Of late, our Texas Supreme Court more and more has demonstrated its contempt and distrust for the judgment of citizens who hear the firsthand account of facts related to legal disputes. In the last two years the Texas Supreme Court, unlike the courts for many years in the past, has overturned a majority of jury verdicts which have reached them. In the recent case of Bennett v. Reynolds, eight of our esteemed Republican judges have sided with the judgment of their own over that of citizen jurors, all to the benefit of a cattle thief.
This Wild West story began in San Saba County where several of Mr. Reynolds’ cattle wandered over the line onto property belonging to a corporation run by Thomas O. Bennett, Jr. Mr. Bennett directed employees of the corporation which he ran to gather up Mr. Reynolds’ cattle, take them to auction and sell them. Later on, an employee of Mr. Bennett’s corporation, blew the whistle on the whole deal, even though Mr. Bennett attempted to bribe him with the offer of a very lucrative job to keep him from “spilling the beans” on the stolen cattle. When bribery failed to work, Mr. Bennett had one of his employees threaten the whistle blower with bodily harm. Even that didn’t deter the case from going forward and ultimately reaching a jury of twelve citizens. Even with all of that, Mr. Bennett didn’t give up trying to cover up his evil deeds. He tried tampering with the evidence by altering brands on the cattle and doctoring certain photographs of the stolen cattle at the cattle sale. Bennett even resorted to trying to use the court to intimidate the witnesses against him by filing a slander suit against the ranch hand who had told on him.
The jury heard all of Mr. Bennett’s despicable conduct and in view of the fact the old fashioned remedy of hanging cattle thieves was not available to them as an option of punishment, they resorted to punishing Bennett and his corporation to the tune of $1,250,000 in punitive damages. The whole purpose of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer, but also to send a message to would-be wrongdoers that they will be dealt with very harshly by our Texas judicial system.
Of course, Bennett promptly appealed to the Court of Appeals which dutifully upheld the judgment of the jurors and trial court. Undeterred and unrepentant, Bennett appealed to our Texas Supreme Court. He argued that since his ranch was owned by a corporation, the corporation couldn’t be held liable for punitive damages; and besides that, only stealing a dozen or so cattle amounting to $5,000 was not a serious enough matter to subject him to such punishment. He further argued the threats to the witnesses, jury tampering, altering evidence and other skullduggery he did in connection to his main crime was of no consequence and should not be considered.
Well, the Supreme Court finally showed their true colors. After some mouthing about how Texas really didn’t like cattle rustlers, they proceeded to reverse the jury verdict saying the punitive damages were far in excess of the seriousness of the crime to be justified. In effect, they let the cattle thief off the hook. Who would have thought it? A Texas high court deciding with the cattle rustlers against twelve jurors, tried and true!