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Solis v. S.V.Z. - 566 S.W.3d 82 (Tex. App. 2018)

Rule:

When a trial court commits charge error, the judgment must be reversed if the error "probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment." Tex. R. App. P. 44.1(a)(1). Charge error is generally considered harmful if the error relates to a contested, critical issue.

Facts:

The girl's mother filed suit after learning of the illicit sexual relationship between her 16-year-old daughter and her 26-year-old supervisor. She asserted three common law claims: the first was against the supervisor for sexual assault; the second was against the supervisor's manager for aiding and abetting in the sexual assaults; and the third was against the restaurant where they worked for sexual assault as well, under a theory that the restaurant was directly liable for the conduct of its vice principal. In addition to these claims, the girl's mother pursued a statutory claim for sexual harassment against the restaurant. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the girl on all of these claims and the trial court rendered judgment based on the jury's award. Because the girl was underage, the trial court ruled that her conduct was wholly irrelevant to the jury's determination of liability and actual damages. The trial court accordingly precluded the defense from eliciting testimony about why the girl had consented to a sexual relationship with her supervisor. The trial court also issued a charge instruction stating that the girl's conduct could not be considered for any purpose.

Issue:

Was the charge instruction proper?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The court held that the trial court's erroneous instruction probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment because the jury was prohibited from considering the fact that the employee consented to a sexual relationship with her supervisor.  The jury should have been allowed to hear and consider evidence of the girl's conduct, as that evidence was relevant to the determination of actual damages and the proper jury instructions may have resulted in a different assessment of damages. The court also held that the limitations period on the employee's harassment claim was tolled during the period of her minority, and her administrative complaint was timely because it was filed before she reached the age of 18 under Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 16.001. Lastly, as for the remaining common law claim on sexual assault against the employer, it held it was preempted by her statutory claim for sexual harassment under the Texas Commission of Human Rights Act. Thus, the case was reversed and remanded for a new trial.

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