Joe Wayne Price, Deborah Gail Holcomb and James Allen Price v. Arkansas Freightways, Inc. n/b/a American Freightways, Inc.--Appeal from 123rd District Court of County

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MARY'S OPINION HEADING NO. 12-01-00050-CV
IN THE COURT OF APPEALS
TWELFTH COURT OF APPEALS DISTRICT
TYLER, TEXAS

JOE WAYNE PRICE,

 
APPEAL FROM THE 123RD

DEBORAH GAIL HOLCOMB

AND JAMES ALLEN PRICE,

APPELLANTS

 

V.

 
JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT OF

ARKANSAS FREIGHTWAYS, INC. N/B/A

AMERICAN FREIGHTWAYS, INC.,

APPELLEES

 
PANOLA COUNTY, TEXAS

This personal injury case arises out of a collision between a car and a tractor-trailer unit. Allen Price ("Allen" or "Appellant"), while riding in the trunk of the car, suffered injuries to his spinal cord which resulted in his being paralyzed from the chest down. He and his parents, Joe Wayne Price and Debra Holcomb ("parents" or "Appellants"), sued the owner of the tractor-trailer unit, Arkansas Freightways, Inc. ("Freightways"). Following a jury trial, the trial court entered a take-nothing judgment. Allen and his parents raise five issues on appeal alleging the jury's negligence findings were in error. We affirm.

 
Background

The evidence at trial showed that between 10:30 and 11:00 p.m. the night of Tuesday, April 14, 1992, Robert Chancellor, seventeen ("Robert"), Allen, fifteen, and Shannon Price, thirteen ("Shannon"), left their respective homes in Robert's 1988 Beretta ("car"). They picked up Kelly Capps, thirteen ("Kelly"), and Vicky Goodney, sixteen ("Vicky"). After riding around Carthage and the surrounding environs for a couple of hours, they decided to buy some gasoline for the car at an all-night convenience store. On the way to the convenience store, Allen, Kelly and Shannon crawled into the car's trunk from the back seat, which folded down. They did so to hide their presence from anyone who might see them. Vicky became the car's driver upon leaving the convenience store. She headed southbound on State Highway 315 toward the community of Clayton. She stopped for a stop sign at the intersection of State Highway 315 and Loop 236. As the car crossed the Loop, Shannon crawled out of the trunk into the car's back seat. Kelly testified that she was about halfway out of the trunk into the backseat when the car's "swerving" motion threw her back into the trunk against Allen.

Vicky testified that she glimpsed a small animal dart across the road in front of her from right to left. She said that she turned the car to the right and left the roadway, driving partially into the grass. She stated that she turned the car back to the left and that it traveled diagonally into oncoming traffic. She testified that she no longer had control of the car. She said that she let off of the gas during this uncontrolled skid and did not put her foot on the brake because she had been taught that to do so would lock them up and "set you into a further spin." Vicky indicated that the front of the car was in the grassy area next to oncoming traffic with its rear on the improved shoulder when the rear of the car was clipped by the second of two trailers being pulled by the northbound tractor-trailer unit driven by Donald Marshall ("Marshall"). Allen and Kelly were ejected from the trunk by the impact of the collision. Kelly suffered minor cuts and bruises. Allen suffered a spinal cord injury which paralyzed his body from the chest down. Vicky, Robert and Shannon, in the passenger compartment of the car, were uninjured.

Allen and his parents sued Freightways, alleging that the negligence of Marshall had caused Allen's injuries. At the conclusion of the trial, the court instructed the jury on "negligence per se," "negligence," "ordinary care," "proximate cause," "sole proximate cause" and "emergency." The court's charge contained six questions, the first of which read as follows:

 

Question: 1

 

Did the negligence, if any, of the persons named below proximately cause the occurrence or injuries in question?

Answer "Yes" or "No" for each of the following:

 

a. Don Marshall, driver for Arkansas Freightways, Inc. No

b. James Allen Price Yes

 

The trial court then rendered a take-nothing judgment against Allen and his parents based on the jury's answer to question number one. This appeal followed.

