The Supreme Court of Texas has clarified mandamus law in dominant-jurisdiction plea-in-abatement cases, abrogating and tidying up some of its prior opinions along the way.

In re J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc.
Supreme Court of Texas (May 27, 2016)
Justice Willett (Opinion)

A J.B. Hunt tractor-trailer struck a small SUV in Waller County. Both vehicles were damaged; the SUV’s occupants were seriously injured, and one ultimately died. While the SUV’s occupants were still in the hospital, J.B. Hunt filed suit against the SUV’s owners and its occupants in Waller County for property damage to its tractor-trailer. Hunt’s attorney made several attempts to have the other parties’ counsel accept service, rather than serving them in the hospital, and outlined steps needed to secure and preserve evidence. Unsuccessful in these efforts, Hunt served the defendants. Meanwhile, however, the SUV’s occupants and owners filed suit against J.B. Hunt and its driver in Dallas.

Both sides filed pleas in abatement, each claiming dominant jurisdiction. The Dallas court ruled first, denying J.B. Hunt’s plea in abatement based on a perceived equitable exception to the “first-filed” rule. The Waller County court rejected the argument that any exception to the first-filed rule applied, but abated its case pending the outcome of mandamus proceedings from the Dallas court’s decision.

The Dallas Court of Appeals summarily rejected J.B. Hunt’s mandamus application. But the Texas Supreme Court disagreed, granting mandamus relief to J.B. Hunt, finding no exception on these facts to the “default rule” that “when two suits are inherently interrelated, ‘a plea in abatement in the second action must be granted.’” In so ruling, the Court clarified the law in this area in three ways.

First, the Court noted that the initial step in analyzing a plea in abatement in such cases is to determine whether there really is a dominant-jurisdiction question—i.e., whether “an inherent interrelation of the subject matter exists in two pending lawsuits.” In a prior decision, Wyatt v. Shaw Plumbing, the Supreme Court had applied the compulsory counterclaim rule to this determination. But, the Court said, there were “mistakes” in the Wyatt opinion’s formulation of that rule. Most importantly, Wyatt had said the rule applied to a related claim that “is not at the time of filing the answer the subject of a pending action.” This, the Court explained, focused on the wrong point in the proceedings and opened the door to gamesmanship. Instead, “a counterclaim is compulsory if, in addition to Rule 97(a)’s other requirements, it was not the subject of a pending action when the original suit was commenced.”

Second, after dismissing the argument that J.B. Hunt had not diligently pursued its Waller County action, the Court rejected the SUV occupants’ claims that the “inequitable-conduct exception” applied here to estop J.B. Hunt from relying on the Waller County suit to bar the later Dallas action. While it questioned whether J.B. Hunt had even engaged in any inequitable conduct, the Court found that nothing Hunt had done had caused the SUV occupants to delay in filing their lawsuit. Because “there is no prejudice, … there is no harm to remedy,” inequitable conduct or not.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the Supreme Court expressly abrogated its prior decision in Abor v. Black, which had prohibited mandamus relief in plea-in-abatement cases in the absence of some circumstance in which one court “‘actively interferes with the exercise of jurisdiction’ in the other court” —e.g., overlapping trial dates or an injunction or order from one court purporting to prohibit the other court from acting. After Abor, the Supreme Court “revisited the contours of mandamus relief in In re Prudential Insurance” and embraced a balancing test for the availability of such relief. Lower courts had split over whether Prudential displaced Abor. In J.B. Hunt, the Supreme Court confirmed that “Prudential indeed abrogates Abor’s inflexible understanding.” Therefore, “a relator need only establish a trial court’s abuse of discretion with regard to a plea in abatement in a dominant-jurisdiction case.”