Houston Team Secures Texas Supreme Court Win on Tort Claim Damage Limits
Houston, Texas (January 23, 2023) - Houston and Salt Lake City Partner William (“Bill”) S. Helfand, with Houston Appellate Partner Sean Higgins, recently secured a significant victory on behalf of a Galveston, Texas-based community center when the Texas Supreme Court reduced a six-figure judgment against the community center by more than half.
As described in a Law360 article titled “Texas High Court Says Damage Caps Limits Bus Crash Verdict,” the plaintiff in the underlying matter attempted to traverse a crosswalk when a bus driven by an employee of the community center struck him. The plaintiff alleged that he suffered injuries to both knees, his left hip, shoulders, and legs. Following trial, the jury assigned 100% of the liability to the community center and ordered it to pay $250,000. The trial judge then reduced the verdict to $216,000.
In its post-trial motion, Lewis Brisbois’ client contended that its status as a community center, as defined in Section 534.001 of Texas' Health and Safety Code, rendered it "a unit of local government." Therefore, it argued, it qualified for the $100,000 judgment cap set forth in the state's tort claims law. Rejecting this argument, the trial judge – and subsequently an appellate panel – determined the community center should have presented this argument to the jury as a type of affirmative defense. Lewis Brisbois appealed the decision to the Texas Supreme Court.
The Texas Supreme Court agreed with Lewis Brisbois argument and rejected the trial and appellate courts’ analyses. It ultimately held that state law requires lower courts to cap damages levied against local governments – or a unit of one – regardless of whether the issue was raised during trial. The court explained that “determining which damages cap applies is a jurisdictional question, not an affirmative defense to be presented to the jury.” In addition, it noted, "Courts lack jurisdiction to render a judgment that exceeds the applicable damages cap under Section 101.023, and a plaintiff seeking recovery under the Tort Claims Act has the burden to prove which cap applies." As such, the Texas Supreme Court remanded the case to the lower court and ordered it to apply the damages cap, thereby reducing the verdict against Lewis Brisbois’ client by more than half.
Mr. Helfand serves as vice-chair of Lewis Brisbois’ Labor & Employment Practice. His practice covers a wide range of litigation, arbitration, and dispute resolution. Based on his demonstrated problem-solving approach, both private and public entity clients of all types reach out to him to handle their most difficult legal problems.
Mr. Higgins is a member of Lewis Brisbois’ Appellate and Toxic Tort & Environmental Litigation Practices. He represents clients in state appellate courts and federal circuits throughout the country, securing the reversal of millions of dollars in jury verdicts. Mr. Higgins also regularly represents clients at trial in business disputes, toxic tort, and general liability cases.