In a case grounded in allegations of defamation, The Texas Supreme Court addressed the minimum amount of proof necessary to support damages for mental anguish. The case of Hancock v. Variyam, 400 S.W.3d 59, 62 (Tex. 2013) involved a defamation suit relating to a letter written by a medical doctor alleging that another doctor had a “reputation for lack of veracity” and “deals in half truths.” The trial court ruled that the letter was defamatory per se and the jury awarded damages, including a total of $30,000 for mental anguish, past and future. The defendant doctor appealed, attacking the legal sufficiency of the mental anguish damages. Plaintiff’s testimony at trial had been that he was embarrassed, anxious, and could not sleep. The Supreme Court stated “There is no evidence of mental anguish because evidence that (Plaintiff) experienced some sleeplessness and other anxiety does not rise to the level of a substantial disruption in his daily routine or a high degree of mental pain and distress.” The court therefore held that the plaintiff doctor failed to prove that he suffered a substantial disruption in daily routine or a high degree of mental pain and distress. Also, the plaintiff must additionally show the nature, duration, and severity of the mental anguish.
The court referenced an older Supreme Court case styled Parkway Co. v. Woodruff, 901 S.W.2d 434, 443 (Tex. 1995) and stated that the plaintiff had not come forward with sufficient proof of actionable or compensable mental anguish. In Parkway v Woodruff, the court had found no evidence of mental anguish damages where the plaintiff had testified that he had “a lot of anguish, a lot of grief” and disappointment and humiliation because they did not rise to the level of a high degree of mental pain and distress or indicate a substantial disruption of his daily routine; Parkway, 901 S.W.2d at 445. The Parkway v Woodruff court had held that “anger, frustration, or vexation . . . do not support the conclusion that these emotions rose to a compensable level”.
Although the Hancock v. Variyam case happened to involve allegations of defamation, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of what is required to prove mental anguish damages has a broad effect across a wide spectrum of causes of action and practice areas. Mental anguish damages can arise in employment law matters, personal injury lawsuits, non-subscriber litigation and elsewhere. It is expected that this decision will continue to impact the way that mental evidence damages are pled, presented, and defended in Texas civil litigation for years to come. The Hancock v. Variyam decision was not entirely surprising, given some of the older case law. But it very squarely served notice to plaintiff lawyers not to try to come forward with evidence that lacks something of a “magic word” threshold. And to those of us defending lawsuits on behalf of employers, businesses and insurance companies, we have some fresh case law to help defeat those marginal mental anguish claims that we frequently see.
Williams, McClure & Parmelee is dedicated to high quality legal representation of businesses and insurance companies in a variety of matters. We are experienced Texas civil litigation attorneys based in Fort Worth who know Texas courts and Texas law. For more information, please contact the law firm at 817-335-8800. The firm’s office location is 5601 Bridge Street, Suite 300, Fort Worth, Texas 76112.