Texas Supreme Court holds sanctions not applicable when a defendant is asked to deny a merit-preclusive RFA that the other party bears the burden of proof

Medina v Zuniga, 17-0498 (Tex. April 26, 2019)

In this case, which will be primarily of interest to litigators, the Texas Supreme Court held the trial court abused its discretion when it awarded sanctions against a defendant who denied liability in discovery but conceded during trial.

In the vehicle accident case, Medina exited a parking lot without stopping or properly looking and struck Zuniga.  Zuniga sued for negligence and gross-negligence and served Medina with discovery. In admissions, 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. Relying on an exception to Rule 215.4’s applicability, Medina argued that when he denied Zuniga’s requests for admissions, he had a reasonable ground to believe he ultimately might prevail in showing he was not negligent.  The case proceeded to trial — at which time,Medina made the strategic decision to concede ordinary negligence but contest the plaintiff’s gross-negligence claim. The jury found for Zuniga. After the trial, Zuniga’s attorney moved for sanctions for the failure to admit negligence during discovery and to collect attorney’s fees on having to establish the facts admitted at trial. The trial court granted the sanctions.

The Court started out by asserting that “[r]equests for admission are a tool, not a trapdoor.”   They primarily serve “to simplify trials by eliminating matters about which there is no real controversy, but which may be difficult or expensive to prove.” They address uncontroverted matters or evidentiary ones like the authenticity or admissibility of documents. They were not intended to be used as a demand upon a plaintiff or defendant to admit that he had no cause of action or ground of defense.  Since the plaintiff has the burden of proof, it cannot follow that the defendant who puts the plaintiff to his/her burden should later face sanctions for not admitting what he/she was entitled to deny.  Due process limits the extent to which sanctions can attach to denials of those requests. Just as a defendant may answer the claims against him with a general denial, see TEX. R. CIV. P. 92, he also may deny a merits-preclusive request for admission for which the other party bears the burden of proof. The very nature of the request provides the respondent with “good reason” for failing to admit. As a result, the trial court abused its discretion. Medina also challenged the jury’s gross-negligence finding, arguing no evidence supports a conclusion that his actions rose above ordinary negligence. The objective gross-negligence standard must remain functionally distinguishable from ordinary negligence. As to the objective component, an “extreme degree of risk” is “a threshold significantly higher than the objective ‘reasonable person’ test for negligence.”  Viewing the evidence in favor of the jury’s verdict, no doubt exists that Medina’s driving was thoughtless, careless and risky. But any driver knows that our roads are replete with thoughtless, careless and risky drivers. Gross negligence can be supported only by an extreme degree of risk, which is not present here.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Justice Brown delivered the opinion of the Court.  The docket page with attorney information can be found here.