimony, as needed. She also maintained custody of the trial exhibits and the court clerks maintained, or could obtain, documents from the clerk's record. Presumably trial judges today have more, not less, access to trial records needed to formulate valid, well-reasoned bases for granting motions for new trial that overturn jury verdicts. Incidents that occur during a trial that may warrant overturning the jury's verdict can be documented or explained in the record for appropriate consideration on appeal, including things such as (God forbid) sleeping jurors, counsel, or jurists, explosions outside the courthouse during a trial over burn injuries, and other matters. I also am convinced that the rationale for requiring valid, substantive reasons for a trial court's reversal of a jury verdict should be more than the concern that a judge will substitute her judgment for the jury's on matters within the jury's province. A trial court's reasons for granting a new trial should be valid and proper because of the significance of the right to trial by jury and the respect due jury verdicts. See Columbia, 290 S.W.3d at 211 n. 3, 212, 213.
We determined in In re Columbia Medical Center of Las Colinas that, just as appellate courts that set aside jury verdicts are required to detail reasons, trial courts must also give an explanation for setting aside a jury verdict. 290 S.W.3d at 206. We held that a trial court abuses its discretion if it fails to specify the reasons for its decision to grant a new trial and that “in the interest of justice” is not a proper reason. Id. at 213, 215. The formulaic “in the interest of justice” is a vague explanation for granting a new trial, and “does not enhance respect for the judiciary or the rule of law․” Id. at 213. Emphasizing that parties and the public are entitled to an “understandable, reasonably specific explanation” when a new trial is granted, we determined that a trial court must give “proper reasons” for overturning a jury verdict. Id. at 211 n. 3, 212, 213.
The question we have not yet addressed is how in-depth the appellate review of orders granting new trials should be, an issue raised in this case but unnecessary for the Court to address. Today we grant a petition for writ of mandamus that squarely raises the issue of the nature and breadth of the substantive appellate review of orders granting motions for new trial. In re Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., No. 10–0933, 55 Tex. Sup.Ct. J. –––– (Aug. 31, 2012).
Texas trial courts have historically been afforded broad discretion in granting new trials. Columbia, 290 S.W.3d at 210; Johnson v. Fourth Court of Appeals, 700 S.W.2d 916, 918 (Tex.1985). But that discretion is not limitless. Columbia, 290 S.W.3d at 210 (citing Larson v. Cactus Util. Co., 730 S.W.2d 640 (Tex.1987)); In re Bayerische Motoren Werke, AG, 8 S.W.3d 326, 327 (Tex.2000) (Hecht, J., dissenting from denial of the motion for rehearing of the petition for writ of mandamus) (“Broad as the trial court's discretion is, it is not unbounded.”).
We need to remind ourselves what is at stake. Our Constitution protects the right to trial by jury, which “shall remain inviolate.” Tex. Const. art. 1, § 15. A similar guarantee was included in the original version of our current Constitution of 1876 and in all of the earlier Texas Constitutions, including the Constitution of the Republic of Texas. See Repub. Tex. Const. of 1836, Declaration of Rights, art. 9, reprinted in 1 H.P.N. Gammel, The Laws of Texas 1822–1897 1083 (Austin, Gammel Book Co. 1898); see also Tex. Const. of 1869, art. I, §§ 8, 12; Tex. Const. of 1866, art. I, § 12, art. IV, § 20; Tex. Const. of 1861, art. I, § 12, art. IV, § 16; Tex. Const. of 1845, art. I, § 12. Unbounded discretion to grant new trials is at odds with these principles. For over a century, this Court has recognized the limited discretion afforded in granting a new trial.
Judges, in the trial of all causes before them, should from necessity have and exercise great legal discretion in every stage of the trial, to the end that the laws may be enforced, and justice and equity administered to all. But that discretion should be a sound and legal discretion, exercised in compliance with known rules, and principles of law; and not the arbitrary will and pleasure of the judge presiding.
Lloyd v. Brinck, 35 Tex. 1, 6 (1871). In Lloyd, the Court awarded mandamus relief to set aside a new trial order where the order was issued without providing a reason. Id. at 8–9. And we reaffirmed that principle in Columbia. 290 S.W.3d at 210; see also 315 S.W.3d 246, 253 (Gaultney, J., dissenting) (“A trial judge should have no need or requirement to write the equivalent of an appellate opinion explaining why the judge reasons the jury verdict is clearly wrong and unjust, but it is not too much to require the trial judge to provide an answer beyond standardized phrases.”).
