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Ramirez v. Noble Energy, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

May 18, 2017

MARTA RAMIREZ, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE AND HEIR OF RONALD MONROY, DECEASED, Appellant
v.
NOBLE ENERGY, INC., Appellee

         On Appeal from the 215th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2015-43210A

          Panel consists of Justices Keyes, Bland, and Huddle.

          OPINION

          Evelyn V. Keyes Justice.

         In this personal injury case, Ronald Monroy sued Noble Energy, Inc. for negligence after he allegedly sustained injuries while unloading a truck on Noble's property. After Monroy failed to timely respond to Noble's requests for admissions, Noble moved for summary judgment. While the case was pending in the trial court, Monroy died, and his wife and the personal representative of his estate, Marta Ramirez, took over prosecution of his suit. The trial court granted Noble's summary judgment motion. On appeal, Ramirez contends that the trial court (1) abused its discretion by overruling Monroy's motion to withdraw deemed admissions, and (2) erroneously rendered summary judgment in favor of Noble based on the deemed admissions.

         We reverse and remand.

         Background

         Monroy worked as a long-distance truck driver for J&R Express, LLC.[1] He alleged that on April 1, 2014, J & R Express instructed him to deliver a load to Noble at its facility in Louisiana. Monroy alleged that the area was poorly lit and Noble's employees did not assist him in unloading the cargo from his truck. He further alleged that, in the process of unloading the truck, a steel plate hit his right knee and right leg. On July 26, 2015, Monroy sued both J&R Express and Noble, alleging, among other things, that the defendants were negligent by failing to provide him a safe place to work.

         Noble answered Monroy's suit and served discovery requests-including eleven requests for admissions-on Monroy on September 3, 2015. Monroy's responses to the requests for admissions and other written discovery were due on October 5, 2015.

         Monroy did not timely respond to Noble's discovery requests. Noble thus filed a motion to compel discovery responses on October 15, 2015. On October 26, 2015, the trial court signed an order requiring Monroy to fully and completely respond to Noble's discovery requests within ten days, or by November 5, 2015.

         Monroy responded to Noble's discovery requests on November 6, 2015, one day after the trial court's ten-day deadline had passed. On November 17, 2015, Noble moved for traditional summary judgment, arguing that because Monroy did not timely respond to its requests for admissions, the matters within the requests were deemed admitted. The deemed admissions included admissions that "Noble is not a proper party to this lawsuit" and that "[t]he truck which [Monroy] was driving was not Noble's property." Noble argued that these admissions demonstrated that Noble was not a proper party to Monroy's suit and that Noble had no responsibility for or involvement in Monroy's alleged injuries. Noble argued that the admissions conclusively established that it "did not own the truck out of which the steel plate is alleged to have fallen and injured" Monroy and that the "driver of a truck is generally responsible for cargo loading and securement, " citing a provision in the Code of Federal Regulations for support. Noble contended, based on the deemed admissions, that Monroy had no claim against it and that it was entitled to summary judgment.

         Noble attached as summary judgment evidence the answers that it received to its requests for admission from Monroy on November 6, 2015. In his answers to the requests for admissions, Monroy denied that Noble was not a proper defendant to the suit. Monroy admitted that he drove the truck while employed by J&R Express, that the truck was not Noble's property, and that the steel plate that struck him was on the truck. Noble did not attach any other evidence to its summary judgment motion.

         Noble also moved for sanctions on the same day that it moved for summary judgment. In this motion, Noble argued that Monroy's responses to its discovery requests and his document production were inadequate. Noble asked the trial court "to sanction [Monroy] monetarily and to dismiss this lawsuit as against Noble, with prejudice to refiling, if [Monroy] fails to respond fully and completely to Noble's discovery requests within ten (10) days of the Court's Order."

         On December 8, 2015, Monroy responded to Noble's motion for sanctions. Monroy argued that Noble had not demonstrated any harm or prejudice from his allegedly inadequate discovery responses. Monroy also stated that his counsel had repeatedly advised Noble that her secretary had left her firm in July 2015, shortly after Monroy filed suit, and that the discovery responses had been overlooked due to the change in personnel. Monroy thus argued that Noble could not demonstrate that his failure to respond was intentional or due to conscious disregard of his discovery obligations. Monroy attached email correspondence between his counsel and Noble's counsel in which his counsel stated that her new assistant, who had been in training for two months, had quit and she was "uncovering past due discovery that wasn't calendared." She stated, "I will need about 2-3 weeks to send discovery responses." The correspondence also included an email from Monroy's counsel's legal assistant, dated October 23, 2015, stating that she had a meeting with Monroy scheduled for October 27, 2015, "to answer discovery."

         On December 30, 2015, Monroy filed a motion to withdraw the deemed admissions. Monroy stated:

The reason Plaintiff's counsel failed to respond was due to a mistake and not the result of conscious indifference. Plaintiff['s] counsel's long-time assistant left the firm and the new assistant hired was in training when plaintiff received discovery requests. The assistant did not calendar discovery deadlines, including discovery in this action.

         Monroy also noted that the trial court had set the discovery deadline for September 12, 2016, and the trial setting for November 14, 2016, and, as a result, Noble would not be prejudiced by the withdrawal of deemed admissions because the withdrawal would not "delay trial or hamper [Noble's] ability to prepare for trial."

         That same day, Monroy moved for an extension of time to respond to Noble's summary judgment motion, asking that the trial court grant additional time and rule first on his motion to withdraw deemed admissions. Monroy requested "a continuance for additional time to secure the court's ruling" on the motion to withdraw deemed admissions and also to conduct additional discovery concerning his claims. He argued that Noble's sole basis for summary judgment was the deemed admissions and that Noble "should not be allowed to exit this case before J&R Express answers and additional discovery can be conducted."

         The trial court did not rule on Monroy's request for an extension of time. Monroy did not file a response to Noble's summary judgment motion.

         On January 8, 2016, the trial court granted Noble's summary judgment motion and dismissed Monroy's claims against Noble with prejudice. The trial court denied Noble's motion for sanctions ...


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