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Medina v. Zuniga

Supreme Court of Texas

April 26, 2019

Christopher Medina, Petitioner
v.
Jennifer L. Zuniga, Respondent

          Argued December 4, 2018

          On Petition for Review from the Court of Appeals for the Fourth District of Texas

          Justice Busby did not participate in the decision.

          OPINION

          Jeffrey V. Brown Justice.

         In this case we address when, if ever, a trial court may sanction a party who fails to admit negligence during discovery but concedes it at trial. Here, the plaintiff served the defendant with a spate of requests for admissions at the outset of the litigation. In those requests, the plaintiff essentially asked the defendant to concede his negligence in every possible respect and confess he was the sole cause of the accident at issue. The defendant predictably denied those requests. The case proceeded to trial, at which time the defendant made the strategic decision to concede ordinary negligence but contest the plaintiff's gross-negligence claim. After trial, the plaintiff asked the trial court to award sanctions in the form of reasonable expenses and attorney's fees incurred in proving up the negligence issues that the defendant ultimately conceded. The trial court awarded sanctions and the court of appeals affirmed. We reverse and render judgment that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding sanctions.

         In a separate issue, we hold that no evidence supports the jury's finding that the defendant was grossly negligent. Because the court of appeals held otherwise, we reverse and render judgment that the plaintiff take nothing on her gross-negligence claim.

         I

         Christopher Medina drove to his high school on a Sunday to feed livestock in conjunction with the school's agricultural program. The record reflects that students customarily visited the school over the weekend to care for the animals. Surveillance video taken at the time of the accident shows several people coming and going from campus. Jennifer Zuniga drove her daughter to the school for the same reason and went for a jog while her daughter tended to her responsibilities.

         Medina turned off a public street and onto an entrance drive to the school's parking lot, where he stopped to talk to two students through his passenger window. Another driver pulled in behind Medina, whose truck blocked the drive, and honked at him. Medina briefly drove his truck in reverse before proceeding forward into the parking lot. Evidence adduced at trial suggested Medina was attempting to "mess with" the other driver-a friend-by creeping his truck toward her in reverse before driving forward.

         Medina proceeded forward through the horseshoe-shaped drive, which provided access to a short strip of parking spaces before emptying back onto the same public street by which Medina had arrived. Zuniga's accident reconstructionist testified that Medina accelerated rapidly through the parking lot, reaching a top speed of 24 miles per hour. To reach that speed in such a short distance, the reconstructionist testified, Medina must have pressed the accelerator almost to the floor.

         Medina decreased his speed-Zuniga's reconstructionist suggested 19 miles per hour-as he approached the exit and prepared to turn right onto the public street. At the time, Zuniga was crossing the exit driveway headed toward the sidewalk. There was no stop sign posted at the exit and Medina admitted he did not stop. Medina testified he looked left before exiting but conceded he failed to look right. He saw Zuniga only momentarily before he struck her as he pulled onto the street. The evidence showed that Medina attempted to brake immediately before impact. Photographs taken of the accident scene showed that the right-rear wheel of Medina's truck came to rest on the border between the driveway and sidewalk. Zuniga's expert testified that Medina likely drove on the sidewalk as he turned out of the parking lot.

         Zuniga sued Medina for negligence and gross negligence, and his parents for negligent entrustment. During discovery, Zuniga served Medina with requests for admissions pursuant to Rule 198. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 198.1 ("A party may serve on another party . . . written requests that the other party admit the truth of any matter within the scope of discovery, including statements of opinion or of fact or of the application of law to fact, or the genuineness of any documents served with the request or otherwise made available for inspection and copying."). The requests at issue in this case, all of which Medina denied, are reproduced below:

Do you admit or deny that you did not operate the vehicle under proper control at the time of the incident made the basis of this lawsuit?
Do you admit or deny that the manner of operation of the vehicle you were driving at the time of the accident made the basis of this lawsuit[] increased the hazard to the Plaintiff and others upon the roadway?
Do you admit or deny that there was no contributory negligence on the part of the Plaintiff in this collision?
Do you admit or deny the Plaintiff's allegation that your negligence was the proximate cause of the occurrence in question?
Do you admit or deny that you were incompetent and unfit to safely operate a motor vehicle on the public streets, highways and/or public facilities at the time of the accident made the basis of this lawsuit?
Do you admit or deny that you knew, or in the exercise of ordinary care, should have known, that you were an incompetent and unfit driver and would create an unreasonable risk of danger to persons and property on the public streets and highways of San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas at the time of the accident made the subject of this lawsuit?
Do you admit or deny that you were operating your vehicle at a greater rate of speed than was reasonable at the time of the ...

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