By: Mark Ritchie, Law Office of Mark Ritchie, P.C.
Late last month the Supreme Court of Texas issued In re J.B. Hunt Transp., Inc., No. 15-0631, 2016 WL 3159215 (Tex. May 27, 2016), in which the Court conditionally granted relief from an improperly denied plea in abatement. In granting the relator’s request for mandamus relief, the Court resolved a split of authority on whether the standard announced in Abor v. Black, 695 S.W.2d 564, 567 (Tex. 1985), was still in effect, or had instead been abrogated by In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 148 S.W.3d 124 (Tex. 2004).
As wryly observed by Justice Willett, writing for the unanimous court, J.B. Hunt was both figuratively and literally “a case about traffic and jurisdictional lanes.” In November 2014, a J.B. Hunt tractor-trailer struck the vehicle occupied by the Real Parties in Interest (“Real Parties”), which had become disabled and entered the tractor-trailer’s lane on I-10 in Waller County. A couple of weeks later, J.B. Hunt brought suit against the Real Parties in Waller County, claiming in its petition that the Real Parties’ failure to properly maintain and service their vehicle contributed to the mechanical problems that caused the collision and seeking actual and compensatory damages. The Real Parties filed their own suit against J.B. Hunt and its driver in Dallas County shortly thereafter, prompting J.B. Hunt to file a plea in abatement.
J.B. Hunt asserted in its plea in abatement that Waller County had dominant jurisdiction under the first-to-file rule. In response, the Real Parties argued that Waller County did not have dominant jurisdiction was not implicated because the lawsuits were not “inherently interrelated.” Alternately, the Real Parties argued that J.B. Hunt was estopped from asserting dominant jurisdiction because it did not have a bona fide intent to prosecute the Waller County suit, and also because of its own inequitable conduct prior to filing suit. The Dallas County court denied J.B. Hunt’s plea in abatement, and the Dallas Court of Appeals summarily denied mandamus relief, prompting J.B. Hunt to seek relief from the Texas Supreme Court.
The Court wasted little time finding that the Dallas County trial court abused its discretion, as the lawsuits were inherently interrelated under the compulsory counterclaim rule and the evidence relied upon by the Real Parties fell far short of establishing an exception to the first-filer rule. Having easily found the requisite abuse of discretion, the Court then addressed the broader question of whether the availability of mandamus relief is restricted under the more stringent Abor standard, or instead is determined by reference to the Prudential standard.
Under the stringent standard of Abor, a plea in abatement is an incidental ruling of the court that cannot support mandamus relief unless it “actively interferes with the exercise of jurisdiction” by the other court. Leaving Abor intact would typically preclude the availability of mandamus relief, leading to an inevitable waste of resources “as the case is tried in the wrong court only to be automatically reversed on appeal after judgment.” Recognizing the split of authority on whether Abor was still the controlling standard, the Court explicitly held that the more flexible standard announced in Prudential abrogates the inflexible approach of Abor, and thus “a relator need only establish a trial court’s abuse of discretion to demonstrate entitlement to mandamus relief with regard to a plea in abatement in a dominant-jurisdiction case.”