An appeals court has reversed a multi-million dollar judgement in favor of a Texas trucking company in a personal injury crash involving an oversized load that occurred in 2017.
The Court of Appeals for the Eighth District of Texas recently ruled in favor of Killeen, Texas-based trucking company Even Better Logistics LLC (EBL) and company owner Michelle Cora Croom.
In January 2020, a Travis County jury awarded Ronnie Claxton nearly $7.4 million for an injury he sustained in a crash involving a driver working EBL that occurred in April 2017.
The accident is described in court documents:
“On April 5, 2017, Rayner, a truck driver for EBL, was hauling an oversized load of oilfield spools from Dayton to Midland. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) requires oversized loads to obtain a special permit, which contains a specific route the driver must take. As Rayner approached Austin heading west on U.S. 290, he mistakenly took the exit going east on U.S. 183 instead of west as the TxDOT directions required. He drove several miles in the wrong direction on U.S. 183 before he realized his mistake. Once he realized his error, Rayner was required to pull to the shoulder of the road, exit the roadway, or turn around. However, according to Rayner, construction in the area eliminated the shoulder from the roadway and he was unable to pull over. The construction also prevented him from turning around, per his recollection. As he continued eastbound on U.S. 183, part of the oversized load struck the underside of an overpass for State Highway 71. Rayner did not notice the bridge or the height sign on the bridge until it was “too late.” Rayner stepped on the brakes, which engaged, but he was unable to avoid the load hitting the overpass. A part of the load came off the trailer and struck the windshield of Appellee Ronnie Claxton’s passenger truck, who was driving behind Rayner’s truck.“
The appeals court found that Croom was not liable for “negligent entrustment; negligent maintenance; and negligent hiring, training, and supervising” based off of evidence presented in the trial court.
The court also found insufficient evidence of gross negligence on the part of Rayner, a truck driver with 45 years of experience and a clean driving record:
“Although Appellees try to frame Rayner’s failure to realize he was on the wrong route or see the bridge in time as being the result of distracted driving, there is not sufficient evidence in the record to support this theory. First, it was not established at what point along the route Rayner realized he was off route. The only testimony regarding Rayner’s state of mind during his drive came from him. Rayner testified he believed he drove four to five miles of a five to six mile stretch of road before realizing he was not on the designated route. The objective fact the total distance was just over thirteen miles does not change Rayner’s subjective belief it was shorter. More importantly, his testimony indicates he drove the majority of the wrong stretch of highway under the mistaken belief it was the correct route. Appellees sought to prove Rayner drove an additional eight or nine miles the wrong direction after realizing he was off route based on his testimony he believed he traveled five or six miles before realizing his error. But doing so ignores the context of Rayner’s testimony that he realized he was going the wrong way four or five miles down a five or six mile stretch of road. Additionally, without any indication at which point on the wrong route Rayner discovered his mistake, Rayner’s testimony he observed no place to turn around or exit before he hit the bridge, despite actively looking, becomes entirely plausible. In considering all the evidence, there is legally insufficient evidence to prove Rayner knowingly continued upon a dangerous course of conduct despite knowing the extreme risk of doing so.“
The appeals court additionally found evidence that the trial court mishandled the jury with respect to liability questions:
“…the trial court submitted a single, broad-form liability question against the Appellants covering a multitude of theories of liability, several of which were precluded from submission based on legally or factually insufficient evidence. Without knowing upon which theory(ies) the jury based its verdict, particularly against EBL, and observing the jury received no instructions or definitions regarding whether Rayner’s or another’s actions could be imputed to EBL and under what circumstances, we cannot determine whether the jury’s verdict was based on an improper theory.“
The appeals court found that a new trial is warranted due to improper submission of the broad form negligence question submitted to the jury and inadequate jury instruction.