Negligence Leading to the Collision

In their fifth issue, Allen and his parents contend that there is neither legally nor factually sufficient evidence to support the jury's finding that Marshall was not negligent for the collision which led to Allen's injuries.

Negligence has been defined as the failure to do that which a person of ordinary prudence would have done under the same or similar circumstances. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. v. Evans, 142 Tex. 1, 7, 175 S.W.2d 249, 251 (1943); Sisters of Charity v. Gobert, 992 S.W.2d 25, 28 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1997, no writ). Doing that which a person of ordinary prudence would not have done under the same or similar circumstances also constitutes negligence. Sisters of Charity v. Gobert, 992 S.W.2d at 28. The elements of negligence are: (1) duty on the part of one person to another, (2) breach of that legal duty, and (3) injury to the person to whom the duty is owed as a proximate result of the breach. City of Gladewater v. Pike, 727 S.W.2d 514, 517 (Tex. 1987). Proximate cause requires both cause-in-fact and foreseeability. Id. Cause-in-fact contemplates that the act or omission was a substantial factor in bringing about the injury and, without it, harm would not have occurred. Midkiff v. Hines, 866 S.W.2d 328, 333 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1993, no writ). Foreseeability means that the actor, as a person of ordinary intelligence, should have anticipated the dangers that his negligent act created for others. Id.

Legal Sufficiency

In reviewing a legal sufficiency challenge, we consider only the evidence which tends to support the jury's finding and disregard all contrary evidence and inferences. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Gonzalez, 968 S.W.2d 934, 936 (Tex. 1998). If more than a scintilla of evidence favors the jury's finding, any legal sufficiency challenge must fail. Minnesota Mining and Mfg. Co. v. Nishika Ltd., 953 S.W.2d 733, 738 (Tex. 1997).

We begin our analysis of the negligence which was the proximate cause of the collision by noting the following four uncontroverted facts from the record before us:

(1) Vicky lost control of the car.

(2) The car of which Vicky lost control crossed the center line in front of the Freightways tractor-trailer.

(3) The path of an out-of-control vehicle is unforeseeable.

(4) Lives could have been lost if the car and the tractor-trailer had collided head-on.

Allen and his parents contend that Marshall, as the driver of Freightways' tractor-trailer, was negligent at two junctures in the chain of events leading to the collision: (1) when he first saw the car being driven erratically while it was 900 feet away from him, and (2) when the car crossed the center line approximately 600 feet away from him.

John Painter testified for Freightways as its accident reconstruction expert, and stated that he had examined all of the evidence and depositions presented at trial. He further stated that he had purchased a 1989 Beretta to see how it would react under test conditions. Additionally, he testified that he applied scientific laws and methods to draw his conclusions as to what had happened during the chain of events leading to the collision. Painter asserted that Vicky began erratic movements by turning the car to the left across the center line before then moving back into her lane, at which time she lost control of the car. He based his reconstruction of what happened on Shannon Price's deposition testimony that Vicky first turned the car to the left when the erratic movements began. Painter maintained that it was unreasonable to expect a reasonable truck driver to apply his brakes at that particular time. He testified that Marshall had no way of knowing what the car was going to do. He stated that it would have been reasonable to assume that the car was making a left-hand turn when it first came into Marshall's lane. He believed that it was unrealistic for the car to be perceived as a threat to Marshall's well-being at that time. He stated that when the vehicle returned to its own lane of traffic, there was no reason for Marshall to stop the tractor-trailer or even to brake. Painter testified that Marshall could not have known that the driver of the vehicle would lose control after it returned to its lane of traffic and come back across the center line. He did not believe that Marshall had acted unreasonably under the circumstances.

