Texas Supreme Court Rejects Arbitrary Approach to Noneconomic Damages and Overturns $16.8M Jury Award

by: Nadia I. Gire

On June 16, 2023, the Supreme Court of Texas issued a significant ruling in Gregory v. Chohan, No. 21-0017 with respect to judicial review of noneconomic damages. In doing so, the Court reversed a jury’s award of approximately $15 million in past and future mental anguish and loss-of-companionship damages to the family members of the deceased.

In this case, the widow of a truck driver, individually and on behalf of their children, parents and trucker’s estate, brought a wrongful death action against driver of a truck that blocked the interstate, allegedly causing a multi-vehicle accident at which trucker was killed while outside his truck and his employer.

Following a jury trial, the County Court at Law No. 5, Dallas County, entered a judgment against driver and employer and awarding approximately $16.8 million to widow, children, estate, and parents. The Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed the decision following appeal, and the driver and employer petitioned for review.

The Court applied a principle combining the existence of damage with evidence to justify the award in the content of a wrongful death claim holding: “To guard against arbitrary outcomes and to ensure that damages awards are genuinely compensatory, the plaintiff in a wrongful death case should be required to demonstrate a rational connection, grounded in the evidence, between the injuries suffered and the dollar amount awarded.” Gregory v. Chohan, No. 21-0017, 2023 WL 4035886, at *1 (Tex. June 16, 2023).

The plurality emphasized that plaintiffs’ counsel failed to provide a rational argument justifying the amount sought or awarded. Improper appeals to irrelevant considerations, such as fighter jets and the defendant’s total miles driven, were presented during the trial. The plaintiffs’ approach on appeal—that as long as the jury is properly instructed and no improper motive is evident, they can essentially “pick a number and put it in the blank”—is precisely the kind of arbitrariness the Court’s precedent seeks to avoid. Evidence justifying the amount awarded is required.

This decision carries hefty implications, as established by Justice Blacklock’s plurality opinion, joined by Justice Bland’s concurrence. The plurality concluded that while evidence supported the existence of mental anguish and loss of companionship, there was no independent evidence supporting the specific amount of damages awarded. At this time, the exact standard for reviewing noneconomic damages is yet to be determined. In fact, Justice Bland expressed that such standard would be best left for another case. As applicable to today’s cases, attorneys should be certain to create a link between facts and noneconomic damages during trial.

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