The Texas Supreme Court recently reversed a decision by the Houston Fourteenth District Court of Appeals, which held harmless the trial court’s admission of evidence related to the defendant’s wealth. Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co. v. Sevcik, No. 06-0422, 2008 Tex. LEXIS 861 (Tex. Sept. 26, 2008).
In Reliance, a truck driven by a Reliance employee rear-ended the plaintiffs’ vehicle resulting in severe injuries to the plaintiffs. During trial, the plaintiffs offered deposition testimony approximating Reliance’s annual sales at $1.9 billion. After a four-day trial, the jury awarded the plaintiffs over $3 million in compensatory damages.
On appeal, the Supreme Court found that the jury’s award of damages substantially exceeded the amount supported by the evidence adduced at trial. Accordingly, the Court determined that the admission of evidence of Reliance’s wealth was harmful error.
In reaching its decision, the Court rejected the following arguments presented by the plaintiffs: (1) the verdict was not inflated because the jury awarded them only half of what they requested in closing argument; and (2) evidence of Reliance’s wealth was harmless because it was mentioned only once. In addition, the Court made the following findings in support of its decision: (1) the impressive amount of the wealth made harm more likely to occur than would a substantially lesser amount; and (2) the admission of the evidence was not inadvertent, but an intentional offering by the plaintiffs. With respect to the latter issue, the Court implied in dicta that an inquiry into the offeror’s intent will be subject to stricter scrutiny when the evidence involves issues like race, religion, gender, and wealth.
The Court ultimately reversed the decision of the court of appeals and remanded the case for a new trial.