Last week the Texas Supreme Court issued a temporary stay of a Harris County trial court order compelling Kia Motors America to produce reams of documents of questionable relevance to the plaintiff’s product liability claim against the company. In Re Kia Motors America, Inc. (No. 22-0181) arose from an accident in which the plaintiff was injured when she allegedly lost control of her vehicle and collided with a pillar. The plaintiff claimed that her airbag and seatbelt pretensioners partially only partially deployed, causing her injuries. Plaintiff served 38 discovery requests on Kia America, which objected to 21 of them on the basis that Kia America did not possess some of the documents and that requests for others were overbroad and irrelevant to the product defect complained of. The trial court overruled Kia’s objections and ordered Kia to produce all of the requested documents. Kia filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the Houston [14th] Court of Appeals and requested a stay of the order. Over the dissent of Chief Justice Tracy Christopher, the court of appeals denied the stay but did not rule on the petition. Kia requested a stay from the trial court pending a ruling on the petition, which the court denied. Kia went back to the court of appeals, which again denied the stay and also the petition. Kia then filed a petition for writ of mandamus and emergency stay in SCOTX.

SCOTX granted emergency relief, pending consideration of the petition. At issue is whether the trial court abused its discretion in ordering discovery of documents: (1) not in the possession or control of Kia Motors; (2) relating to recalls of all Kia models, even though Kia presented evidence and expert testimony that the airbag and seatbelt pretensioner systems were model-specific and not interchangeable; (3) relating to the recalls even though each of them involved the total failure of the airbag to deploy, not a partial deployment as the plaintiff claimed (the plaintiff’s vehicle data indicated that her airbag fully deployed); (4) and relating to any type of accident involving a recalled vehicle, not just the type of accident at issue in the litigation. Kia also challenges the production of all marketing literature and advertising in all Kia models under recall, as well as all documents generated from the time Kia America learned of a potential problem with the airbag or seatbelt pretensioner system, regardless of which dealership produced or distributed the materials and whether the plaintiff could possibly have seen any of the information.

The petition implicates two primary issues: (1) can a defendant be compelled to produce documents that are in the possession and control of related entities not named in the lawsuit, in this case Kia Korea, which designed the systems, and Kia Georgia, which manufactured them; and (2) is the scope of the discovery requests overbroad and the requested discovery relating to dissimilar products and accident types relevant to the specific product and type of accident in this case? The record also indicates that the plaintiff offered no expert testimony or specific basis for seeking such broad discovery, simply asserting that all Kia models subject to recall had the same problem.

While discovery disputes such as this are fairly common, this one resonates because, at least on the face of the petition, a trial court ordered it without any substantive reason and one of the best appellate justices in the state, Tracy Christopher, saw something wrong with that. We will certainly keep an eye on it.

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