Earlier this May, a Texas appeals court affirmed a $116 million verdict awarded to the plaintiffs in a truck collision that killed a 7-year old boy and paralyzed a 12-year old girl. In a 5-4 ruling, the 14th Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, upheld the jury’s $90 million verdict, plus post-judgment interest that accrued, in the case of Werner Enterprises Inc. et al. v. Jennifer Blake et al. The appeals court found that the defendant, a trucking company, could be held liable for the collision even though the plaintiffs’ vehicle crossed the highway’s center median and entered the truck’s lane right before the collision.
On December 30, 2014, plaintiff Jennifer Blake and her children, Brianna (age 12), Nathan (age 14), and Zackery (age 7) were passengers in a 2003 Ford F-350 pickup truck driven by Zaragosa Salinas. The pickup truck was traveling in the left eastbound lane of Interstate 20 near Odessa, Texas when the driver lost control of the vehicle and crossed the median. The vehicle was struck by an 18-wheeler driven by Shiraz Ali and owned by the trucking company, Werner Enterprises, Inc. Ali, who was driving the 18-wheeler in the course and scope of his employment with Werner Enterprises, was driving at speeds of 50 to 60 miles per hour. As a result of the crash, Zackery was killed. Brianna suffered a severe traumatic brain injury that rendered her a quadriplegic. Nathan suffered a broken shoulder blade and collar bone as well as a bruised lung and other injuries. Jennifer Blake also suffered a mild traumatic brain injury, contusions, a hematoma, and other injuries.
The Lawsuit and Trial
On behalf of herself and her children, Jennifer Blake sued Werner Enterprises and Shiraz Ali for damages resulting from the crash. During a six-week trial in 2018, evidence indicated that Werner systematically disregarded basic safety policies and did not properly train its new student drivers, such as Ali. The company, valued at over $2 billion in annual gross revenue, hires 4,000 new drivers each year, none of which have prior truck driving experience. According to a Department of Transportation Compliance Review conducted after the Blake’s crash, Werner reported its annual driver turnover rate was over 100%.
The crash occurred during freezing rain and black ice road conditions. Per the Commercial Driver’s License manual, 18-wheeler drivers must slow to a crawl and get off the road during such conditions. Ali, who was a student driver at the time, did not exit the interstate but rather, continued to drive for 52 miles at over 60 miles per hour and was traveling 50 miles per hour seconds prior to the collision. At trial, Werner’s witnesses testified that the company did not give Ali access to safety equipment, such as an outside temperature gauge or a radio that would have alerted him to dangerous road conditions. Werner’s witnesses denied that icy conditions were present, but 14 other witnesses testified to freezing rain weather conditions at the time of the collision, which also included a National Weather Service warning that was never communicated to Ali. Ali was on an expedited delivery deadline and was expected to arrive in California the following day. As plaintiffs’ counsel, Eric Penn of the Penn Law Firm, stated, “Werner’s lack of basic safety systems and its inadequate training processes for student drivers - combined with its business model of assigning student drivers on expedited deliveries - is creating a highly dangerous and unsustainable dynamic on U.S. Highways.” Plaintiffs were also represented by Kelley Peacock of The Penn Law Firm PC, Zona Jones of Harrison Davis Morrison Jones PC, and Darrin Walker of Law Office of Darrin Walker, who presented dozens of witnesses.
The jury awarded plaintiffs over $90 million in damages, finding that Werner was 70% liable for the crash, Ali was 14% responsible, and Salinas was 16% responsible.
The Appeals Court Decision
Represented by Thomas Wright, Brian Cathey and R. Russell Hollenbeck of Wright Close & Barger LLP, and Amanda S. Hilty and Dale R. Mellencamp of Bair Hilty PC, Werner appealed the jury’s decision. Defense counsel argued that its driver had no duty of care to the Blakes because he could not have anticipated that their car would lose control and cross into the 18-wheeler’s lane.
The majority of the panel disagreed with Werner, finding that driving too fast on a highway can foreseeably lead to a collision with "another vehicle that enters the wrong lane of traffic." The opinion specifically cited certain relevant facts presented at trial, such as the presence and dangerousness of black ice, as well as Ali’s low evaluation score and his awareness of the consequences of a passenger vehicle losing control on ice in front of an 18-wheeler. As explained by Justice Meagan Hassan, "Ali was therefore duty-bound as a matter of law to operate the Werner truck at a speed at which an ordinarily prudent person would operate it under the same or similar circumstances.” The appeals court found that the evidence presented at trial supported a finding that Ali’s driving speed was a breach of his duty of care and caused the plaintiffs’ injuries. As explained, "Ali's negligence was a substantial factor in bringing about the Blakes' injuries and the collision, without which these injuries and this collision would not have occurred.” The appeals court also found that the evidence sufficiently established Werner was directly liable in that the company “not only failed to provide its drivers with equipment that would enable them to recognize dangerous road conditions like ice, freezing rain, and black ice, but it prohibited the use of such equipment, and assigned high-pressure ['just-in-time'] deliveries to inexperienced and unskilled student drivers.”
Chief Justice Tracy Christopher wrote a dissenting opinion, finding that a new trial was warranted because the jury was asked to answer a question under an invalid legal theory, namely, they were asked to assess whether the negligence of any Werner employees, other than Ali, caused the injuries but did not identify any specific duty of care, "The question did not define what that duty was — what objective conduct such unidentified employees were required to perform, or to refrain from performing — instead leaving individual jurors to make up these standards for themselves," the Chief Justice wrote.
In a separate dissent, Justice Randy Wilson found that Werner should be released under the "admission rule," which states that theories of direct liability can't be asserted against an employer for an employee's negligence if the employer admits that the worker was acting within the course of their employment when the alleged negligence occurred.
A spokesperson for Werner indicated their disappointment with the decision and their plans to seek relief with the Texas Supreme Court.