Monthly Archives: June 2011

2005 – RadioShack / Circuit City Brand Dispute

When Circuit City purchased InterTan, RadioShack’s former Canadian subsidiary, it continued to operate the InterTan stores under the RadioShack name.  RadioShack, concerned that its brand in Canada would be controlled by its competitor at home, sought a temporary injunction in the 352nd District Court of Texas, asking that Judge Bonnie Sudderth temporarily halt the practice.  At the time the lawsuit was filed, InterTan operated 500 RadioShack stores and 340 RadioShack dealerships in Canada.

RadioShack had terminated its licensing, advertising and merchandising agreements with InterTan a year before, but InterTan argued that such agreements didn’t expire until 2010.  Judge Bonnie Sudderth disagreed, and at the temporary injunction hearing she determined that RadioShack had not wrongfully terminated the agreements with InterTan.  Judge Sudderth also ordered Circuit City to stop using the RadioShack brand name on products in the Canadian stores that it had acquired.  Although her order was issued on March 24, 2005, it would not be effective until approximately three months later, on July 1, 2005. 

Circuit City, who offered no reason for wanting to keep the RadioShack brand name in Canada, indicated that it would appeal the decision.  A spokesman for Circuit City commented that the electronics store intended to “use every means of relief possible” to exercise its rights under the agreements, “including all appeal rights.”  No appeal was filed, however, and some time thereafter the companies entered into settlement negotiations.

Judge Sudderth’s ruling effectively ended InterTan’s affiliation with RadioShack, and arguably allowed for the possibility of RadioShack opening its own stores in Canada at some later date.  Approximately one year after her ruling, the parties submitted to Judge Sudderth an agreed stipulation, indicating that the companies had settled their differences.  Judge Sudderth later signed an order of dismissal, ending the litigation.

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2001 – Railroad Collision and the Missing Signal Post

In 1993, a veteran lead engineer was operating a train in heavy fog when he spotted a red stop light at an approaching intersection with another rail line.  Using an emergency braking maneuver, he managed to stop the lead engine a few feet into the crossing.  Seconds later, an approaching train collided nearly head-on into the stopped train, causing the engineer’s death and serious injuries to other crew members.  One year later, a lawsuit was filed by the engineer’s estate and family members, who claimed that a faulty positioned and unlit distance signal which, if visible, would have warned of the approaching intersection, caused the collision.

Seven years later, in 2000, the case went to trial in the 342nd District Court.  In the interim, both sides had inspected the scene of the collision, including the distance signal and had videotaped the signal as they rode a train over the tracks while the signal was in place.  But by the time of trial, for unknown reasons the actual signal post had been taken from the accident scene; it was missing and could not be found. 

At trial, the railroad’s attorneys used a “typical” distance signal that had been pieced together from other used signals as a demonstrative aid.  This exhibit was different from the original signal - it had newer equipment and a more powerful light bulb.  Its surface had also been wiped clean before it had been brought into the courtroom.  When the judge learned of this, he accused the railroad’s attorneys of altering evidence, declared a mistrial, imposed a $10,000 fine against the railroad’s attorney personally and levied a $10,000,000 fine against the railroad.  Several days later, however, without explanation, the judge set aside the fines and recused himself from presiding any further over the case.

Shortly thereafter, the Presiding Regional Judge assigned the case to Judge Bonnie Sudderth of the 352nd District Court.  Prior to retrial of the case, plaintiffs sought to have the sanctions reinstated.  Judge Sudderth denied the request, finding that nothing in the record showed that the railroad had tried to pass off the exhibit as something that it wasn’t.  “It seems abundantly clear that everyone in the courtroom – the judge, the attorneys, the witness and the jury – knew that the signal was a demonstrative aid, and nothing more.”  The signal, Judge Sudderth ruling against the sanctions motion, could have been “run through a car wash” with no harm, since everyone in the courtroom was aware that it was an exemplar, not the original signal.  However, the judge did find that by failing to preserve such a critical piece of evidence, the railroad had “negligently destroyed” it, and Judge Sudderth gave the jury a spoliation instruction that they could “presume that the destroyed signal was unfavorable” to the railroad’s position in the lawsuit.

Less than a year later, it was tried again to a jury, who found no negligence on the part of the railway or the engineer at the time of the collision.  (The National Transportation Safety Board had also investigated the incident and found no fault on the part of the railroad or any of its crew members.)  The jury’s verdict was not appealed, and the parties later reached a confidential financial settlement to  finally put the matter to rest.

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1998 – HMO Class Action Lawsuit

Four hundred Tarrant County doctors filed a class action lawsuit against Harris HMO, alleging that the physician payment system in its plan violated Texas insurance laws.  In the lawsuit, which was filed in the 352nd District Court, the physicians asked Judge Bonnie Sudderth to issue a temporary injunction preventing the HMO from enforcing monetary penalties against doctors who overspent their budget in issuing prescriptions to patients. 

The law in Texas at the time the case was filed provided that managed care entities could not establish physician payment systems which created financial incentives to limit medically necessary care to patients.

