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Civil Litigation No. 02-0443, 4/24/2003. Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS: In this medical negligence case, the parties appealed portions of the trial court’s judgment following a jury trial. The jury found the defendant Spohn Health System Corp. d/b/a Spohn Hospital liable and awarded damages to the plaintiffs, Karen Mayer and Sandra Hilbrich, individually and as representatives of the estate of their deceased father, Raymond Hilbrich. Spohn argued on appeal that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding pre-judgment interest such that the damages award exceeded the limits of the statutory cap and in ordering as discovery sanctions that certain facts be taken as true at trial. Mayer and Hilbrich asserted on appeal that the Stowersdoctrine made the statutory cap limiting the damages award in medical negligence cases inapplicable. The Court of Appeals did not reach plaintiffs’ statutory cap argument, reversed the award of pre-judgment interest and affirmed the judgment as modified. HOLDING: Reversed and remanded to the trial court. In TransAmerican Natural Gas Corp. v. Powell, 811 S.W.2d 913 (Tex. 1991), this court defined the requirements for discovery sanctions to be “just” under Texas Rules of Civil Procedure 215(2)(b)(5) and 215(3), which were in effect at that time. Because the relevant language in the revised Rule 215.2(b) and in the prior Rule 215(2)(b) is identical, the court applies the tenets of TransAmerican. TransAmericanset out a two-part test for determining whether a particular sanction is just. First, there must be a direct nexus among the offensive conduct, the offender, and the sanction imposed. A just sanction must be directed against the abuse and toward remedying the prejudice caused to the innocent party and the sanction should be visited upon the offender. The trial court must attempt to determine whether the offensive conduct is attributable to counsel only, to the party only, or to both. Second, just sanctions must not be excessive. In other words, a sanction imposed for discovery abuse should be no more severe than necessary to satisfy its legitimate purposes, which include securing compliance with discovery rules, deterring other litigants from similar misconduct, and punishing violators. Courts must consider less stringent sanctions and whether such lesser sanctions would fully promote compliance. The court reiterates that “[c]ase determinative sanctions may be imposed in the first instance only in exceptional cases when they are clearly justified and it is fully apparent that no lesser sanctions would promote compliance with the rules.” GTE Communications Sys. Corp. v. Tanner, 856 S.W.2d 725 (Tex. 1993). This is not an exceptional case. Spohn contends that the sanctions imposed were not “just” because a direct nexus did not exist between the alleged offensive conduct and the sanctions. Spohn argues that the sanctions were not directed against the purported abuse and toward remedying any prejudice caused to the plaintiffs. Rather, Spohn asserts, the sanctions gave the plaintiffs an overwhelming and unwarranted advantage at trial by having crucial facts deemed established without offering any evidence in support of them. Mayer and Hilbrich argue that the sanctions were a just and measured response to the specific harm caused to an innocent party by Spohn’s discovery abuse. They further assert that Spohn was not prevented from offering to the jury alternative explanations for Mr. Hilbrich’s death. Mayer and Hilbrich contend that the sanctions order did not establish all the elements of their suit because other witnesses were required to testify that the conduct described in the established facts violated the applicable standard of care. Instead, Mayer and Hilbrich argue that the sanctions simply prevented the jury from rejecting the established facts. The court agrees with Spohn that the trial court did not adhere to either prong of the TransAmericantest. The first prong requires a direct nexus among the conduct, the offender and the sanction imposed. Although the sanctions were generally “directed against” the alleged abuse, the record contains no evidence that the sanctions were “visited on the offender.” In fact, neither the trial court nor the court of appeals discusses whether counsel or their clients were responsible for the discovery abuse. The second prong of TransAmericanmandates that the trial court consider less stringent measures before settling on severe sanctions. This court has noted that the record should contain some explanation of the appropriateness of the sanctions imposed. In this case, the record is silent regarding the consideration and effectiveness of less stringent sanctions. Discovery sanctions that are so severe as to inhibit presentation of the merits of a case should be reserved to address a party’s flagrant bad faith or counsel’s callous disregard for the responsibilities of discovery under the rules. TransAmerican, 811 S.W.2d at 918. Sanctions such as the one imposed here are the type which inhibit the presentation of a party’s claim. See Braden v. Downey, 811 S.W.2d 922, 929 (Tex. 1991). The trial court’s order states that the sanctions were imposed because of “Spohn’s late production of witness statements in response to a Request for Disclosure.” This is insufficient to justify the severity of the sanctions imposed. They were excessive. Therefore, since the trial court did not comply with the required procedural and substantive standards in imposing sanctions, the court holds that the trial court abused its discretion in ordering that the specified portions of the witness statements be taken as established facts at trial. The trial court’s abuse of discretion resulted in harmful error. The trial court instructed the jury to take the substance of the witness statements as established facts, and the jury was not at liberty to disbelieve them. The record in this case shows that the facts “established” by the court’s order were quite effective before the jury and likely determinative. Before the presentation of evidence, the judge read the instructions from the order to the jury. Plaintiffs’ counsel used the trial court’s instruction during voir dire to question potential jurors on their ability to “accept” the court’s instructions, during opening statement to emphasize that the hospital “failed in its duty” by ignoring Mr. Hilbrich when he called four times for help, during testimony of their expert to challenge the assertion that the hospital had met the standard of care, and during closing argument to assert that Spohn was inviting the jury to “violate the instructions that Her Honor” had given them. In addition, the court’s instruction misstated facts from Silva’s written statement. Silva did not indicate that no physician had given the order to restrain Mr. Hilbrich in a Posey vest. She simply stated that it “never occurred to her” that she had not written the physician’s order. The trial court thus ordered the jury to accept an important fact in Silva’s statement as true, when the fact was not in her statement at all. Further, a review of the record reveals no other evidence admitted at trial regarding the specific events from Schmidt’s statement that were the subject of the court’s order. Rather, according to Spohn’s bills of exceptions, two witnesses – both of whom were nurses on duty the night of Mr. Hilbrich’s death – would have given testimony contrary to Schmidt’s. Even if admitted, the jury would have been unable to believe the two nurses’ testimony and also comply with the trial court’s instruction to presume the veracity of the established facts. The statements at issue essentially proved that Spohn breached its duty to Mr. Hilbrich. The court concludes that the instructions regarding the established facts probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment. OPINION: Per curiam.

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