In a case that clearly demonstrates the tactics some plaintiff’s lawyers use to persuade juries to make mega-million awards in trucking cases, the Tyler Court of Appeals has drawn a line against prejudicial and inflammatory trial tactics.
Enbridge Pipelines (North Texas) LP and Tommy Doyle Lewis v. Jonathan Sullivan, Jr. (No. 12-19-00147-CV) arose from a collision involving a company vehicle driven by an Enbridge employee and a dump truck driven by Sullivan. Sullivan allegedly suffered traumatic back injuries as a consequence of the accident. After a trial in which plaintiff’s counsel, Brent Goudarzi (of Goudarzi & Young in Gilmer), focused heavily on unsubstantiated allegations that Enbridge had altered and destroyed evidence, counsel elected to submit to the jury only whether Lewis was negligent and acted in the course and scope of his employment. When Enbridge moved to instruct the jury to disregard plaintiff’s evidence of negligent entrustment, training, supervision, or undertaking, as well as any evidence of Enbridge’s alleged discovery abuses, the trial court denied the motion and sent the case to the jury. During its deliberations, the jury asked the trial court whether Enbridge would be liable if it found that Lewis was not acting in the course of scope of employment (at trial Lewis said he was returning from having lunch at home, which is not course and scope under Texas law). The trial judge refused to clarify the issue and directed the jury to follow its instructions. The jury rendered a nearly $21 million verdict. It included $1.2 million in lost future earnings (though the evidence showed plaintiff had not made more than a few thousand dollars a year for some time), $8.5 million in damages for pain and suffering, and about $3.5 million in medical damages (despite evidence that plaintiff had pre-existing spinal deterioration and had had prior medical treatment for back pain).
The Tyler Court of Appeals’, in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Worthen, was not amused by the plaintiff’s counsel’s trial tactics. In exhaustive detail, the opinion recounts the repeated emphasis counsel placed on Enbridge’s alleged spoliation of evidence and intentional misconduct in voir dire, examination of witnesses, and closing argument. Noting that both Lewis and Enbridge both acknowledged that Lewis failed to keep a proper lookout, and that there was evidence that Sullivan likewise failed to yield the right of way on a public road, the Tyler Court found that the trial judge abused his discretion in failing to instruct the jury to ignore evidence on any issues other than Lewis’s negligence and course and scope. “A fundamental tenet of our legal system is that each and every trial is decided on the merits of the lawsuit being tried,” states Justice Worthen. “The introduction of spoliation evidence before a jury can shift the focus of the case from the merits of the lawsuit to a party’s improper conduct. This shift can unfairly skew a jury verdict resulting in a judgment that is based not on the facts of the case, but on the conduct of the parties during or in anticipation of litigation. This is precisely what occurred in the present case.” The Court reversed the judgment and remanded the case for a new trial.
This case provides a glimpse into the trucking litigation explosion that is fueling the growth of plaintiff’s firms like Thomas J. Henry and Goudarzi & Young (which boasts on its website of having won more than $1 billion in verdicts and settlements). We applaud the Tyler Court of Appeals for its unwillingness to tolerate this kind of abuse of the civil justice system.