Although the legal system strives for finality, there are provisions under Texas law that allow a judge to set aside a judgment and give the losing party a second shot at convincing a jury or judge that he should prevail. The reasons can range from newly discovered evidence to lack of notice of the original hearings or a claim that the award of damages is too large or too small. The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure govern requests to vacate judgment and set a new trial.
Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 320 states that a judge may set aside a judgment and order a new trial "for good cause." The only specific grounds mentioned are the damages being "manifestly" too small or too large. The Texas Supreme Court has held that as long as the trial judge finds that a new trial is "in the interest of justice and fairness" there is no recourse other than to set aside the judgment and proceed with a new trial.
Notwithstanding the ends of "justice and fairness" set out in Rule 320, five trial errors are named in Texas Rule 324 that must be the subject of a motion to vacate the first trial, or they cannot be appealed. The first is any complaint that will require new evidence to be heard, such as a claim of jury misconduct or newly discovered evidence. The second is any claim that the evidence was insufficient to support a jury finding. Third, if the evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the jury's finding there must be a motion under Rule 324. Fourth, any claim that the jury's damages are either inadequate or excessive must first be heard on a motion to vacate. And finally, any claim that a party incorrectly argued to the jury and the Court did not correct that error at a first trial must be the basis for a motion for a new trial.
Evidence and Discovery
The required motion for a new trial for newly discovered evidence is particularly relevant in cases involving large volumes of documents exchanged between the parties. Some cases now result in thousands of pages of evidence changing hands. Often, there are as many documents withheld as produced. Key evidence might be lost in the shuffle or, perhaps, intentionally withheld or buried. Just as with any argument of the sufficiency of the evidence, these claims provide grounds to vacate the original judgment and retry the case.
Lack of Notice
While most motions to set aside a judgment must be filed within thirty days, the rules allow losing parties to vacate a judgment up to two years later if they were not present at the original proceedings. In such cases, the original judgment was entered only on the basis of publishing the cause of action, and the losing defendant did not appear in court to defend the claim. The defendant must post a bond in the amount of the original judgment and agree to pay that bond to the plaintiff in the event that the new judgment is also entered in favor of the plaintiff. Rule 329 sets out the procedures for this type of motion to vacate a judgment.
Sue Sponte is an attorney and freelance writer who has published online since 2006 on topics covering business law, criminal law and personal finance. Sponte's print publications have included the "Michigan Law Review," "Naval Law Review" and "Employment Law Letter." Sponte holds a J.D. from the University of Michigan law school and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.