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In re Molina

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

March 29, 2019

IN RE LEONEL MOLINA, Relator

          Original Proceeding from the County Court at Law No. 1 Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. CC-17-05498-A

          Before Justices Whitehill, Partida-Kipness, and Pedersen, III

          OPINION

          BILL WHITEHILL JUSTICE

         This mandamus proceeding arises from a personal injury lawsuit. Plaintiff and real party in interest Michael Ware alleges that he was injured in a multi-vehicle collision. The defendants designated a responsible third party. The trial court later struck the designation on Ware's motion. Defendant-relator Leonel Molina filed a petition for writ of mandamus asserting in one issue that the trial court abused its discretion by striking the designation.

         Because Molina adduced some evidence that the designated responsible third party is, at least in part, potentially responsible for Ware's alleged injuries, we conclude that the trial court clearly abused its discretion by striking the designation. We further conclude that mandamus relief is warranted.

         I. Background

         In January 2016, there was a multi-vehicle traffic accident on the northbound side of Interstate 45 in Ellis County. Shortly before the accident, police officer Christopher Amos conducted a traffic stop of the eventual responsible third party, Babatunde Shabi. Shabi stopped on the left shoulder. Amos stopped behind him and directed him to move to the right shoulder.

         Molina approached the scene driving in the leftmost lane. Seeing the police vehicle, he moved one lane to the right. Then Shabi and Amos crossed the highway in front of Molina at roughly a ninety degree angle. According to Amos, Shabi's vehicle occupied all three lanes at once.

         Molina slowed down. A semi-trailer truck driven by Pedro Jose Villalta hit the rear of Molina's van. Then the front right bumper of Villalta's truck hit the driver-side door area of a semi-trailer truck driven by plaintiff Ware.

         Ware sued Molina, Villalta, and Villalta's employer for negligently causing personal injuries to him. The defendants designated Shabi as a responsible third party.

         A few months later, Ware filed a motion to strike the responsible third party designation, arguing that defendants had no evidence that Shabi was responsible for the accident. Molina responded. The trial court granted the motion to strike.

         Molina filed a mandamus petition in this Court challenging the trial court's order granting the motion to strike.

         II. Analysis

         A. Mandamus Standard

         To obtain mandamus relief, a relator must show that the trial court clearly abused its discretion and that relator has no adequate appellate remedy. In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 148 S.W.3d 124, 135-36 (Tex. 2004) (orig. proceeding).

         Because the erroneous denial of a motion for leave to designate a responsible third party skews the proceedings, potentially affects the litigation's outcome, and compromises the defense in ways unlikely to be apparent in the appellate record, such an error ordinarily renders the appellate remedy inadequate. In re Coppola, 535 S.W.3d 506, 509-10 (Tex. 2017) (orig. proceeding) (per curiam). The same problems arise when a trial court erroneously grants a motion to strike a responsible third party designation. Thus, we conclude, the appellate remedy is also ordinarily inadequate when a trial court commits such an error.

         B. Applicable Law

         Texas law allows a tort defendant to designate a person as a "responsible third party." Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 33.004(a). The designation's purpose is to have the responsible third party submitted to the trier of fact as a possible cause of the claimant's harm. See id. § 33.003. This may reduce the percentage of responsibility attributed to the defendant, thus ultimately reducing its liability to the claimant. See id. § 33.013; Flack v. Hanke, 334 S.W.3d 251, 262 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2010, pet. denied) ("[T]he defendant typically would be the party seeking to retain the RTP in the jury charge to diminish his potential liability and perhaps eliminate any joint and several liability.").

         Once a responsible third party has been designated, and after an adequate time for discovery has passed, a party may move to strike the designation "on the ground that there is no evidence that the designated person is responsible for any portion of the claimant's alleged injury or damage." Civ. Prac. & Rem. § 33.004(l). "The court shall grant the motion to strike unless a defendant produces sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue of fact regarding the designated person's responsibility for the claimant's injury or damage." Id. Thus, the question for the trial court is whether the defendant produced sufficient evidence, more than a scintilla, for a reasonable jury to find the responsible third party responsible for a portion of the claimant's injury or damages. In re Transit Mix Concrete & Materials Co., No. 12-13-00364-CV, 2014 WL 1922724, at *3 (Tex. App.-Tyler May 14, 2014, orig. proceeding) (mem. op.).

         The trial court's ruling on a motion to strike presents a legal question. Ham v. Equity Residential Prop. Mgmt. Servs., Corp., 315 S.W.3d 627, 631 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2010, pet. denied). Thus, our review, even under the abuse of discretion mandamus standard, is de novo. See In re Labatt Food Serv., L.P., 279 S.W.3d 640, 643 (Tex. 2009) (orig. proceeding) ("Under an abuse of discretion standard, we defer to the trial court's factual determinations if they are supported by evidence, but we review the trial court's legal determinations de novo.").

         C. Does the evidence raise a genuine fact issue regarding Shabi's responsibility for the accident and Ware's injuries?

         Molina argues as a threshold matter that Ware's motion to strike argued only that there was no evidence that Shabi breached a duty of care and thus didn't attack proximate cause. Ware disputes Molina's contention. For purposes of our analysis, we will assume without deciding that Ware's motion challenged both elements. See W. Invs., Inc. v. Urena, 162 S.W.3d 547, 550 (Tex. 2005) ...


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