Last week the Texas Supreme Court issued one opinion and no grants. This blog discusses that opinion which addresses designation of unknown responsible third parties.
In In re Gilberto Gonzales, Gonzales sued Houston Distributing for negligently causing an automobile accident. He alleged that the truck driver employed by Houston Distributing rear-ended a pickup truck behind Gonzales, which caused the pickup truck to rear-end Gonzales.
Houston Distributing filed a motion for leave to designate an unknown person (“John Doe”) as a responsible third party 135 days after filing its original answer. It alleged that John Doe cut in front of Gonzales’s truck and stopped suddenly, negligently causing the accident. Then, it filed a second amended answer, three weeks later, alleging that an unknown person caused the accident, but it did not allege that John Doe committed a criminal act nor did it describe any identifying characteristics of John Doe. Gonzales filed objections to and a motion to strike the motion for leave arguing that Houston Distributing failed to timely file an amended answer alleging John Doe’s responsibility.
The trial court granted the motion for leave. In the resulting mandamus proceeding, the Texas Supreme Court found that the trial court abused its discretion by granting the John Doe designation.
Section 33.004(j) of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code sets forth the requirements for designating “an unknown person as a responsible third party.” As a threshold requirement, within 60 days of filing an original answer, defendants must allege in an amended or supplemental answer that an unknown person committed a criminal act that was the cause of the injury. If defendants meet this predicate requirement, then the court shall grant a motion for leave to designate the unknown person as a responsible third party if the defendant meets three additional requirements: (1) the court determines the defendant has pleaded facts sufficient to show there is a reasonable probability that the unknown person’s act was criminal, (2) the defendant stated in the answer all known identifying characteristics of the unknown person, and (3) the allegation satisfies the pleading requirements of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.
In this case, the Texas Supreme Court found that Houston Distributing failed to satisfy the predicate requirement. Specifically, the amended answer was not filed within 60 days of the original answer; it was filed more than two years and eight months later and did not contain allegations about an “unknown” responsible third party. Additionally, the amended answer failed to contain allegations that John Doe committed a criminal act or any identifying characteristics of John Doe.
Houston Distributing also argued that Section 33.004(j) is not the exclusive means for designating an unknown person as a responsible third party. However, the Supreme Court of Texas disagreed noting both that Section 33.004(j) is the only statutory provision that addresses requirements for designation of an “unknown” person as a responsible third party and that Section 33.004(j) expressly provides that it applies notwithstanding any other provision.
Because the Court found that Houston Distributing failed to timely and adequately comply with the pleading requirements under Section 33.004(j), the Court concluded that the trial court abused its discretion in granting leave to designate John Doe as an unknown responsible third party.
Additionally, because the Court found that no adequate remedy by appeal exists to protect the plaintiff’s right not to have to try the case against an empty chair when the trial court erroneously grants a defendant’s late motion for leave to designate a time-barred responsible third party, the Court confirmed that this was an appropriate case in which to grant mandamus relief.