At the temporary injunction hearing, the undisputed evidence established that physicians who spent less than budgeted amounts received bonuses from the HMO, while doctors who exceeded their budgets were penalized.  At that point in time, the HMO had imposed millions of dollars in fines against the physicians who had exceeded established budgets.  The doctors argued that they shouldn’t be forced to choose between their bottom lines and their patients’  best interests. 

In issuing the requested injunction, Judge Sudderth found that the HMO’s practices resulted in the denial of medically necessary care to patients.  “These denials include circumstances of cherry-picking, patient-dumping … and outright denials of treatment, referrals and prescriptions,” Judge Sudderth explained, in ruling in favor of the requested injunction. 

A few months later, the Texas Insurance Department levied an $800,000 fine against the HMO for violations of state insurance regulations that prohibit health plans from using financial incentives to encourage doctors to withhold medically necessary care.  Shortly thereafter, the HMO announced its plan to do away with the caps on prescription spending in physician contracts and to compensate the doctors who had been fined for exceeding their budgets.  Within a few days of this announcement, the parties entered into settlement negotiations which resulted in the eventual settlement of the lawsuit.

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1999 – Parvin vs. Dean: Lawsuit for Death of Unborn Child

Judge Bonnie Sudderth granted summary judgment in favor of parents who suffered the death of their unborn child as the result of a car accident, on the following facts:  The mother of the child was struck by another vehicle while driving through an intersection.  The other driver stipulated that he was negligent in causing the collision and the woman was not at fault. 

Immediately after the collision, the woman, who was 9-months pregnant at the time, felt her baby kicking in the womb.  Although her water did not break and she had no bleeding, an ambulance took her from the accident scene to a hospital as a precautionary measure.  Her unborn child died in the womb en route to the hospital. 

The next day, knowing that her child was no longer alive and with her husband by her side, she endured more than nine hours of labor to deliver her stillborn daughter.  The undisputed medical evidence proved that the child was fully developed, viable and could have lived outside the womb immediately before the collision, she had the capacity to cry at the time of the collision, she was alive at the time of the collision but survived only for a short period of time thereafter, and, finally, that the collision was the cause of the child’s death.

 The law at the time this case was filed in the 352nd District Cout was that while Texas parents could recover for the wrongful death of a child who died only moments after birth, parents could not sue for the wrongful death for a child who was not born alive.  The law also provided that while the mother could recover for her own mental anguish due to the death of her daughter, the father could not recover for his mental anguish.

Judge Sudderth granted summary judgment, ruling that a viable unborn child was an “individual” within the scope of the Wrongful Death Act, and should not be excluded under the statute because she was not born alive.  Judge Sudderth also ruled that the father was entitled to the same rights as a mother to recover mental anguish damages for the loss of his child.

Judge Sudderth’s decision was appealed to the Second Court of Appeals, who, sitting en banc, upheld Judge Sudderth’s ruling.  Justice Dixon Holman authored the opinion, which can be found at:  Parvin v. Dean, 7 S.W.3d 264 (Tex. App. – Ft  Worth 1999).  In a subsequent unrelated case, the Texas Supreme Court criticized the Parvin v. Dean decision, but shortly thereafter the Texas Legislature amended the statute to codify this result.

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2004 – Class Action Lawsuit Regarding Edna Gladney Adoption Files

Lee and Carolyn Williams of Fort Worth won an early victory in the lawsuit they filed in the 352nd District Court against the Gladney Center for Adoption when State District Judge Bonnie Sudderth ordered that the Center release approximately 800 pages of medical records related to the birth mother of their adoptive daughter.  However, when the parents sought to certify their lawsuit as a class action, arguing that Gladney should be forced to open up medical and psychological records for 4,000 other adoptions which dated back to the mid-1970’s, Judge Sudderth disagreed.

The parents, after experiencing years of troubling behavior by their daughter, starting with fitful sleeping and incessant crying as a baby and developing into serious misbehavior at school, including biting and fighting, initially sought medical and psychological information about the birth mother from the Gladney Center in order to obtain more effective medical treatment for their daughter, who was later diagnosed with depression and attention deficit disorder.  The Center responded that these records were unavailable due to confidentiality.

When, at age 12, she pulled a kitchen knife on her mother, the parents sought legal counsel to help them try once again to find out more about her genetic history.  Although the Center reiterated that the birth mother had refused permission for the release most of the information they sought, it did provide some new information about family medical history, including cancer, alcoholism and “mental problems” in general.

The parents continued seeking treatment for their daughter, who despite these problems, graduated from high school in just three years, from college in another three years, eventually earning a Master’s Degree in accounting for the Universityof North Texas.  Even with her high academic achievement, her parents contended that because of her behavioral problems, she couldn’t keep a job.  By this time, the parents had filed their lawsuit in the 352nd District Court, claiming that the Gladney center had violated state law by withholding information from them.  They requested that  Judge Bonnie Sudderth force the GladneyCenter to not only release the information they sought but also to release similar information regarding all adoptions from 1975-1989.