In regards to Marshall's actions the second time the car crossed the center line, Painter testified that if Marshall had tried to brake suddenly, he could have been in danger of losing control of the tractor-trailer rig. The truck could have traveled sideways until it covered the entire roadway. He stated that Marshall veered to the left after he saw the car, which was obviously out-of-control, move into his lane. He further explained that the commercial manual for drivers in Texas states that brakes should not be applied while attempting to steer the vehicle in order to avoid an emergency situation in the roadway ahead; to do so would make the vehicle unstable. Additionally, Painter contended that when a driver cannot effectively brake to avoid a possible head-on collision, he should remove his foot from the brake and aim for an opening in the roadway ahead. He opined that this is what Marshall attempted to do when he saw the car approaching his tractor-trailer rig.

Because there is more than a scintilla of evidence supporting the jury's finding, we hold that the evidence is legally sufficient to show that Marshall was not negligent in the operation of his vehicle at the time of the collision.

Factual Sufficiency

When reviewing a jury verdict to determine the factual sufficiency of the evidence, a court of appeals must consider and weigh all of the evidence, and should set aside the verdict only if it is so contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence as to be clearly wrong and unjust. Cain v. Bain, 709 S.W.2d 175, 176 (Tex. 1986). This court is not a factfinder and may not pass on the credibility of the witnesses or substitute our judgment for that of the trier of fact. Clancy v. Zale Corp., 705 S.W.2d 820, 826 (Tex. App.-Dallas 1986, writ ref'd n.r.e.). Findings of fact are the exclusive province of the jury and/or trial court. Bellefonte Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Brown, 704 S.W.2d 742, 744 (Tex. 1986). Accordingly, if there is sufficient competent evidence of probative force to support the finding, it must be sustained. Beall v. Ditmore, 867 S.W.2d 791, 795-96 (Tex. App.-El Paso 1993, writ denied). Where there is conflicting evidence, the jury's verdict on such matters is generally regarded as conclusive. Id. at 796. And a jury is entitled to accept all or part of an expert witness's testimony. Hood v. Texas Indemnity Ins. Co., 146 Tex. 522, 209 S.W.2d 345, 346 (1948); see also Trinity River Auth. v McMurrey, 439 S.W.2d 887, 890 (Tex. Civ. App.-Beaumont 1969, no writ).

To support their position that Marshall's negligence caused Allen's injuries, Allen and his parents produced two accident reconstruction witnesses, Joe Montgomery and George Green, to describe what actions they believed a reasonably prudent truck driver would have taken. Each expert witness explained that he had read Marshall's statements made on the day of the collision, Marshall's deposition testimony, the testimony of the five teenagers in the car, the deposition testimony of the other experts to testify at trial, and the accident report of the department of public safety officer who investigated the accident. They also viewed the pictures taken of the roadway after the accident, and the pictures taken of the car and tractor-trailer rig after the accident. Each expert stated that he applied scientific laws and methods to reach his conclusions as to what actions Marshall should have taken before the collision.

The testimony in the record shows that Marshall was traveling at forty-five miles per hour when he first saw Vicky's car moving erratically approximately 900 feet in front of him. Marshall explained that he had down-geared in anticipation of the stop sign at the intersection which Vicky had just driven through. Marshall believed that he was going forty-five miles an hour when his second trailer impacted the rear of the car. Green testified that a reasonable, prudent truck driver in this situation, hauling a heavy load, "better slow that truck down to twenty miles per hour or even stop if there's any question in [his] mind about what the driver of that vehicle is ultimately going to do." And Montgomery opined that "[a] reasonable and prudent driver in my mind, when he sees an erratic movement to the right, at least starts to slow down, at least becomes alerted. And when that car starts to come back to the left, you don't have to wait for it to get to the center line to react."

In this case, we can infer that the jury accepted Painter's reconstruction of events when it determined that Marshall did not act unreasonably when he first saw the car being driven erratically. This determination is not against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence, and is therefore factually sufficient to support the jury's finding of no negligence on the part of Marshall.

We next turn to the evidence and expert witness testimony concerning Marshall's actions when the car crossed the center line out-of-control. Green testified that because Marshall was traveling at forty-five miles an hour, he could have stopped the truck within 160 feet after he saw the car moving into his lane. Green opined that that is what a reasonable truck driver would have done. Montgomery testified that if Marshall had moved to the left earlier than he actually did, there would have been no collision at all. He also asserted that Marshall should have been braking when he steered to the left.

