First District Court of Appeals holds defendant entitled to mandamus relief when trial court denied motion to designate a responsible third party

In re Hidden Development Partners, LP, 01-22-00152-CV (Tex. App. — Houston [1st Dist.] June 8, 2023)

While not primarily a government entity case, this holding can be used by entities involved in litigation.  This is an original mandamus proceeding where the First District Court of Appeals in Houston held the trial court was required to grant the Relator’s motion to designate responsible third-parties and that mandamus is an appropriate mechanism to utilize if a designation is denied. 

This is a wrongful death case where Andres drowned after jumping into a pond behind his home in the Hidden Lakes subdivision to assist his brother who had jumped into the pond first and appeared to be struggling. Andres’s family sued Hidden Development Partners (HDLP).  Suit was filed in 2018 but was non-suited and refilled in 2020.  HDLP filed a motion for leave to designate responsible third parties in 2021. In this motion, HDLP explained that it was the developer of part of the Hidden Lakes subdivision and that Galveston County Municipal District No. 45 (“Mud 45”) was the current owner of the property. HLDP stated that the transition in ownership to Mud 45 began before the drowning occurred and that the contractors had a duty to design and build the pond properly. Andres’ family asserted HDLP waited too long to designate as the statute of limitations had expired and failed to plead factually specify grounds for third-party liability. The trial court denied HDLP’s motion to designate and this original mandamus proceeded followed. 

Chapter 33 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code sets out the Texas proportionate responsibility laws, which permit “a tort defendant to designate as a responsible third party a person who ‘is alleged to have caused in any way the harm for which the plaintiff seeks damages.’” Defendants have certain limitations on designating responsible third-parties (RTPs), including not filing within 60 days of trial or after the expiration of the statute of limitations. However, once a motion for leave has been filed, the trial court shall grant leave “unless another party files an objection on or before the 15th day after the date the motion is served.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 33.004(f).   A defendant’s restriction on designating within the statute of limitations only applies “if the defendant has failed to comply with its obligations, if any, to timely disclose that the person may be designated as a responsible third party under the Rules of Civil Procedure.” HDLP did disclose the parties in discovery and listed them as possible responsible third parties within the statute of limitations, but in the non-suited litigation, not the refiled litigation. However, HDLP was a party in both suits and so was Andres’ family. The Andres family counsel admitted in oral argument that timeliness was not the issue if discovery from both cases could be used. As a result, HDLP did designate timely. As far as sufficiently pleading factual support for RTPs, the threshold is low. Based on this low threshold, HDLP sufficiently identified where potential liability will attach. For mandamus purposes, the Texas Supreme Court has held that mandamus relief is available to correct a trial court’s erroneous denial of a party’s timely motion for leave to designate responsible third parties as no adequate remedy can be provided on appeal. The trial court’s denial is not a mere incidental ruling but would deny HLDP the right to allow the jury to determine the proportionate responsibility of all responsible parties, which is a significant ruling. As a result, the court conditionally granted the writ of mandamus. 

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Kelly, Countiss, and Rivas-Molloy.  Opinion by Justice Kelly. 

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