The Beaumont Court of Appeals has reversed a $9 million judgment against the driver/owner of a commercial truck in a wrongful-death suit.

Curtis Adair d/b/a CK Trucking v. Troy Chapla and Kelly Maningas, Individually and as Wrongful Death Beneficiaries, and on behalf of the Estate of Marley Chapla, Deceased (No. 09-21-00372-CV; February 22, 2024) arose from a fatal collision that occurred on southbound U.S. Highway 59 near Livingston. Defendant Adair, driving a semi-tractor, was towing a flatbed trailer on northbound 59, when he turned to cross the southbound lanes. As the rear of the trailer proceeded across the left lane of the highway, decedent’s vehicle, traveling at over 92 miles per hour, struck the trailer between the two rear axles, wedging the vehicle beneath the trailer. She died at the scene of traumatic head injuries. Her mother and father filed wrongful death claims for themselves, as well as a survival claim on behalf of decedent’s estate, against Adair, alleging negligence. A 10-2 jury found both parties negligent and assigned 75% of fault to Adair, 25% to decedent. The jury awarded $500,000 to each parent for loss of past companionship and society, $1,000,000 to each parent for loss of companionship and society sustained in the future, $3,000,000 to each parent for past and future mental anguish, and $1,000,000 to decedent’s estate for her mental anguish before she died. The trial court reduced the awards by decedent’s share of fault and entered judgment on the verdict. Defendant appealed.

The court of appeals reversed and remanded. Defendant raised several issues but the court of appeals only reached one of them: whether the trial court abused its discretion by excluding evidence from the defense’s toxicology expert that showed decedent with a blood alcohol level of .055% at the time of the accident (the trial court also excluded testimony by the investigating state trooper indicating that decedent had alcohol and marijuana in her system). The defense argued that exclusion of this evidence was harmful and caused the rendition of an improper verdict. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, argued that the evidence was irrelevant and prejudicial.

In a lengthy and detailed opinion authored by Justice Horton, the court concluded that the trial court abused its discretion by excluding the defense expert’s testimony and toxicology report, evidence that was relevant to whether decedent was in full possession of her physical and mental capacities at the time of the accident. Plaintiffs argued that the evidence was irrelevant because there the evidence showed that she braked before colliding with the trailer, showing that her reaction time was not impaired. They further argued that allowing the jury to hear the toxicology evidence would prejudice, confuse, and mislead the jury because it think that decedent was legally intoxicated, which she was not. The court rejected these arguments. observing that the jury had a right to consider whether a .055% blood alcohol level, which according to CDC guidelines is well above the threshold for impairment, might have contributed to decedent driving 17 miles over the speed limit to begin with, thus reducing her margin for error in avoiding the accident. Moreover, the court stated, the jury was entitled to consider whether her high blood alcohol level contributed to decedent’s failure to slow down and hit the brakes sooner than she did. Additionally, the trial court erred when it found that the excluded evidence’s prejudicial effect outweighed its probative value because evidence of alcohol or other substance use is admissible and does not require a showing of legal intoxication. Without that evidence, the court concluded, the jury “heard only a limited, filtered version of the evidence.”

As to whether the exclusion of the evidence probably caused rendition of an improper judgment, the court held that it did. Since both parties conceded that their negligence contributed to the accident, the question before the jury was allocation of fault. Without hearing the toxicology evidence, the jury allocated 75% of fault to the truck driver. As the court put it, “whether [decedent] is 50% or more at fault for causing her death turns largely on whether she was an impaired driver and whether her decisions that morning as they relate to driving her car were impaired by the level of alcohol in her system the morning the wreck occurred. Yet even without that evidence, the jury found [decedent] 25% at fault. We conclude that the disputed evidence about [decedent’s] use of a substance that impaired her ability to drive was important evidence that should have been presented to allow the jury to assess the parties’ proportionate fault.”

It will be interesting to see whether this case gets retried at this point. We should note that the $9 million verdict is entirely composed of noneconomic damages. What were the standards the jury used to come up with that number? We wonder what the court of appeals would have said about that had it reached the issue.

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