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Apportionment of Damages in Texas Construction Accident Lawsuits

In Joyce Steel Erection, Ltd. v. Bonner, a Texas appellate court considered a plaintiff who was pinned by an extremely heavy concrete tilt wall at a construction site. He suffered serious injuries and needed numerous expensive surgeries. He sued Joyce Steel Erection, Ltd., Caruthers Construction, and Self Concrete, Inc. Joyce didn’t settle, but the others did.

The plaintiff proceeded to trial against Joyce. The jury found $3.5 million in past damages and $3.5 million in future damages. It determined the defendant was 34% at fault, the plaintiff was 34% at fault, and the plaintiff’s employer was 33% at fault. The trial court entered judgment against Joyce after deducting for the other parties’ degree of fault and the settlement amounts.

The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court should have excluded any damages that could be attributed to the plaintiff’s employer and for failing to follow a particular formula in calculating prejudgment interest.

In Texas personal injury suits, fault must be apportioned among all the people responsible for harms that arise out of negligent actions. The jury determines the defendants’ percentage of fault, as well as the fault of the plaintiff, any settling parties, and any designated responsible third parties. If a plaintiff is more than 50% responsible, he or she is barred from recovery.

The plaintiff is also limited in recovery because the amount of any damages would be reduced by settlement amounts. A defendant whose responsibility isn’t greater than 50% is generally only responsible for the amount of damages equal to his or her percentage of fault. However, a defendant that is responsible for more than 50% can be held jointly and severally liable for all the damages the plaintiff can recover, minus funds received to settle and the plaintiff’s own percentage of fault.

Only when a defendant’s responsibility is more than 50% can it be held jointly and severally liable for all of the claimant’s damages to be recovered, minus the amount attributed to the claimant and all settlement proceeds. However, a defendant can join a third party not sued by the claimant, who might have some percentage of responsibility for the damages.

On appeal, Joyce argued the trial court was required to leave out damages attributable to the responsible third party before deducting for the claimant’s percentage of responsibility and the value of settlements. Looking at the legislative history of the relevant code section, the court concluded that Joyce’s interpretation of how damages should be apportioned would result in inconsistencies.

The court also found that prejudgment interest had gathered on past damages during a period beginning on:  (1) the earlier of the 180th day after receiving written notice or (2) the date a lawsuit was filed. The court noted that the code didn’t address how to apply settlement payments that were received while the prejudgment interest was accruing. It ruled that under case law, settlement credits had to be applied first to an accrued prejudgment interest as of the date of the settlement payment and then to the principal. The trial court’s judgment was modified to reflect actual damages in the amount of $1,937,467.32.

If you’re hurt in a construction accident, the experienced San Antonio personal injury attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to help you recover compensation for your injuries. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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