The Texas Supreme Court will be hearing oral arguments this morning in three cases.
The questions include the permissible ratio of punitive-to-actual damages, what duty rule Texas should adopt for ice on commercial property, and whether an heir who discovers paternity years after an estate is closed can file suit to reopen the judgment.
How much can be awarded in punitive damages?
Thomas O. Bennett Jr. and James B. Bonham Corp. v. Randy Reynolds, No. 08-0074 (more info)
This petition challenges an award of $1.25 million in punitive damages against a corporation and its president. The petition argues: (1) this amount violates due process when only $5,300 in actual damages were suffered by the plaintiff; and (2) that a corporation cannot be liable for punitive damages for the actions of its corporate president.
Does a commercial landowner have a duty to remove ice from a parking lot?
Scott and White Memorial Hospital, et al. v. Gary and Linda Fair, No. 08-0970 (more info)
The question is what duty rule Texas should adopt for ice on a parking lot. The landowner urges the “Massachusetts rule,” which lets it off the hook. The person who slipped and fell urges the “Connecticut rule,” which imposes a duty of care to remove hazardous ice.
The trial court chose the Massachusetts rule, granting summary judgment to the landowner. The court of appeals reversed, choosing the Connecticut rule.
I wrote about the court’s August order setting this case for argument. The petition’s argument began “While ice storms and resulting slip and fall accidents occur in Texas on a regular basis, …”, which during a Texas summer seemed like a faint dream.
Does someone who claims to have discovered that they are an heir have standing to seek to reopen a judgment?
The John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation v. Ann M. Fernandez, No. 08-0528 (more info) (two other petitions also consolidated into this argument)
The plaintiff, Ann Fernandez, “claims she is a daughter born out of wedlock to famed rancher John G. Kenedy Jr. and a Kenedy housemaid.”
Claims were filed to reopen the judgment both in the probate court (the county court in which the will had been originally probated) and the district court (which had heard the appeal of that original probate matter). The county court appointed Judge Guy Herman of Austin to sit on the matter, and he issued orders consolidating these “bill of review” proceedings into the probate court. He then ordered the exhumation of remains to test the paternity claim. The family sought Texas Supreme Court review of that exhumation order, and that case remains pending before the Court. In re The John G. & Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation, No. 04-0607 (more info). (( This case was argued in September 2005 and is actually the longest-pending case awaiting a decision after argument — by more than a year. But the Court appears to have been waiting to get this related petition so that it could consider all the issues. ))
Before the probate court could complete that process and determine heirship, the district court decided the case on standing grounds, holding that Fernandez lacked standing because her claim would be time-barred. In this opinion, the court of appeals reversed.
This petition asks the Texas Supreme Court to decide that standing question (and also which of these two trial-level courts had the power to decide this question in the first instance).