In Gomez v. Cooke, a Texas appellate court considered a case that arose when a couple was on a cross-country road trip, traveling through Houston. The husband was driving the pickup, which was towing a camper.
Before the accident, the wife was looking at her GPS and instructing her husband to take a right turn. The truck moved toward the left, and the wife looked over to see her husband’s head had dropped and he was totally unresponsive. She tried to move his foot off the gas, but it was too late, and the truck and camper crashed into six vehicles, including a car driven by the plaintiff.
When they arrived, the emergency medical services personnel noticed that the left side of the husband’s face was drooping, and that side of his body was weak. At the hospital, the doctors determined the husband had suffered a stroke, causing him to lose consciousness.
The plaintiff sued the husband, alleging negligence and negligence per se. The defendant argued that the crash was unavoidable because he hadn’t foreseen the medical emergency, and there was no evidence he should have foreseen it. He moved for summary judgment, successfully establishing under Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c) that there was no genuine material factual issue and that he was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
The plaintiff appealed, asking the appellate court to reverse the judgment. He argued that the trial court should not have decided as a matter of law that the crash was an unavoidable accident and that it should have left this as a question of fact for the jury. He also argued that the evidence he submitted raised a factual issue as to whether the plaintiff’s incapacity was foreseeable.
The appellate court explained that negligence requires a plaintiff to establish: (1) duty, (2) breach of duty, and (3) proximate (legal) cause. Negligence per se arises when there is a violation of a statute designed to prevent harm to a class of people to which the plaintiff belongs, and the violation is not excusable. It further explained that an unavoidable accident occurs when an event is not legally caused by any party’s negligence. In other words, the defendant couldn’t have avoided the accident through ordinary care, diligence, foresight, or taking reasonable precautions.
Unforeseeable loss of consciousness is a complete defense to a claim of negligence in a car accident case. It was the defendant’s responsibility to produce evidence that established the defense as a matter of law.
The appellate court explained that juries don’t decide all factual issues in a case. They decide material factual questions when the evidence is conflicting or when undisputed evidence suggests conflicting inferences. However, if material facts are conclusively established, there’s nothing for a jury to decide, and summary judgment is appropriate.
The court also reasoned that the defendant conclusively established the unforeseeability of his stroke with his summary judgment evidence, which included the crash report, his medical and hospital records, and deposition testimony. He had benign hypertension for 10 years before the accident, but he was never told he was at risk of having a stroke. The doctor testified that he didn’t have many risk factors for stroke. He also seemed healthy on the day of the stroke, and there were no signs to suggest he shouldn’t drive.
The plaintiff argued that summary judgment shouldn’t have been granted because the husband admitted he didn’t conduct independent research on hypertension before the crash. The court found this immaterial because the husband was a layperson, and determining foreseeability was a question for experts. He had no duty to conduct research, particularly when his doctor, an expert, found he had no risk factors except hypertension. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
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