The case I blog about today reminds us of why it’s so critical to pay attention to appellate judgments. As appellate practitioners, too often the first and only thing we study closely is the opinion, and errors in the appellate judgment go unnoticed. To understand what happened here, I will start with a bit of history of the case.
In August of 2008, the Texas Supreme Court issued an opinion in Columbia Medical Center of Las Colinas, Inc. v. Hogue, in which the Court "affirm[ed] the award of actual damages and gross negligence damages", but "reverse[ed] the portion of the judgment awarding loss of inheritance damages." The court’s majority opinion may be found at this link. Apparently, the judgment issued the same day simply stated that the portion of the court of appeals’ judgment awarding loss of inheritance damages is reversed and the remaining portions of the court of appeals’ judgment were affirmed. In short, the court rendered judgment and did not remand the case. The Court’s online docket shows Columbia filed a motion for rehearing, but there’s no indication what complaints were made.
After the court of appeals mandate issued, a dispute arose between the parties regarding the (now affirmed) award of gross negligence damages. Columbia argued that because the actual damages had been reduced, Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code Section 41.008(b) required reduction of the punitive damages as well.
In February of 2009, Columbia filed a motion with the Texas Supreme Court asking that the Court modify the mandate to reflect that punitive damages must be reduced (per statute). The court denied the motion over a dissent authored by Justice Wainright (joined by Justices Hecht and Brister). The dissent may be found at this link.
Then, in September of 2009, Columbia sought mandamus relief to compel the trial court to (further modify the final judgment) "to reduce the [affirmed] punitive damage award in compliance with the statutory cap." By per curiam opinion, the Texas Supreme Court held that the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to reduce the punitive damage award. Stating that punitive damage awards that are statutorily capped are required to be recalculated when the actual damages against which they are measured are reduced on appeal, the court frames the question as whether its judgment had the effect of reducing the punitive damages award. The court also observes that it has jurisdiction to enforce its judgments by mandamus. Then the court acknowledges that its "judgment did not expressly address the amount of punitive damages" but asserts that the reduction was required by statute. The court then holds "to give full effect to our judgment vacating a portion of the economic damages, the trial court was requred to reduce the punitive damages award in compliance with the statutory cap. By failing to do so, the trial court abused its discretion." The opinion may be found here.
The court’s opinion does not indicate whether Columbia sought a reduction of punitive damages in its original trip to the court in the event that the actual damages were reduced. The opinion also does not indicate whether Columbia sought to modify the judgment when Columbia filed its motion for rehearing. One question I have in the wake of this opinion is what other instances in which statutory law may require a reduction of damages can a party assert that the trial court must modify an affirmed final judgment. Perhaps the same argument could be made for prejudgment interest or post-judgment interest. One must wonder if trial courts will know when they’ve abused their discretion and when they have not abused their discretion. One must wonder if a final judgment really is final after it has been rendered by the Texas Supreme Court.