Introduction. In this rear-end 18 wheeler collision case, the trial court entered judgment in favor of injured motorist Patterson for over $30 million against FTS International Services, LLC and $26 million against FTS employee, Acker. The Appellate Court overturned the judgment because, amongst other reasons, the noneconomic damages awarded were excessive. The Appellate Courted remanded the case for new trial. FTS Int’l Services, LLC v. Patterson, 12-19-00040-CV, 2020 WL 5047913, at *1 (Tex. App.—Tyler Aug. 26, 2020, no pet. h.).
Background. According to the record, Acker was driving an FTS truck while in the course and scope of his employment for FTS. Acker negligently permitted the truck he was operating to drift into the lane of the vehicle being operated by Patterson. Acker’s truck collided into the right rear bumper and fender of Patterson’s vehicle.
Police were called to the scene and Patterson reported he was not injured. The officer cited Acker for failure to control speed and Acker later pleaded guilty. Acker was then able to drive his vehicle to his destination. FTS required Acker to take a drug test which was “positive for marijuana along with amphetamine and methamphetamine metabolites.” FTS Int’l Services, LLC v. Patterson, supra, *1.
That evening Patterson experienced pain and the next day he obtained medical treatment. The treating doctor diagnosed Patterson with neck strain and provided medication. Subsequently, Patterson followed up for care with a chiropractor. Patterson was later referred to a pain specialist who performed epidural injections in Patterson’s neck and other procedures. Patterson’s symptoms continued and he was referred to a surgeon who performed surgery.
Patterson sued Acker for negligence and FTS on the grounds that it was vicariously liable for Acker’s negligence and for negligently hiring, training supervising, and retaining Acker.
The jury awarded damages to Patterson as follows: (1) $131,191.96 and $612,578.80 in respective past and future medical expenses; (2) $67,066.33 and $1,500,000 in past and future lost earning capacity; (3) $2,000,000 and $8,000,000 in past and future physical pain; (4) $2,000,000 and $4,000,000 in past and future mental anguish; (5) $3,000,000 and $5,000,000 in past and future physical impairment; and (6) $500.00 in past disfigurement. The jury also found that the harm to Patterson resulted from the gross negligence of Acker and FTS and assessed $75,000,000 and $50,000 in exemplary damages respectively against FTS and Acker.”
FTS Int’l Services, LLC v. Patterson, supra, *2.
Based upon the jury’s verdict, the trial court awarded judgment, jointly and severally, for over $30 million against FTS and $26 million against Acker. FTS and Acker appealed.
Issues on Appeal. FTS and Acker raised several issues on appeal and the Appellate Court found that:
- The law and evidence supported Patterson’s claims against FTS for negligent hiring, training, supervising and retention of Acker. The court found that this cause of action is recognized by Texas jurisprudence. The evidence supporting liability against FTS included that Acker’s accurate driving record showed that Acker’s traffic violations exceeded the permissible number to be eligible for hire under FTS policies. Acker had four incidents in his FTS truck while on duty, FTS placed Acker on probation for this, and Acker was on probation at the time of the accident.
- There was sufficient evidence to show that Patterson’s injuries were caused by the accident.
- However, the jury awarded excessive damages against FTS and Acker.
Not only must there be evidence of the existence of compensable noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering, mental anguish, and physical impairment, there must also be evidence to justify the amount awarded.
FTS Int’l Services, LLC v. Patterson, supra, *12.
- This accident involved a minor impact. There was conflicting and conclusory evidence regarding the severity of Patterson’s noneconomic damages. The court concluded that when you couple this with the improper jury argument by Patterson’s attorney, including that defendants spoliated evidence, the award for noneconomic damages was excessive.
Disposition by Appellate Court. The Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s judgment and remanded the case for new trial.
Conclusion. The Appellate Court found that the award of noneconomic damages was excessive. According to the Court, this accident involved a relatively minor impact, even if caused by an 18 wheeler. Further, there was conflicting and conclusory testimony offered to support these damages. The Court also found that Plaintiff’s counsel made improper jury argument including allegations that Defendants spoliated evidence. A closer reading of the case also shows that the Court was troubled by the ratio of economic to noneconomic damages. Thus, in the end the Court ordered that justice required the jury verdict be overturned and the case be remanded for new trial.