The Court of Appeals Fifth District of Texas at Dallas (“Texas Appellate Court”), in its opinion dated August 18, 2020, upheld a jury’s award in the amount of $5 million for a victim’s ten to fifteen seconds of awareness of impending death after the jury determined that the victim suffered pain and mental anguish before his death as a result of the occurrence.
The victim was killed when a bridge beam collapsed on his vehicle as he was driving southbound on Interstate 35 through a construction zone near Salado, Texas. The beam fell after the bridge was struck by a northbound tractor–trailer truck carrying an oversized piece of equipment loaded by United Rentals North America, Inc.’s San Antonio facility.
The medical examiner testified at trial that she performed the autopsy on the victim and determined his cause of death was “blunt force injuries with associated mechanical compression,” which included massive trauma to his torso. There were lacerations and bruises to his heart, and six of eight “great vessels” were “completely popped off” and the aorta transected. Twenty-two of his twenty-four ribs and his sternum were fractured as was his pelvis and thigh bone. There were lacerations to his lungs, diaphragm, and liver. The victim also suffered multiple abrasions to his face, his jawbone was fractured, and teeth loosened. Although he had a subscalpular hemorrhage or contusion at the top of his head, his skull was not fractured. According to the medical examiner, the injuries were caused by “something mammoth” crushing him and were “way more” than “you see in most traffic wrecks.”
The medical examiner testified that the victim “may or may not have been knocked unconscious, and there’s no way to know,” and since the victim had “no other real internal head injuries,” she had nothing “anatomic” to “pull” her in the direction that he was “knocked unconscious.” The medical examiner testified that since the nature and extent of his injuries meant that his heart was no longer pumping blood, “and he’s not breathing,” the victim had only “the 10 to 15 seconds worth of oxygen that was already in his brain” from the moment his chest was crushed. After that, she testified, he “is leaving consciousness and never regaining it.” She agreed that it was “speculative” to say whether or not he was actually consciously aware of what happened to him after the accident: “He may have been unconscious, he may have been stunned, so not knocked out exactly, but disoriented, or he could have been clear as a bell for 10 to 15 seconds.” But, she added, “[t]here is nothing to distinguish those.”
The defendant argued on appeal (1) that because there is no evidence that the victim reacted by, for example, applying the brakes, the jury was precluded from finding that he consciously perceived the falling of the beam, and (2) there was no evidence the victim was conscious after the beams fell on his vehicle and the medical examiner testified that it would be “speculative” to say whether he was conscious or unconscious.
Texas Appellate Court Opinion
The Texas Appellate Court stated that the accident reconstructionist provided some evidence from which a jury could have reasonably inferred that the victim was aware of his impending death before the crash occurred. He testified that the victim had time to perceive, if not react to, the collapsing bridge beam, specifically opining that he had time for an “oh, my gosh” moment. “Thus, the fact that [the victim] did not have time to apply his brakes or make some other show of evasive action is of no moment.”
The Texas Appellate Court stated that the medical examiner’s testimony that “she could not say to a reasonable medical probability that [the victim] was conscious after the crash is not conclusive proof that [the victim] was unconscious nor did it preclude the jury from drawing whatever reasonable inferences they wished from the evidence, so long as more than one was possible from the evidence. [The medical examiner’s] other testimony provided this evidence[:] … at the time of the crash, [the victim] had ten to fifteen seconds worth of oxygen already in his brain. Unlike the injuries to his torso, [the victim] did not suffer significant head injuries. His skull was not fractured, and he sustained only the subscalpular hemorrhage to the top of his head. [The medical examiner] specifically said that because there were no other “real internal head injuries,” she had nothing “anatomic” to pull her in the direction that [the victim] was unconscious. In other words, a jury could infer that, given [the victim’s] specific injuries, the medical evidence did not suggest an injury rendering him from a conscious to unconscious state. [The medical examiner] told the jury that [the victim] could have been unconscious, stunned, or “clear as a bell.” This evidence allows for more than one inference and, in fact, allowed the jury to infer that he was conscious for up to fifteen seconds after the crash. No one will ever “know” with certainty whether [the victim] was aware of his impending death and whether he sat crushed but conscious in his truck suffering the massive injuries to his body. But the lack of direct evidence on this issue does not preclude a jury from reasonably inferring from the evidence presented that [the victim] was aware of his impending death and consciously suffered the pain of his injuries during those final moments of his life … we conclude the jury’s finding was not so contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence as to be clearly wrong and unjust.”
Amount Of Damages For Conscious Pain And Suffering
The defendant also attacked on appeal the amount awarded by the jury. The Texas Appellate Court stated: “Because there are no objective guidelines to assess the monetary equivalent of pain and suffering resulting from physical injury, the jury is given a great deal of discretion in awarding an amount of damages it deems appropriate … It is the jury’s province to resolve the speculative matters of non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering … As long as there is sufficient probative evidence to support the jury’s verdict, this Court will not substitute its judgment for that of the jury. Id. And in the absence of a showing that passion, prejudice, or other improper motive influenced the jury, the amount assessed by it will not be set aside as excessive … The mere fact of a large award does not show that the jury was influenced by passion, prejudice, sympathy, or other circumstances not in evidence … Instead, the award must be flagrantly outrageous, extravagant, and so excessive that it shocks the judicial conscience.”
“[W]hen reviewing a jury award for pain and suffering, we keep in mind that (1) we should not substitute our judgment for that of the jury, (2) in the absence of an affirmative showing of bias or prejudice, we will give every intendment to the evidence supporting the verdict, and (3) the judgment of the jury is as good as that of the court and it should prevail unless it appears that the verdict is influenced by passion or prejudice and is not the result of honest convictions.”
In upholding the amount of damages awarded by the jury for the victim’s conscious pain and suffering, the Texas Appellate Court stated: “The evidence established that [the victim] was traveling at highway speed when the bridge beam suddenly collapsed, landing on [the victim’s] truck just behind the bumper. While [the victim] had no time to react, he had time to appreciate the possibility, if not the certainty, of his impending death. As momentum tried to push his vehicle forward, the entire engine and occupant compartment were crushed to a space of about eighteen inches in depth. The force of impact caused six of eight vessels attached to his heart to “completely pop off,” transected his aorta, and resulted in devastating injuries to his other organs, ribs, sternum, pelvis, and thigh. [The victim] was left with the ten to fifteen seconds of oxygen already in his brain, and the jury could have reasonably inferred that [the victim] was conscious while he was being crushed. Duration of pain and mental anguish is admittedly an important consideration. SunBridge, 160 S.W.3d at 250. But duration is not the only consideration. Fifteen seconds on paper may seem insignificant, but the jury was not considering duration in a vacuum. Rather, it considered ten to fifteen seconds of terror and unmitigated pain and suffering that, based on the evidence, it was free to determine [the victim] must have experienced during the final moments of his life.”
The Texas Appellate Court held: “The award is large, but that fact alone does not mandate remittitur or reversal. There is nothing in this record to suggest the jury’s verdict was influenced by passion or prejudice or anything other than honest conviction based on the facts of the case. Nor is the award so flagrantly outrageous, extravagant, or excessive that it shocks the judicial conscience. After reviewing the evidence, we conclude the evidence is legally and factually sufficient to support the jury’s answers to Question 5. Accordingly, we overrule the fourth issue.”
Source United Rentals North America, Inc. v. Evans, No. 05-18-00665-CV.
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