In re Juan Esparza (No. 08-23-00256-CV; April 26, 2024) arose from a personal-injury lawsuit in which Esparza alleged that he was seriously injured when a Coastal Transport Co. tanker truck struck another vehicle, which in turn struck his vehicle. The case has a long and complicated procedural history that resulted in Esparza’s petition for writ of mandamus to compel the trial court to reopen a scheduling order to allow him to designate additional testifying experts. Pursuant to the initial scheduling order, Esparza had to designate all testifying witnesses by May 20, 2022, which Coastal’s deadline set a month later. These deadlines were to remain in effect until the trial date, August 19, 2022. The trial was reset until November 2022 and commenced as scheduled. As Plaintiff’s counsel prepared to call Esparza’s treating neurosurgeon, Coastal’s counsel sought a bench conference on the admission of medical records. Both sides alleged that the other had not timely served the other with records they sought to enter into evidence, and defense counsel further informed the court he intended to impeach Plaintiff’s neurosurgeon by asking about a series of prior lawsuits and disciplinary actions. This blew everything up, as Plaintiff’s counsel accused defense counsel of a conflict-of-interest because the counsel’s partner had previously represented the neurosurgeon. Defense counsel then moved for a mistrial, which the trial court eventually granted.

During the period between the mistrial and setting a new trial date, Plaintiff filed supplementary discovery answers and sought supplemental expert witness designations on causation and damages, including a life care plan expert and an economist to testify on future damages. This move set off another flurry of activity in which the parties squared off on a new scheduling order. The trial court set a new trial for May 10, 2024, with a deadline for completing discovery a month before trial. When the parties couldn’t agree on appropriate deadlines, including one for the desgination of new experts, Plaintiff filed a proposed schedule. Coastal objected, arguing that the trial court had closed all discovery as of the date of the mistrial and there was no reason to re-open it now. The court eventually entered a new scheduling order allowing designation of only one additional expert, as well as the defense’s rebuttal expert. Plaintiff sought mandamus relief.

In an opinion by Justice Palafox, the court of appeals conditionally granted the writ. Plaintiff argued that as a result of the mistrial, no scheduling order existed when he designated his supplemental experts. Thus the trial court abused its discretion when it denied his suggested expert designation date in June 2023. Coastal countered that the mistrial left the original scheduling order in place, which was reasonable given the amount of time and resources already spent on the litigation to get it to trial the first time. The court, however, disagreed with Coastal. When the trial court granted a mistrial and before it set a new trial date, the case stayed on the court’s docket “as if had not been tried” (citations omitted). When the trial court set the new date in May 2024, it also closed discovery a month prior and left the deadline for designation additional experts open. But when the parties couldn’t agree on a new date, the trial court reverted to the original scheduling order. The court concluded that this was an abuse of discretion because  “the date was backwards-facing and not tailored to the circumstances of the case.” The court went on to find that Plaintiff did not have an adequate remedy by appeal because its supplemental experts were necessary to prove casuation and damages in connection with Plaintiff’s alleged traumatic brain injury. Although Coastal argued that Plaintiff’s previously designated experts were more than sufficient, the court, pointing to Coastal’s intention to impeach Plaintiff’s treating neurosurgeon, sided with Plaintiff.

You may be wondering why we noticed this case and thought it worthwhile to bring to your attention. We’re glad you asked. First, it involves a discovery dispute in a commercial trucking case with the apparent potential for a very large award of non-economic damages. Second, the mistrial occurred when the case was well into trial, indicating that at least in November of 2022, there was plenty of discovery upon which to proceed. Third, the case raises the question of whether the court of appeals reached the correct conclusion and whether its decision effectively blew up the defense’s case. What troubles us most is the following statement in the court’s opinion:

[Plaintiff] argues that Coastal’s impeachment plan will turn his case into one that is overly focused on his treating doctor, not on a developed record of the state of his injuries and conditions. For this reason, Esparza contends his case would be significantly compromised if he were not able to rely on other experts to refocus the case to matters directly relevant to his condition. We agree with Esparza.

Wait a minute. This language smacks of a court of appeals intervening directly in the parties’ litigation strategy and giving one side an advantage it would not have otherwise had if it hadn’t raised a stink about the defense’s impeachment evidence in the first place. The defense pointed out that the trial court, when it granted the mistrial, made it clear to the parties that a bunch of time and money had already been spent on discovery and that it didn’t want any more depositions. That the court didn’t want to let in a bunch of new experts after the fact hardly seems to constitute a “clear abuse of discretion.” In any event, the case will undoubtedly drag through another long round of delay while the new experts are deposed and the inevitable evidentiary disputes hashed out. This is exactly what the trial court wanted to avoid.


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