TXI Transportation Co. v. Randy Hughes, No. 07-0541 (docket and briefs)

The Texas Supreme Court reversed a jury verdict about an auto accident that was based, in part, on testimony that one driver was an illegal immigrant. The Court concluded that the driver’s immigration status was not relevant to the claims at issue and that its admission risked harmful prejudice.

Here’s how the majority opinion concludes:

[The plaintiff] Hughes faced a difficult conceptual burden. He had to convince a jury that a collision involving on-coming traffic, that unquestionably occurred in the eastbound lane of Highway 114, was the fault of Rodriguez, the eastbound driver. The task was all the more difficult because Rodriguez possessed a clean driving record and commercial driver’s licenses from both Texas and Mexico. Hughes had some evidence of how Rodriguez might have been at fault for the collision in his lane, but the issue was hotly contested.

The record indicates that Hughes sought to hedge his theory by calling attention to Rodriguez’s illegal immigration status whenever he could. Such appeals to racial and ethnic prejudices, whether “explicit and brazen” or “veiled and subtle,” cannot be tolerated because they undermine the very basis of our judicial process. Tex. Employers’ Ins. Ass’n v. Guerrero, 800 S.W.2d 859, 864 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 1990, writ denied); see also Moss v. Sanger, 12 S.W. 619, 620 (Tex. 1889) (“Cases ought to be tried in a court of justice upon the facts proved; and whether a party be Jew or gentile, white or black, is a matter of indifference.”); Penate v. Berry, 348 S.W.2d 167, 168-69 (Tex. Civ. App.—El Paso 1961, writ ref’d n.r.e.) (reversing judgment against illegal alien in vehicle collision case because of “numerous remarks” about alien status). We conclude that the trial court erred by admitting evidence impugning Rodriguez’s character on the basis of his immigration status. Such error was harmful, not only because its prejudice far outweighed any probative value, but also because it fostered the impression that Rodriguez’s employer should be held liable because it hired an illegal immigrant.

Justice Medina delivered the opinion of the Court. This part of the opinion was unanimous (with Justice Johnson not sitting on the case).

Justice Wainwright write a short opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. His disagreement was with the Court’s analysis of an expert’s testimony about causation of the accident.