Standards for evaluating non-economic damages – like those for pain and suffering – may soon be changing in Texas. The Texas Supreme Court is currently poised to clarify or revise the standards for proving and reviewing non-economic damages in two personal injury cases pending appeal: Gregory v. Chohan and United Rentals v. Evans.
Practitioners and clients alike should closely follow these cases and be prepared to reassess the potential risks and benefits of seeking or defending against such damages at trial and on appeal in the wake of the impending decisions.
Tragic Accidents, Record Jury Verdicts
In Gregory, a jury awarded more than $15 million for surviving family members’ mental anguish and loss of companionship in a wrongful-death case stemming from a series of deadly multi-vehicle collisions on black ice.
In United Rentals, a jury awarded $5 million for the decedent’s pain and mental anguish in a wrongful-death case involving a split-second accident by which a tractor-trailer carrying a too-tall boom lift collided with an overpass and caused massive concrete beams to fall on a nearby truck, crushing its driver.
In both cases, the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas affirmed the award with dissenting opinions asking the Texas Supreme Court for guidance on how to assess excessiveness for non-economic damages awards. The Texas Supreme Court heard oral argument in United Rentals on November 30, 2022, and heard oral argument in Gregory on January 31, 2023.
For mental anguish, the Texas Supreme Court has long required a finding of mental anguish to be supported with either direct evidence of the “nature, duration, or severity” of the anguish, or other evidence of a “high degree of mental pain and distress” that is “more than mere worry, anxiety, vexation, embarrassment, or anger.”
However, the Texas Supreme Court has never addressed whether to apply this standard to evaluate the amount of damages awarded for mental anguish as opposed to the fact of it, or articulated how the courts of appeals must conduct a “meaningful review” of similar non-economic damages awards generally. Most notably, some advocates have proposed that Texas courts be required to reference the amount of damages awarded in similar cases for similar injuries to determine whether a particular damages award can be affirmed.
The Texas Supreme Court is likely to provide new guidance about what evidence or metrics must support a non-economic damages award, and how such awards must be reviewed on appeal.