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Mar 20, 2024

Texas Supreme Court Clarifies Permissible Scope of Discovery in Auto Collision Cases

By: Michelle E. Robberson

Late last year, the Texas Supreme Court addressed the permissible scope of a defendant’s discovery requests in an automobile collision case in a mandamus proceeding, In re Liberty County Mutual Insurance Co., 679 S.W.3d 170 (Tex. 2023) (orig. proceeding) (per curiam).  The Court agreed with the defendant’s arguments and reversed the trial court’s order quashing the discovery and assessing sanctions.  The Opinion provides some helpful guidance for both courts and litigants.

The plaintiff, Thalia Harris, was in an auto accident with Darien Haynes in April 2017.  She settled with Haynes’s insurer for policy limits of $100,000 (with Liberty’s permission), and then sought additional damages under Liberty’s underinsured motorist coverage (UIM).  When Liberty did not pay, she sued Liberty. 

During her deposition, Harris testified that the accident caused injuries to her head, right shoulder, and back.  Harris filed several medical records and billing records affidavits and also a “Plan of Anticipated Future Medical Expenses” in support of her claims for the April 2017 accident.  Discovery also revealed that Harris had been involved in one auto accident before the April 2017 accident and four auto accidents after the April 2017 accident, all involving injuries to some of the same body parts.

Originally, the defendant sought discovery from Harris’s primary care physician of “all documents pertaining to Dr. Simmons’s care, treatment, and examination of Harris,” as well as all films and images maintained by Dr. Simmons, for ten years before the accident and five years after the accident.  Harris moved to quash as overbroad and sought sanctions. 

Before and at the hearing, Liberty offered to reduce the time period to five years before and five years after the April 2017 accident and to allow the records to be sent first to Harris’s counsel, so he could review them and remove anything privileged.  The trial court (Dallas County Court at Law No. 5) rejected that offer, granted the motion to quash, and assessed $2,000 in sanctions against defense counsel.

Liberty sought mandamus relief from the Dallas Court of Appeals, which denied the petition without an opinion.  Liberty then sought mandamus relief from the Texas Supreme Court.

In a mandamus proceeding, the moving party must prove two things:  the trial court abused its discretion, and the relator has no adequate remedy by ordinary appeal.  The Texas Supreme Court concluded Liberty had proved both.

The Court first discussed the applicable law relating to claims of overbroad discovery requests.  While the permissible scope of discovery is broad, it said, trial courts must consider proportionality and weigh a party’s right to discovery against the needs of the case.

This proportionality inquiry requires case-by-case balancing in light of several factors, including:  the likely benefit of the requested discovery; the needs of the case; the amount in controversy; the parties’ resources; the importance of the issues at stake in the litigation; the importance of the proposed discovery in resolving the litigation; and any other articulable factor bearing on proportionality.  Ultimately, the trial court’s responsibility, using all the information provided by the parties, is to consider these proportionality factors in reaching a case-specific determination of the appropriate scope of discovery.

The Court also briefly discussed UIM law.  To succeed on her UIM claim, it said, Harris had to prove the original defendant’s liability for the accident and that her damages exceeded the $100,000 received from the original defendant.  The Court said information relating to these disputed issues is relevant.

In particular, the Court had recognized that, in personal injury cases, relevant evidence at trial includes both evidence of the injured person’s pre-occurrence condition and the course of her physical condition and progress after the occurrence, citing Guevara v. Ferrer, 247 S.W.3d 662, 666-67 (Tex. 2007).  Further, information about the insured’s pre-existing medical condition at the time of the accident is relevant to the insurer’s damages defenses, citing In re Central Oregon Truck Co., 644 S.W.3d 668, 670 (Tex. 2022).

The Court made the following statements as to why the requested information was discoverable:

Aside from Harris herself, Dr. Simmons is likely the only person who can provide evidence of Harris’s pre-accident condition.

Dr. Simmons’s records may also evidence the existence and extent of Harris’s injuries following the April 2017 accident, based on Harris’s complaints (or lack thereof) and any testing or observations by the doctor immediately after the accident.

In addition, there is evidence of other car accidents that caused physical injuries similar to those Harris attributes to the April 2017 accident. Dr. Simmons’s records may show what, if anything, Harris reported about those other accidents, which could affect a factfinder’s decision about the causal link between her physical injuries and the April 2017 accident.

Even if Dr. Simmons’s records do not reflect any discussion of or treatment for the April 2017 accident, the absence of that information may itself be relevant to the jury’s deliberations.

Therefore, the Court held, the trial court abused its discretion in quashing the discovery requests because:  (a) the requests were not overly broad; (b) the information sought was relevant for discovery given the dispute over the existence, cause, and extent of Harris’s alleged personal injuries; (c) the trial court did not appear to have considered the proportionality factors; and (d) the requests did not seek information from an unreasonably long time period. 

Although Harris also asserted undue burden, she presented no evidence to support that contention.  The Court held she could not make merely a conclusory assertion of undue burden. The Court also reversed the sanctions, given that it had held the discovery requests proper (and not “frivolous,” as Harris contended).

The Court also held Liberty did not have an adequate remedy by ordinary appeal.  As it held in prior cases, an appeal is inadequate when the trial court’s order effectively denies a party a reasonable opportunity to develop a defense that goes to the heart of its case, and an appellate court cannot evaluate on appeal the effect of the trial court’s denial of discovery from third parties. 

The Court made the following statements in support of its ruling in favor of Liberty:

The central issue in this UIM lawsuit is the extent of Harris’s injuries that were caused by the April 2017 accident.  The trial court’s order prevents Liberty from obtaining records from Harris’s primary doctor regarding her pre-accident condition and whether she complained of similar injuries from her multiple other car accidents.

That discovery may produce information that undercuts the evidence adduced by Harris and her hand-selected providers regarding the cause of Harris’s ailments.

The discovery order thus denies Liberty a reasonable opportunity to develop a defense that goes to the heart of its case.

And, because the absent discovery is from a third party, the information sought cannot be part of the appellate record, making it difficult, if not impossible, to determine on appeal whether its absence at trial affected the outcome.

Accordingly, because Liberty satisfied both requirements, the Court conditionally granted the writ of mandamus and ordered the trial court to vacate its April 4, 2022 order quashing the deposition notices directed to Dr. Simmons and ordering sanctions.