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Gross Negligence in a Texas Truck Accident Case

In the 2016 case of Rayner v. Dillon, a Texas Court of Appeals considered a truck accident case involving the long-haul driver of a tractor-trailer rig who had years of gaps and mistakes in his required driving logs. The driver had 30 years of experience as of the date of the accident, and he was hired by his employer three years before the accident.

The case arose when the truck driver hit the left-rear of a woman’s car on I-30 after changing from the center to the right lane. The woman initially refused medical care but went to the ER that night, complaining about pain in her head, neck, and lower back. She eventually had an anterior cervical discectomy and other spinal surgeries. She sued the truck driver and his employer for personal injuries. The driver argued that she was in his blind spot. He had received a citation for changing lanes unsafely.

In order to recover exemplary damages, a plaintiff must prove gross negligence by the defendant. The plaintiff in the current case presented evidence to support a claim of gross negligence. This evidence included the driver’s repeated falsification of his log book, admissions by the employer that the driver was the second-worst perpetrator of log book violations among its employee drivers but was not terminated, and 48 safety-related violations by the employer’s drivers in April 2010, among other egregious actions. The plaintiff was awarded over $1 million in compensatory damages as well as exemplary damages of $2,000 against the driver and more than $1 million against the driver’s employer. The jury found gross negligence by both the driver and the employer.

On appeal, the driver and the employer argued that the evidence was insufficient to support the finding of gross negligence. Gross negligence under section 41.001(11)(A) and (B) is an action that involves extreme risk—a likelihood of serious injury—when objectively considering the chances of harm to others. The actor must be subjectively aware of the risks but act anyway with a conscious indifference to others’ rights.

The appellate court explained the evidence is legally insufficient if it can conclude that no reasonable fact-finder could form a firm belief or conviction that both the objective and subjective parts of gross negligence were proven. The parties both argued over whether the driver’s fatigue caused the accident and whether that was connected to the evidence used to prove gross negligence.

The appellate court reasoned that in order to find gross negligence, the plaintiff had to prove ordinary negligence first. Once ordinary negligence was established, the jury didn’t need to make a new finding linking the defendants’ gross negligence to the plaintiff’s injuries. It simply had to determine whether the negligence was not only ordinary negligence but also gross negligence.

The appellate court explained that the driver had testified that he knew 18-wheelers could cause a catastrophic injury and that it was important for drivers to keep accurate log books related to hours of service to guard against fatigue. The driver had testified he “sucked” at logs and made many violations related to driving over hours. He argued this was thoughtless, rather than egregious.

The court disagreed, finding that the evidence objectively showed that his fatigued driving presented an extreme risk and that a jury could reasonably find he had a subjective awareness of this. Similarly, it found that the trucking company knew of an extreme risk of harm when the driver kept driving in spite of his violations, but it proceeded with a conscious disregard of the safety of others on the road. The judgment was affirmed.

If you are injured in a truck accident, it’s important to retain attorneys who understand the regulations involved in truck accident cases and understand how to present your case. The experienced San Antonio truck accident attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to help. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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