Texas Supreme Court Issues Ruling Regarding Timing of Jury Charge Objections and Sufficiency of Evidence Under Specific Order Doctrine
In a recent decision, a majority of the Texas Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's refusal to hear a last-minute objection to the jury charge and concluded that there was specific evidence to support the jury's finding that an injured seaman was following a specific order and thereby excepted from contributory negligence. King Fisher Marine Service, L.P v. Tamez, No. 13-0103 (Texas, August 29, 2014).
The appellee, Jose Tamez, was a welder on board the Leonard M. Fisher, a dredging vessel operated by King Fisher Marine Service, L.P. ("King Fisher"), who injured his left arm while helping two (2) crew members lift a sock-wrench assembly. Tamez sued King Fisher under the Jones Act, alleging that he was injured working under a "specific order" to lift equipment that should have been lifted with mechanical assistance or with the assistance of additional crew members. Under the specific-order doctrine, a seaman in absolved of contributory negligence if he suffers damages after being ordered to do a specific task in a specific manner. The jury accepted Tamez's arguments that he was working under a specific order, and Tamez was awarded USD 420,000. Although the jury found Tamez to be 50% at fault for his injuries, the trial judge did not reduce the award because of the jury's finding of a specific order. King Fisher appealed, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's specific-order finding and that the trial court had erred by failing to charge the jury with the specific-order definition King Fisher proposed adding. The Court of Appeals rejected both arguments, concluding that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's findings and that the trial court had discretion to refuse the proposed jury charge as untimely. King Fisher appealed again to the Texas Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the appeal.
The majority of the Texas Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, affirmed the lower courts' decisions. The Court first concluded that King Fisher's proposed definition of a specific order, which had been presented to the trial court for inclusion minutes before the jury charge was to be read, was untimely. The majority rejected King Fisher's arguments that Rule 272 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and the Texas Supreme Court's prior precedents provided that the objection could be timely presented up to the moment the charge was read to the jury, with no discretion for the judge to alter that deadline. The Court determined – as other lower courts reviewing the Rule had– that the relevant inquiry is the reasonableness of the time allowed to review and object to the charge. Under the circumstances presented by this case, the Supreme Court found that the trial court was within its discretion to reject an objection raised only minutes before the charge was read to the jury, as King Fisher had been given a reasonable time to review and object to the charge earlier. In so holding, the Court was clear that it was not necessarily endorsing the trial court's refusal to include King Fisher's proposed definition in the charge; rather, it was simply holding that Rule 272 affords trial courts discretion to set a deadline for charge objections as long as counsel is given a reasonable amount of time to examine and object to the charge.
The Court next considered King Fisher's argument that the Court of Appeals had improperly relied upon a Ninth Circuit expansion of the specific order doctrine in concluding that sufficient evidence supported the jury's finding. The majority rejected his argument, concluding that the Court of Appeals' holding did not rest on the Ninth Circuit's expansion and did not apply the decision at issue to the facts of the case. As such, the Supreme Court limited its sufficiency review to the standard it had set forth in its own precedents, i.e. - a seaman receives a specific order when his "only options are either to complete the task or disobey the order". The Court determined that the witness testimony presented "some evidence about which reasonable minds could differ" and, as such, there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's specific-order finding.
In a thirteen (13) page Dissent, Justice Guzman (joined by three (3) other justices) rejected the Majority's interpretation of Rule 272, arguing that the Rule simply requires a party to object to the charge before it is read to the jury. The Dissent criticized the trial court for "elevat[ing] docket management above the express language of Rule 272" and expressed concern that the Majority's opinion prioritized "adjudication on procedural technicalities above adjudication on the merits." The dissenting justice argued that she would remand for the Court of Appeals to consider whether the trial court's error in refusing King Fisher's timely charge objection was harmful, reversible error.
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