Werner Appeal of $89.7 Million Verdict Denied
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A Texas state court has denied an appeal by Werner Enterprises Inc. of an $89.7 million jury verdict in a case involving a 2014 fatal crash.
“We have inspected the record and find no error in the judgment,” the court’s majority wrote in a May 18 opinion. “We order the judgment of the court below affirmed.” The court ordered Werner and truck driver Shiraz Ali to “jointly and severally” pay all costs incurred in the appeal. Two justices authored dissenting opinions in the case.
Werner now plans to take its appeal to the Texas state supreme court. “Werner is disappointed with the court of appeals’ decision, and we plan to seek relief with the Texas supreme court,” said Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer Nathan Meisgeier.
The case stretches back to a 2018 trial in which a Houston jury returned what stands as one of the highest-ever monetary judgments against a motor carrier. The crash at the center of the case occurred when a pickup truck driven by a friend of the plaintiff lost control on a slick interstate, traveled across the highway median and collided with a Werner tractor traveling on the opposite stretch of road.
Werner appealed the verdict in October 2018, and the case languished at the Texas Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston for more than four years. In its appeal, Werner objected to the jury’s finding that the driver and company were found negligent, and also to the judge’s decision to allow certain evidence in the case. Werner also objected to the jury’s award of future medical care expenses for the plaintiffs.
In a court pleading, Werner also noted the conditions under which the crash occurred. “At the time of this accident, Shiraz Ali was proceeding in his lane, in control of a Werner tractor-trailer and well below the speed limit, when the [plaintiff’s] vehicle suddenly careened into his path, leaving him no time to avoid a collision.” Despite this, the lower court jury found both Werner and Ali liable and assessed the large award, according to court documents.
The plaintiff’s attorney in the case, Eric Penn, argued in the 25-day trial that Ali, a trainee at the time, was driving too fast and should not have been operating in the icy conditions present at the time. Ali was traveling below the posted speed limit at the time. Penn also charged that Werner was negligent for failing to adequately train and supervise Ali for operating in bad weather. A trainer was in the truck, but was asleep in the sleeper berth at the time of the crash. According to the appeals court, the jury heard evidence that Werner teaches drivers to exercise discretion on whether to come to a crawl or stop in icy conditions.
Despite the Werner truck being hit by a vehicle that crossed the median, the lower court jury was instructed that it could apply a “proximate cause” legal standard in the case. A proximate cause is defined as a partial cause that was a substantial factor in bringing about an injury, and “without which cause such injury would not have occurred.” The court ruled that there was “sufficient evidence” to support a finding that insufficient training and supervision “proximately caused the collision.”
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Tracy Christopher said the majority did not address relevant issues raised in the appeal.
“I agree with the majority that the evidence supports a finding that [driver] Ali was negligent and that his negligence was a proximate cause of the injuries,” Christopher wrote. “Because the majority has failed to address meritorious complaints that were preserved in the trial court, re-urged on appeal, and dictate the reversal of the trial court’s judgment, I respectfully dissent.”
With Texas law requiring interest be assessed during the appeals process, the final judgment would be more than $100 million if Werner’s appeal is unsuccessful.
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