Traditionally, Texas trial court judges have enjoyed a virtually unlimited power to order new trials “in the interest of justice.” The Texas appellate courts have refused to review almost all new trial orders. This has led to the suspicion that some judges were abusing the new trial procedure to ensure that favored litigants received multiple chances to get a favorable result.
In a 2009 opinion, the Texas Supreme Court held that a trial court must provide specific reasons why it has set aside a jury verdict and granted a new trial. The court stopped short, however, of holding that the grounds upon which the trial court granted new trial are reviewable.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision in In re Toyota Motor Sales has finally opened the door to merits review of new trial orders. The trial court had granted a motion for new trial following a defense verdict in a product liability case. It found that defense counsel had violated a motion in limine by mentioning certain evidence in the closing argument and that the violation had incurably tainted the trial. The trial court’s new order complied with the Supreme Court’s prior procedural directives, giving the specific reasons for its actions. The record demonstrated, however, that the evidence referred to had actually been introduced by the plaintiff’s counsel and thus was fair game for closing argument.
The Supreme Court found that procedural compliance is not enough. The court reasoned that merely requiring the trial court to state a reason was insufficient when the stated rationale is contradicted by the record. The reason given must not only be specific; it must be accurate as well. “Transparency without accountability is meaningless.” Where, as in Toyota Motor Sales, the record contradicts the stated rationale, a new trial order overturning a jury verdict is reversible through the writ of mandamus process.
The ramifications of Toyota Motor Sales are profound. The opinion enhances the power of juries at the expense of trial judges and assures that a party’s right to a jury trial cannot casually be cast aside. It may substantially add to the workload of the already overburdened courts of appeal. As the concurring opinion of Justice Lehrmann observed, however, the trial court still retains considerable discretion in determining motions for new trial. The substantive standards for granting such motions remain broad, and instances where outright error is apparent from the record may be rare.
Still, there is little to be said for any procedure that vests unfettered, unreviewable discretion to any part of the justice system, especially where the exercise of such discretion threatens a litigant’s right to trial by jury. The Texas Supreme Court’s decision represents a welcome step toward judicial accountability.