Another Look at a Texas Nuclear Verdict
The 14th Court of Appeals in Houston recently decided to take up one of the largest nuclear verdicts in the state.
The case involves Werner Enterprises, a trucking company that was involved in an accident in West Texas that resulted in a $90 million judgment against the company.
During a winter storm, the plaintiff’s car hit a patch of ice, crossed a wide median on I-20 near Odessa and hit Werner’s truck head on. The truck driver was going 15 miles per hour below the speed limit, never lost control of the truck, and had fractions of a second to react to the oncoming car. The Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who handled the wreck testified that Werner’s driver could not have done anything to prevent the accident.
In the initial trial, the judge allowed the plaintiffs to discover and present evidence of unrelated alleged safety violations by Werner going back about a decade. The plaintiff argued Werner should have sent its truck to California using a different route; or if it was going to use I-20, the driver should have been traveling closer to 15 miles per hour.
“If an accident like this is the fault of the driver who was hit by the out-of-control vehicle, think about what that means for every motorist on the roads,” Werner Enterprises said in a statement.
An appeal has been ongoing for the last several years, however, according to a recent report, a decision by a three-judge appellate panel was written, but not released. Refusing to release the panel’s opinion is extremely rare. The obvious assumption is the majority on the court did not like the panel’s decision, which we can assume was to reverse the judgment.
This mirrors a similar nuclear verdict trucking case in Dallas’ Fifth Court of Appeals. In that case, the plaintiff lawyer directly argued to the jury that mental anguish damages (not punitive damages) should be awarded to the plaintiff to punish the trucking company. Of course, that is contrary to longstanding Texas law, which did not matter to the en banc Dallas court of appeals.
These cases plainly show why Texas judges matter, and why passing HB 19 in the 87th Legislative Session was critical to our state.