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In re Baker

Court of Appeals of Texas, Sixth District, Texarkana

December 17, 2013

IN RE: JONATHAN SCOTT BAKER AND SHANNON COMPTON, D/B/A AMERICAN OUTDOOR TRANSPORTATION

Date Submitted: December 16, 2013

Original Mandamus Proceeding

Before Morriss, C.J., Carter and Moseley, JJ.

OPINION

Josh R. Morriss, III Chief Justice

On a dark, stormy night, the vehicle occupied by Charles D. Windham, II, and Bryan Waller collided with rolled bales of hay that had fallen onto the highway from a flatbed trailer pulled by Jonathan Scott Baker. Windham and Waller sued Baker and his employer, Shannon Compton d/b/a American Outdoor Transportation, for negligence.

After hearing the evidence, including Baker's detailed testimony of his actions to secure his load preceding the accident, a Panola County jury answered in the negative the first jury question, finding that Baker's negligence, if any, did not proximately cause the collision. On June 28, 2013, Baker and Compton moved for judgment on the verdict. In response, on July 8, Windham and Waller filed a "motion to set aside the verdict and for mistrial, " which alleged that the jury's answer was "contrary to the great weight and preponderance of the evidence."

Over Baker and Compton's objections, on October 21, 2013, the trial court granted Windham and Waller's motion for a "mistrial, " set aside the jury verdict, and ordered that the case "be returned to the jury docket and set for a new trial" on the ground that the evidence was not factually sufficient to support the jury's verdict. Instead of proceeding with a new trial, Plaintiffs filed a notice of nonsuit, which the trial court granted November 1, 2013.

By petition for writ of mandamus, Baker and Compton (Relators) ask this Court to order the trial court to vacate its order setting aside the jury verdict, to vacate the nonsuit, and to "enter judgment on the verdict reached by the jury at trial." We grant Relators' petition because (1) we are to review the merits of the reason stated for granting a new trial, (2) the stated reason for granting a new trial was misplaced, and (3) the nonsuit was untimely and inappropriate.

(1) We Are To Review the Merits of the Reason Stated for Granting a New Trial

The Texas Supreme Court has recently held that "an appellate court may conduct a merits review of the bases for a new trial order after a trial court has set aside a jury verdict."[1] In re Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., 407 S.W.3d 746, 749 (Tex. 2013). The main issue in this case was whether the Plaintiffs met their burden to prove (a) that Baker breached his duty of care by failing to properly secure the bales of hay that fell from his truck and (b) that such negligence was a proximate cause of the Plaintiffs' collision. The order granting the new trial referred to standards requiring the load to be secured and stated,

Baker could offer no explanation for the occurrence. The evidence established that the straps that were on Baker's trailer at the time of the incident did not break and were not defective, and Compton testified that he had "no reason to believe there's anything with the condition of the straps that had anything to do with the hay falling off." Further, there was no evidence of any event or condition that could not reasonably be expected to occur in normal driving that could explain the hay falling from the trailer.
As there was no evidence of any unforeseeable or abnormal operating conditions, nor of anything other than Baker's failure to properly secure the cargo to explain the occurrence, the fact that the cargo did fall off was overwhelming evidence that Baker's negligence was a proximate cause of the occurrence in question. Under these circumstances, the Court finds that the jury's refusal to find that Baker's negligence was a proximate cause of the occurrence was against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence and was manifestly unjust.[2]

We now examine the record in this case to determine whether there was an abuse of ...


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