Considering that no expert controverted the fact that no one could reasonably anticipate the path of the out-of-control car, the jury's determination that Marshall acted reasonably under the circumstances is not against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence, and is therefore factually sufficient to support a no-negligence finding as to Marshall. We overrule Appellants' issue five.

 
Negligence Leading to Allen's Injuries

In their second, third and fourth issues, Appellants contend that there is neither legally nor factually sufficient evidence to support the jury's finding that Allen's negligence caused his injuries. We have previously defined negligence. Duty, as part of negligence, can be the obligation to conform to a particular standard of conduct, vis- -vis, others in society. See Rodriguez v. Moerbe, 963 S.W.2d 808, 816 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 1998, writ denied). A person has a general duty to look out for his own safety. Woodard v. Marathon LeTourneau Co., 570 S.W.2d 552, 557 (Tex. Civ. App.-Corpus Christi 1978, writ ref'd n.r.e.). A person riding in an automobile owes the duty of ordinary care to avoid injury. Garcia v. Moncada, 127 Tex. 453, 456, 94 S.W.2d 123, 124 (1936). A plaintiff who breaches the general duty of care to exercise ordinary care for one's own safety is contributorily negligent. See Jackson v. Associated Developers of Lubbock, 581 S.W.2d 208, 211 (Tex. Civ. App.-Amarillo 1979, writ ref'd n.r.e.).

Legal Sufficiency

Dr. Harry Smith testified as both an engineer and a physician on behalf of Freightways. He told the jury that Allen was negligent when he rode in the car's trunk while it was moving. He explained that the designated seating area in a car is a protected area by design. He stated that there are restraints and sidewalls with padding for the passenger compartment that are designed to help mitigate or overcome forces in a collision. Painter also testified that the trunk is designed as a crash barrier to protect the passenger compartment from rear-end collisions. He explained that the trunk is made to compress and absorb the energy of a rear-end collision, thus protecting the passengers in the rigid passenger compartment. He opined that an individual who chooses to ride in a vehicle outside the protections engineered and designed into the passenger compartment is taking a "considerable chance." Green, who testified that he had been an accident reconstruction expert for twenty-eight years, told the jury that this was the first accident he had seen or investigated where a live person had been riding in the trunk of a car. James Nash, a physician for over twenty-five years, testified that he had never treated anyone for injuries suffered while riding in a trunk before this accident.

Smith presented evidence to the jury that Allen's injuries would not have occurred but for the fact that he was riding in the trunk. He emphasized that none of the teenagers in the car's passenger compartment suffered injuries as a result of the collision at issue. Allen himself told the jury that he knew before the accident occurred that the trunk of a car was not designed to ride in. He further testified that he had never ridden in a trunk before. As a fifteen-year-old, Allen is held to an adult standard of exercising ordinary care. See Rudes v. Gottschalk, 159 Tex. 552, 557, 324 S.W.2d 201, 205 (1959). We hold that there is more than a scintilla of evidence to support the jury's finding that Allen's negligence caused his injuries.

Factual Sufficiency

Montgomery could not exclude the potential of harm if Allen had been seated elsewhere in the car. And Greene testified that he could not agree that if Allen had not been in the trunk, he probably would not have suffered such grievous injuries. But because of the previously discussed evidence, we hold that the jury's finding that Allen was negligent is not against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence. Accordingly, we overrule issues two, three and four.

