SCOTx Establishes Protocol for Compelled Disclosure of Cell-Phone Use

In re Kuraray America, Inc.
Supreme Court of Texas, No. 20-0268 (December 9, 2022)
Per Curiam Opinion (linked here)
A chemical reactor at Kuraray’s manufacturing plant became over-pressurized and released ethylene vapor that caught fire, resulting in multiple injuries. In a lawsuit based on that incident, plaintiffs alleged that the ethylene-vapor release may have been caused in part by “cell phone usage and abuse by board operators” who monitored the reactor. In response to a motion to compel, the trial court ordered Kuraray to produce usage data for the company-issued cell phones of five such employees, for periods ranging from six weeks to four months before the incident. On mandamus, the SCOTx held this to be an overly intrusive abuse of discretion. It articulated “key principles that should guide trial courts’ careful management of cell-phone-data discovery,” and a two-step process for dealing with requests for such data: 
First, to be entitled to production of cell-phone data, the party seeking it must allege or provide some evidence of [i] cell-phone use by the person whose data is sought [ii] at a time when it could have been a contributing cause of the incident on which the claim is based. If the party seeking the discovery satisfies this initial burden, the trial court may order production of cell-phone data, provided its temporal scope is tailored to encompass only the period in which cell-phone use could have contributed to the incident. In other words, a trial court may not, at this stage, order production of a person’s cell-phone data for a time at which his use of a cell phone could not have been a contributing cause of the incident.
The Court then went on to explain step two of the process: “Only if this initial production indicates that cell-phone use could have contributed to the incident may a trial court consider whether additional discovery regarding cell-phone use beyond that timeframe may be relevant”—for example, to show the employer’s negligent supervision or training. 

Here, the record before the trial court actually negated, or at best did not demonstrate, that cell-phone use by the five employees was a contributing factor to the accident. The SCOTx therefore directed the trial court to vacate its order compelling production of the requested cell-phone usage data.
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