Gladney responded that because the birth mothers in many of the adoptions during this time period had been promised strict confidentiality at the time, they would not voluntarily release this information.  They cited state laws which required them to maintain the confidentiality of the records and argued that recent laws which opened up some records didn’t apply to adoptions which had happened years earlier.  Gladney essentially took the position that existing law tied their hands.

The Williams’ daughter was adopted under a “closed” adoption system, which means that the birth parents and adoptive parents remained unknown to each other, and at the time of her adoption the existing state laws were stringent, making access to adoption records virtually impossible to obtain.  By the 1980s, however, the adoption laws in Texas began to relax, allowing adoptive parents to obtain some health, social, educational and genetic background information, but still requiring that information which would reveal the identity of the birth parents remained withheld.  

In 2003, Judge Bonnie Sudderth ordered the Gladney Centerto turn over this information to the Williams family.  However, when the Williams’ sought class action certification of their lawsuit, which would have required that all Gladney Center birth parents from 1975-1989 receive notification of the court proceedings and their right to participate in them, Judge Sudderth refused.  If successful, the class action lawsuit would have resulted in the automatic opening of records for all adoptive parents during that time period. 

The Gladney Center fiercely resisted these efforts, pointing out that if the class action was certified, the Center would be required to mail notices to thousands of birth mothers, advising them of the existence of the class action lawsuit and informing them of its potential effect.  Gladney argued that the mere act of mailing the notice would violate the birth mother’s privacy rights.  Most birth mothers, Gladney argued, expected that the promise of confidentiality given to them would always be protected.

In refusing the class action request, Judge Sudderth cited concerns that so doing would open up a “Pandora’s Box” on matters that many birth parents had received assurance would forever remain closed.  She characterized the issues surrounding these closed adoptions as “so highly individualized, intensely personal and emotionally charged” that all of the affected persons should not be lumped into one class action group together.  In her letter ruling, Judge Sudderth stated, “Certifying this proposed class would also carry with it a significant risk of opening up a Pandora’s Box on matters which at least some in the proposed class would prefer to remain closed,”

Not surprisingly, Gladney’s attorneys agreed with Judge Sudderth’s ruling, pointing out that Texas law permits class action certifications only when rigorous standards have been met proving that the claims should be grouped together. 

Although the Williams family disagreed with Judge Sudderth’s ruling, they decided not to appeal to a higher court.  Instead, they stated publicly that they would concentrate their efforts on helping other families get their individual records in the future, as they had.

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Cases from the 352nd District Court

Welcome to the 352nd District Court.  The purpose of this website is to provide a history of the more interesting or notable cases from the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas.

A Brief History of the 352nd District Court:

The 352nd District Court is a district court which serves all citizens of Tarrant County, Texas. Since the 352nd District Court was established on September 1, 1984, only three judges have served in its history.

John G. Street, a Tarrant County civil trial lawyer, was elected to the 352nd District Court on November 16, 1984.  Judge Street was a Democrat who served in that position until December 31, 1988, having being defeated for re-election in the 1988 election by Republican Bruce Auld, a Tarrant County civil trial attorney.  On January 1, 1989, Judge Bruce Auld took the bench, where he served until December of 1995.  Judge Auld resigned due to illness and died a short time thereafter.  Judge Bonnie Sudderth, the former Chief Judge of the Fort Worth Muncipal Court, ran in a contested Republican primary for election to the 352nd District Court bench, winning the seat for a term that would commence on January 1, 1997.  However, because the bench was vacant at the time of her primary election, then-Governor George W. Bush appointed her to fill the vacancy for the remainder of 1996.  (She had no opponent in the general election of November, 1996.)  Judge Sudderth has been re-elected three times to the 352nd District Court and is now serving her fourth term in office.  As such, Judge Sudderth is the longest-serving judge of the 352nd District Court.

Although the 352nd District Court has general jurisdiction to hear all matters properly filed in a district-level court – civil, criminal, family and juvenile cases – in practice, the court hears only civil cases. When the Texas Legislature created the 352nd District Court, it directed that this court would give preference to civil cases; therefore, pursuant to Section 24.498 of the Texas Government Code, all cases which are currently assigned to the 352nd District Court involve civil disputes.

The 352nd District Court is a trial court. Traditional notions of a “trial” usually center around the concept of a jury of 12 citizens serving as the ultimate arbiter of the case. However, most cases in the 352nd District Court are either “tried to the bench” (meaning that all matters of law and fact are presented to the judge for determination) or adjudicated by the judge as a result of a pre-trial motion. Jury trials in civil district court cases are rare today, the vast majority of cases being resolved in some manner other than a full jury trial on the merits.

Civil cases are varied and often complex, involving multiple parties and multiple legal issues in dispute. Among the many different types of cases which are filed in the 352nd District Court are cases involving:

Business entities
Class actions
Commercial litigation
Contracts
Debt collection
Employment and discrimination
Foreclosures
Insurance
Intellectual property
Medical and other professional malpractice
Oil and gas
Partnership dissolutions
Personal injury
Premises security
Property taxes
Real estate ownership and title
Worker’s compensation appeals
Wrongful death and survivorship

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