Columbia mandated that a trial judge must list “reasonably specific,” “valid,” and “proper reasons” for granting a motion for new trial because of the significance of the right to trial by jury. 290 S.W.3d at 211 n. 3, 212, 213. This language points our jurisprudence toward appellate review of the reasons given for reversing a verdict. Id. at 210 n. 3 (stating “good cause” to grant a new trial “does not mean just any cause”).
A facial review that fails to confirm that the record supports a new trial order does injustice to the commitment and service of a jury that faithfully swore to reach a true verdict. A facial review is inconsistent with the constitutionally guaranteed right to have a jury resolve disputes. Reasons given may become meaningless formulas and verdicts reversed for reasons that are pretextual, legally incorrect, or unsupported by the record. And an order granting a new trial for an invalid reason is just as insufficient as an order that fails to provide any reason at all. Similar to appellate court judgments on verdicts, the reasons for taking them away must be set out for the public, bench and bar to see. See id . at 206.
It is important to remember what's at stake. When a motion for new trial is granted and the case is retried, two jury verdicts will have been rendered. After the second verdict, the litigants may seek relief through an appeal with the court of appeals. In the appeal, litigants may raise legal and factual sufficiency issues, damages errors, procedural problems, or other matters, and the second jury verdict in the case receives a level of scrutiny to confirm or overturn it. The fact findings and legal conclusions are judged against the law and the record of the proceedings at trial. The second verdict is respected in the appellate process through appropriate standards of review and well-reasoned and transparent analysis by appellate courts.
The first verdict should likewise be accorded a commensurate level of respect. The jurors in the first trial heard testimony, listened carefully to counsel's arguments, and endeavored to follow the trial court's instructions. As with the second jury, the first jury deliberated and rendered a verdict in the grand tradition of the constitutional right to a jury trial. However, without a substantive review of the reasons for granting the new trial, the first verdict may be invalidated without the careful analysis and rigor of review accorded the second verdict. Why should the second verdict be treated as more important than the first? Why should the first jury receive less respect than the second? Why should the efforts and work of counsel and expense to parties in the first trial be subject to invalidation under a less thorough analytical review than in the second?
There are procedural limitations in a mandamus review of a new trial order that would not be of concern in an appeal. For example, the mandamus standard of review is abuse of discretion rather than a de novo review of the verdict, with proper deference accorded to the jury's fact findings and credibility determinations. Should the first verdict be subject to the same appellate review as the second, and grants of motions for new trial be treated as final instead of interlocutory? After all, the new trial order reversed a jury verdict, which would be considered a final judgment if accomplished in a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or ruling on a motion for entry of judgment; and, as in an order for a new trial, the case may be retried after appellate consideration. Should there be legal congruence between the review of a motion for new trial and a judgment notwithstanding the verdict? The counterargument is, “Well, we have a tradition of treating them differently.” Perhaps, but we took a step in Columbia toward correcting problems with motions for new trials, and we recognized that:
[T]here is no meaningful difference to the parties between an appellate court reversing a judgment based on a jury verdict and a trial court setting the verdict aside or disregarding it. The end result is that the prevailing party loses the jury verdict and the judgment, or potential judgment, based on it.
290 S.W.3d at 211–12. While there are many procedural issues and practical challenges to surmount in resolving these issues, which I do not attempt to answer today, I have jurisprudential concerns in treating the two verdicts differently.
We have faith in the integrity of our trial bench as well as that of the appellate bench. Id. at 214. A serious merits review of grants of motions for new trial will not put burdens on trial or appellate courts that are not already expected—to issue fair and just rulings under the law in cases and controversies filed in their courts. Instead, this review protects the right to trial by jury and a trial judge's discretion in granting a new trial for reasonably specific, valid, and proper reasons. While I agree that trial judges should provide valid, substantive reasons for granting a motion for new trial, I agree with the Court that we should not require trial courts to prepare new trial orders with the same detailed analysis required of appellate courts in Pool v. Ford Motor Co., 715 S.W.2d, 629, 635 (Tex.1986).
But without a true merits-based review of the reasons given for granting new trials, Columbia will not be fully effective. A rule that cannot be enforced is, in reality, no rule at all.
Justice LEHRMANN delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice JEFFERSON, Justice HECHT, Justice MEDINA, Justice GREEN, Justice JOHNSON, Justice WILLETT, and Justice GUZMAN joined.
Justice WAINWRIGHT filed a concurring opinion.