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In re Nowell

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

April 5, 2018

IN RE CHARLES CURTIS NOWELL JR., MEDIQ-PRN LIFE SUPPORT SERVICES, INC., HILLENBRAND INDUSTRIES, HILL-ROM HOLDINGS, INC., and HILL-ROM COMPANY, INC.

          Submitted on March 8, 2018

          Original Proceeding 60th District Court of Jefferson County, Texas Trial Cause No. B-185, 832

          Before Kreger, Horton, and Johnson, JJ.

          OPINION

          CHARLES KREGER JUSTICE

         In this mandamus proceeding filed by Charles Curtis Nowell, Jr., Mediq-PRN Life Support Services, Inc., Hillenbrand Industries, Hill-Rom Holdings, Inc., and Hill-Rom Company, Inc., Relators, we must decide whether the trial court clearly abused its discretion by denying a motion to dismiss for want of prosecution when that motion was filed after the trial court set the case for disposition on the trial docket. We conclude Relators have not established that the trial court committed a clear abuse of discretion for which Relators lack an adequate remedy by appeal. See In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 148 S.W.3d 124, 135-36 (Tex. 2004) (orig. proceeding). Accordingly, we deny the petition for a writ of mandamus.

         Background

         Martha Henson sued Relators for personal injuries that Henson sustained in a January 29, 2008, motor vehicle accident. Relators filed their original answer in February 2010.[1] Henson's July 2010 supplemental response to requests for disclosure identified medical expenses of $22, 363.13 and lost wages of $1, 573.80. In August 2010, Relators took Henson's deposition and she supplemented her disclosures to increase her medical expenses to $22, 431.13. Henson obtained medical records dated as of March 10, 2010, and she received additional medical records in July 2010.

         In January 2017, a newly elected trial judge assumed responsibility for the court. After Relators' telephone inquiry regarding the status of the case, the trial court set the case on the trial docket for April 2018. In January 2018, Henson disclosed additional medical records that had been obtained between 2008 and 2011. At that time, Henson designated her expert witnesses.

         On January 23, 2018, Relators filed a motion to dismiss for want of prosecution and alternatively, for a continuance. Counsel for Relators informed the trial court that the case had never been on the trial docket. In the hearing on the motion to dismiss for want of prosecution, Henson's counsel explained that he joined the law firm after the case was filed, but he was unaware of the case until it appeared on the docket.[2] Upon receiving notice of the trial setting from the court, he immediately provided the medical records affidavits and designated experts. Henson's counsel added that he was unaware that the case had ever appeared on a dismissal docket before that day, and he announced that they were ready to try the case in February. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss but granted the motion for continuance and allowed Henson to be re-deposed. On February 1, 2018, the trial court signed an order denying the motion to dismiss for want of prosecution and set the case for a July 2018 trial.

         Mandamus Review

         Mandamus will issue only to correct a clear abuse of discretion for which the relator has no adequate remedy by appeal. In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 148 S.W.3d at 135-36. A trial court abuses its discretion if it fails to analyze or apply the law correctly because a trial court has no discretion in determining what the law is or applying the law to the facts. Walker v. Packer, 827 S.W.2d 833, 840 (Tex. 1992) (orig. proceeding). "The adequacy of an appellate remedy must be determined by balancing the benefits of mandamus review against the detriments." In re Team Rocket, L.P., 256 S.W.3d 257, 262 (Tex. 2008) (orig. proceeding). "In evaluating benefits and detriments, we consider whether mandamus will preserve important substantive and procedural rights from impairment or loss." Id. "These considerations implicate both public and private interests." Prudential, 148 S.W.3d at 136. We consider whether an irreversible waste of judicial and public resources would be required if mandamus does not issue. In re Masonite Corp, 997 S.W.2d 194, 198 (Tex. 1999).

         Dismissal for Want of Prosecution

         Trial courts are generally granted considerable discretion when it comes to managing their dockets. Such discretion, however, is not absolute. It has long been the case that "a delay of an unreasonable duration . . ., if not sufficiently explained, will raise a conclusive presumption of abandonment of the plaintiff's suit." In re Conner, 458 S.W.3d 532, 534 (Tex. 2015) (quoting Callahan v. Staples, 161 S.W.2d 489, 491 (Tex. 1942)). "This presumption justifies the dismissal of a suit under either a court's inherent authority or Rule 165a of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure." Id. (citing Villarreal v. San Antonio Truck & Equip., 994 S.W.2d 628, 630 (Tex. 1999) (recognizing both common law source of power and rule based source of power)).

         The Rules of Judicial Administration provide that district and statutory county court judges "should, so far as reasonably possible, ensure" that civil cases in which a jury has been demanded, other than those arising under the Family Code, are brought to trial or final disposition within eighteen months of the appearance date. Tex. R. Jud. Admin. 6.1(b). Henson failed to ...


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