This is the week of the American Law Institute conference. Most of the Texas Supreme Court Justices are members of ALI, so it is not surprising that this week brought a very quiet orders list.
Lost Property, Mislaid Property, and Treasure Trove
This civil-forfeiture case has a twist. In the presentation of the facts given in the Texas Supreme Court opinion, the truck driver and the police officer agree in advance to the traffic stop — with the person who hired the truck driver (and provided the truck) left out of the loop:
Johnny Mercado approached Gregorio Huerta, the owner of Greg’s Towing, at a race track in Edinburg, Texas, and asked Huerta to tow a disabled Freightliner truck-tractor from Alvin to Mercedes for approximately $2,800. Huerta agreed, drove to Alvin that night to retrieve the truck, and returned to his office in Edinburg. Huerta contacted Mercado to request payment, and they planned for Huerta to follow Mercado with the truck to the final destination in Mercedes. When Mercado did not show up, Huerta became worried that the truck might be stolen and contacted Department of Public Safety Trooper Cesar Torres. Torres agreed to stop by Huerta’s office to inspect the truck, but before he got there Mercado arrived and paid for the tow. Huerta informed Torres that it would no longer be necessary for him to come by, but Torres still had concerns about the truck and insisted on inspecting it. Together they devised a plan whereby Huerta would intentionally exceed the speed limit so that Torres would have probable cause to pull him over. When Torres stopped Huerta for speeding in San Juan, Mercado circled the area several times and then drove away.
Mercado and the truck’s owner (whose name was found from title records) were sent notice of the forfeiture proceedings, but they neither chose to appear. Ultimately, the property was not proven to be contraband.
In the Texas Supreme Court, the truck driver advances several theories for why he should be awarded part of the money. The Court, through Justice O’Neill, rejected each in turn:
- The truck driver did not have a bailment interest in the cash because he did not take possession of it knowingly. A bailee only takes responsibility for items he could reasonably expect to be in the vehicle.
- He could not claim that he acquired it as “abandoned” property because there was no moment at which he personally took possession of it. The cash was found during a law-enforcement search. Although the truck driver was physically assisting with that part of the search (dismantling the axle), the context means that he was not the one actually taking possession.
He could not invoke the doctrine of “treasure trove” (special rules applying to finders of particularly valuable property) because that doctrine is not recognized in Texas.
He could not claim the cash as “mislaid” property (that set somewhere by its owner and then forgotten) because the truck driver did not himself own the truck he was driving.
And he could not claim an interest under the general rules for accidentally “lost” property because, among other reasons, the way the cash was tightly wrapped around the truck axle in neat bundles was a clear indication it had not been lost by accident.
Having rejected each of the truck driver’s theories, the Court reversed and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.
Does an erroneous dismissal “with prejudice” still operate to bar later lawsuits?
The Travelers Insurance Co. v. Barry Joachim, No. 08?0941
A party filed a voluntary nonsuit, seeking dismissal without prejudice. The trial court entered a dismissal with prejudice. Later, that same party filed a new lawsuit about the same subject matter. The defendant asserted that the suit was barred by res judicata.
The parties agree that the first trial court’s order, which dismissed the case with prejudice, was erroneous because Joachim’s nonsuit was without prejudice to refiling.
The Texas Supreme Court holds that a trial court’s dismissal with prejudice could operate to bar later lawsuits — even when entered in error. Instead, the correct method of attacking the error would have been a direct appeal of the original dismissal.
Justice Green wrote for the Court.