A family from Mexico — a mother, father, and child — hired a “coyote” to transport them into the United States, to either New Orleans or Houston.
He picked them up in a truck at a safe house in Texas, along with another passenger. They drove to the private Jones Ranch, arriving before dawn. The coyote ordered his passengers to move from the back seat to the floor of the truck. Somehow he had keys to the locked gate of the ranch and drove onto the property.
A ranch employee spotted and stopped the strange truck, even in the early morning darkness, and asked the driver what he was doing on the ranch. The employee observed only the driver and a front seat passenger and also wrote down the license plate number of the truck.
The driver took off in the truck at high speed on the unlit caliche road. Five miles down the road, the truck rolled over, and the family members were all thrown from the truck and killed. One other passenger was injured. The driver and another passenger fled.
The parties disputed whether the ranch employee had merely followed the truck by its dust trail at a moderate speed, as claimed by the ranch operators. The survivors of the family claimed the employee pursued the truck aggressively at a high rate of speed.
The family’s survivors, the mother’s parents, sued the ranch employee and the ranch operators: Mestena Operating, LLC, formerly known as Mestena Operating, Ltd., Mestena, Inc., and Mestena Uranium, LLC. They made claims for wrongful death, negligence, gross negligence, assault, and negligent entrustment, retention, and supervision.
The trial court granted summary judgment for the ranch defendants on wrongful death, negligence, gross negligence, and assault.
The court of appeals reversed the trial court on the claims for wrongful death, negligence, and gross negligence.
The Supreme Court of Texas ruled on the ranch defendants’ motions for summary judgment. In addition to other findings, the court of appeals had ruled that the ranch employee owed a reasonable duty of care not to injure the family by starting and continuing a high-speed chase over a caliche road. The ranch defendants asked the Supreme Court to reject this analysis because it imposed a new duty on a landowner to protect trespassers from the acts of other trespassers.
The Supreme Court observed that in a negligence case, the threshold duty of a landowner to a trespasser is to avoid injuring them willfully, wantonly, or through gross negligence. This duty does not support a simple negligence claim. The Court then moved on to the issue of the family’s survivors’ claim for gross negligence.
The Supreme Court found that the family’s survivors failed to show enough evidence of gross negligence by the ranch employee for their claim to survive summary judgment. The family’s survivors offered inadequate evidence that the ranch employee was aggressively pursuing the truck or even how fast the ranch employee was driving.
For procedural reasons, since they failed to join in some of the appeals, the Supreme Court ruled that the ranch operators would still face the family’s survivors’ claims for wrongful death, negligence, gross negligence, assault, and negligent entrustment, retention and supervision. However, the Court remanded the case to the trial court, and it appeared unlikely that any of the family’s survivors’ claims would be upheld, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision on the limits of the ranch operators’ duty of care.
To obtain the services of an experienced attorney, who can help you deal with the legal claims arising from the wrongful death of a loved one, contact the law firm of Carabin & Shaw today. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.