 

The Submission of Allen's Negligence to the Jury

In their first issue, Allen and his parents maintain that the trial court erred when it submitted Allen's alleged negligence to the jury. They cite as authority Kerby v. Abilene Christian College, 503 S.W.2d 526 (Tex. 1973). In Kerby, the driver of a linen delivery truck with an open sliding door had been struck in an intersection by a school bus. Id. at 527. The supreme court distinguished negligence contributing to the accident and negligence contributing to the damages sustained. Id. at 528. And in 1992, it explained and expanded upon Kerby in Elbaor v. Smith, 845 S.W.2d 240 (Tex. 1992), by stating that "the trial court should have accounted for any increase in injury caused by the plaintiff driving with the door open through a mitigation of damages question, and not one of contributory negligence." Id. at 245. Also in Elbaor, the court stated that "In Kerby, there would have been a wreck, and a lawsuit, even if the plaintiff had kept the door of his truck closed." The supreme court concluded that submitting the driver of the delivery truck in the negligence question was error. Kerby is clearly analogous to the case before us. At trial, it was undisputed that Allen did not contribute in any way to the collision. There would have been a wreck, and possibly a lawsuit, even if Allen had not been riding in the trunk. Consequently, the trial court erred when it included Allen in a question which asked the jury whose negligence caused the occurrence.

Harm Analysis

Appellants argue that the trial court's jury charge error resulted in reversible error under Rule 44 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure, which provides the following:

 

44.1 Reversible Error in Civil Cases

(a) Standard for Reversible Error. No judgment may be reversed on appeal on the ground that the trial court made an error of law unless the court of appeals concludes that the error complained of:

(1) probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment; . . .

 

Tex. R. App. P. 44.1(a).

In order to determine whether an error in the jury charge is harmful, an appellate court must consider the pleadings of the parties, the evidence presented at trial, and the charge in its entirety. See Island Recreational Dev. Co. v. Republic of Tex. Sav. Ass'n, 710 S.W.2d 551, 555 (Tex. 1986). The submission must be considered as a whole to determine whether the error was prejudicial. See Turk v. Robles, 810 S.W.2d 755, 759 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1991, writ denied). Under the harmless error rule, Appellants must persuasively demonstrate that it has suffered harm from the submission of the defective issue. See Nacol v. McNutt, 797 S.W.2d 153, 156 (Tex. App. - Houston [14th Dist.] 1990, writ denied). Appellants have not done so here.

In Appellants' appellate brief, the only discussion of harm comes almost as a side bar comment to their argument pertaining to the impropriety of the submission. Specifically, Appellants opine that, "Here, it's clear, the trial court's inclusion of the term 'or injuries' was clearly erroneous, misled the jury, and was calculated to - and did - result in an improper judgment." We recognize the possibility that this is so. However, we are not privy to the jury's thought processes during deliberations, and a possibility is not a sufficient showing of harm under Rule 44.1(a)(1). See Nacol, 797 S.W.2d at 156. Furthermore, Appellants fail to direct us to the specific testimony and evidence that caused the improper verdict. Additionally, we note that there was no evidence presented during trial that Allen was responsible for the collision. All of the evidence presented by both sides blamed either Marshall or Vicky for the collision. The jury argument by each side focused on explaining how "negligence," "negligence per se," "ordinary care," and "proximate cause" as it related to the collision applied to either Marshall or Vicky. Freightways argued that Vicky was the "sole proximate cause" of the collision. Neither side argued that Allen had any responsibility for the collision itself.

Freightways did contend in its closing argument that Allen was negligent for being in the trunk during the collision. They argued that this negligence caused his injuries. Allen now maintains that the jury may have been confused in its answer by attributing some of Vicky's negligence in causing the collision to himself. But when we examine the evidence and all aspects of the jury charge, including closing arguments by counsel, we cannot conclude that the jury was confused about the distinction between negligence leading to the collision and negligence leading to injuries. See Kerby, 503 S.W.2d at 528. We hold, therefore, that the trial court's error in submitting negligence leading to the occurrence and negligence leading to the injuries in the same jury question is, under the distinctive circumstances of this case, harmless. Accordingly, we overrule Appellants' issue one.

The judgment of the trial court is affirmed.

JIM WORTHEN

Justice

Opinion delivered May 22, 2002.

Panel consisted of Worthen, J., and Griffith, J.

 
(DO NOT PUBLISH)