Texas Appellate Court Upholds $7.1 Million Verdict

In the case of Red Bluff v. Tarpley (No. 14-22-190), a Texas appellate panel upheld a $7.1 million verdict for a nursing home assistant, Nicole Tarpley, on Thursday. She was injured when a patient weighing over 300 pounds fell on her leg after a wheelchair malfunction at a Red Bluff LLC-operated nursing home. The lawsuit claimed that Red Bluff did not warn Tarpley about moving bariatric surgery patients alone. Although the trial court gave its final judgment on Feb. 4, 2022, Red Bluff asked to reset the deadline on March 14, 2022.


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Facts of Red Bluff v. Tarpley

Red Bluff operates a nursing and rehabilitation center in Pasadena, Texas.  Ms. Tarpley joined them as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) in 2016, with five years of prior experience in the role. Just a month into her job, Tarpley was assisting a bariatric patient weighing over 300 pounds. As she attempted to move him to a wheelchair, the brakes allegedly failed, causing the patient to start falling. To break his fall, Tarpley positioned her leg underneath him but got injured in the process.

Ms. Tarpley sued Red Bluff for both negligence and premises liability in July 2016. Her claim was two-fold:

  1. Red Bluff failed to provide adequate training and warning against handling such patients without assistance.
  2. The faulty wheelchair condition, which played a pivotal role in the incident.

The jury awarded $7.1 million in damages.

Red Bluff’s Appeal

The issue at hand was whether Red Bluff deserved an extra 15 days beyond the 30-day limit to file post-trial motions. The final judgment was signed by the trial court on February 2, 2022. Under the Texas rules of civil procedure, that meant that the deadline for Red Bluff to file any post-judgment motions was March 7, 2022.

The March 7th deadline passed and nothing was filed by Red Bluff, meaning it lost its ability to appeal the verdict. On March 14th, a week after the deadline expired, however, Red Bluff filed a sworn motion claiming that it never received the notice of judgment from the court. Red Bluff insisted that it did not learn about the entry of the judgment until it received an email from opposing counsel on March 14th. In effect, they claimed that it got lost in the mail.

In its motion, Red Bluff argued that it did not receive the judgement and had no notice of the entry of judgment. The motion asked the court to reset the deadlines to allow Red Bluff the opportunity appeal. Red Bluff supported its motion with affidavits from confirming the claim that they never received the judgment.

At an evidentiary hearing, however, Red Bluff’s lawyer admitted that he had received an “e-notice” email on February 9th from the Harris County clerk’s office. That email provided notice of the signed final judgment of the trial court. According to the lawyer, however, he never opened and read that email, so he remained unaware that a final judgment had been issued. The trial court denied Red Bluff’s motion to reset the deadlines, based largely on the fact that its lawyer had received the e-notice email from the clerk.

Red Bluff appealed. On appeal, Red Bluff argued that it did not have actual or constructive notice of the final judgment since it was never received in the mail. The majority rejected this argument and held that the “I didn’t open my email” defense from Red Bluff’s counsel was “legally insufficient.” In support of this conclusion, the majority cited 3 appellate court decisions concluding that a party had actual or constructive notice based on receipt of email, regardless of whether the email was even opened.

Dissenting Opinion

One judge filed a dissenting opinion. In his view, an email was not sufficient to put a party on “actual notice” without confirmation that the email was actually received, opened, and read by the recipient:

Here, in a similar vein, absent receipt of formal notice from the clerk, an attorney who lacks subjective awareness that a final judgment has been signed has no knowledge that the deadline to timely file post-judgment motions or a notice of appeal has been triggered.

Importantly, my reading of rule 306a(4) also aligns with the supreme court’s consistent admonishment that courts are to construe and apply procedural rules so that decisions turn on substance, not procedural technicalities.2 None of this is to say that I believe that counsel or a party should be able to re-start appellate deadlines by intentionally refusing to read or open emails from the clerk, but there is no indication that counsel did so here. There is no evidence that he read the email and consciously took no action or intentionally ignored it. It appears the email was merely overlooked.


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