Texas Supreme Court holds defendant entitled to designate responsible third-party even after statute of limitations expires

In re: Mobil Mini, Inc., 18-1200 (Tex. March 13, 2020)

This is a mandamus case that will be of interest mainly to litigators. The Texas Supreme Court granted mandamus and ordered the trial court to allow the designation of a responsible third party even though the statute of limitations had expired.

Covarrubias’s pinky finger was injured when a wind gust blew the door of a construction trailer closed on his hand. Mobile Mini owned the trailer, but had leased it to Nolana Self Storage, LLC, the owner of the construction site.  Covarrubias sued Mobile Mini just before the statute of limitations expired, but did not sue Nolana. Mobile Mini’s discovery responses identified Nolana as a potentially responsible third party. Mobile Mini filed a motion to designate Nolana as a responsible third party, but no hearing was set immediately. Meanwhile, Nolana (who had been brought in) obtained a summary judgment that claims against it were time-barred and it was dismissed. Covarrubias later objected to Mobile Mini’s attempt to designate Nolana as a responsible third-party given the time bar.  The trial court refused to allow Mobile Mini to designate Nolana. The court of appeals denied Mobile Mini’s mandamus petition without substantive comment.  Mobile Mini brought this mandamus action in the Texas Supreme Court.

The Court went through a lengthy analysis of Chapter 33 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code.  The Court held Mobile Mini’s disclosure was timely because under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, it was not obligated to disclose potentially responsible third parties until its discovery responses were due. Because Covarrubias waited almost two years to sue Mobile Mini, the response deadline for the disclosures fell after limitations expired. Mobile Mini did not engage in any dilatory or stall tactics to game the system, but instead filed the discovery response when it was due.  Such are deemed a timely designation. Placing the onus on a defendant to respond before the Rules of Civil Procedure obligate it to do so not only contravenes section 33.004(d)’s express language but would also be unfairly prejudicial to defendants. Covarrubias’s second argument that Nolana was “substantively” dismissed was rejected as missing a statute of limitations in this case was procedural in nature. Under the proportionate-responsibility statute, “responsibility” is not equated with “liability.” Finally, an adequate appellate remedy is ordinarily lacking because allowing a case to proceed to trial without a properly requested responsible-third-party designation “would skew the proceedings, potentially affect the outcome of the litigation, and compromise the presentation of the relator’s defense in ways unlikely to be apparent in the appellate record.”  As a result, the trial court had a required duty to allow the designation. The Court granted the writ of mandamus ordering Nolana be designated as a responsible third-party.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  The docket page can be found here.