The Tyler Court of Appeals has affirmed both traditional and no evidence summary judgments in favor of four product manufacturers in connection with 2016 boating accident that killed one passenger and left another with a severe brain injury. Anthony Henegar and Lori Henegar, Individually and A/N/F Mason Henegar, Drue Henegar and Mason Henegar v. Regal Marine Industries, Inc., et al. (No. 12-20-00139-CV) arose from a late-night excursion on Cedar Creek Lake that culminated when Anthony Henegar’s boat collided with a bridge. The collision occurred when the boat, operated by the teenage daughter of Anthony’s friend Larry, became lost and approached a highway bridge. Larry took control of the boat from his daughter and tried to guide it between the bridge’s pylon, but he misjudged the height of the bridge. When he realized the boat would not clear the bridge, he slowed abruptly, elevating the bow and crashing into the bridge’s undergirding. The collision shattered the windshield and severed the boat’s tower arch, killing another of Anthony’s friends and causing Anthony to suffer a traumatic brain injury. Several law enforcement agencies responded to the accident, and Larry was arrested for intoxication manslaughter (the charges were later dropped).
The Henegars sued the boat’s manufacturer (Regal), seller (Phil Dill Boats), and compass part manufacturer (Rule Industries), as well as the manufacturer and installer of the boat’s lighted tower speakers and underwater lights (Earmark, Inc.), alleging strict products liability, negligence, gross negligence, fraud, and violations of the DTPA. Anthony’s wife Lori sued for loss of consortium. Anthony and Lori’s daughter Mason sued for loss of consortium and bystander injury. Their other daughter Drue intervened, claiming loss of consortium.
The undisputed facts are as follows: Anthony and his two friends drank alcohol on the night of the collision and took alcohol on the boat; none of the boaters or passengers could remember whether any of the lights on the boat were illuminated at the time of the accident (including the cockpit interior lights, compass light, navigation lights, or speaker tower lights); no witness testified that the boat’s lighting features or other components affected their visibility while operating the boat; no witness heard anyone complain about lack of visibility; Larry testified that he misjudged the height of the bridge because the bridge was unlit on a dark night; and Anthony, who had no memory of the accident itself, testified that he did not switch on the tower or cockpit lights at night because it disturbed the neighbors and made it harder to see in the dark. The Henegars’ three experts all opined that the boat’s lighting features and windshield (which reflected the glare of the interior and compass lights), along with passengers sitting in the bow, obscured Larry’s vision and proximately caused the collision.
The defendants made traditional and no evidence summary judgment motions, alleging that the Henegars presented no evidence that the boat’s compass and lighting features were a proximate or producing cause of the accident and alternatively that the evidence conclusively showed that the compass and lighting features were not the proximate or producing cause of the accident. The trial court granted the motions. The Tyler Court of Appeals affirmed.
The court’s analysis turned on whether the Henegars produced “more than a scintilla of evidence” establishing that a product defect was the proximate (for the negligence claims) or producing (for the products liability claim) cause of the accident. In order to defeat a no evidence summary judgment motion under Rule 166a(i), TRCP, the nonmovant must offer evidence that “rises to the level that would enable reasonable and fair-minded people to differ in their conclusions” (citations omitted). If the “evidence offered to prove a vital fact is so weak as to do no more than create a mere surmise or suspicion of its existence, the evidence is no more than a scintilla and, in legal effect, is no evidence” (citation omitted). Proximate causation requires a showing of both foreseeability and cause-in-fact (defendant’s acts or omissions were a substantial factor in bringing about the injury that would not otherwise have occurred); producing cause requires both cause-in-fact and but-for causation (the injury would not have occurred but for the product defect).
In evaluating the evidence presented by the Henegars’ experts, law enforcement responders, and the direct witnesses, the court of appeals the Henegars’ failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact to support their theory of causation that “the combination of lights from the cockpit, compass, speaker, and tower negatively impacted Larry’s night vision, and that the compass, bow occupants, and windshield obstructed Larry’s forward vision,” thus causing the accident. The court pointed to the fact that none of the boaters could recall whether any of the lights were on at the time of the collision, and Anthony himself testified that he did not turn them on when boating at night. The Henegars argued that photographs showing the switches of the cockpit, navigation, tower speaker, and compass lights in the activated position conclusively proved that that the lights were on when the collision occurred. The court of appeals, however, noted that the various photographs were all taken at some point after the accident, which only established that the lights were switched on at that time, not when the accident happened. This “meager circumstantial evidence,” the court held, did not rise above a scintilla because it would leave jurors to guess a vital fact: were the lights on when the boat crashed into the bridge or were they switched on after the collision for other reasons, perhaps to assist the injured parties, locate first aid supplies, or find cellphones to call for help. Given equally plausible scenarios based on the proffered evidence, a jury would just have to guess at which one were true. Additionally, while there was some physical evidence that the navigation and compass lights were on at the time of the accident, none of the Henegars’ experts testified that those lights alone were the proximate or producing cause of the accident.
While this case doesn’t break any new ground, it offers a clear example of an appellate court backing up a trial court’s decision—which had to be difficult—to dismiss a lawsuit arising from a terrible accident. When trial judges cannot count on the kind of thorough and deliberate review the Tyler Court of Appeals conducted in this case, they will become understandably reluctant to dispose of cases on summary judgment, thus allowing cases that should not be in the system to continue—at great expense to litigants, attorneys, jurors, courts, and the public.