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Harbin v. Fisher

Court of Appeals of Texas, Seventh District, Amarillo

June 12, 2019

EUGENE HARBIN, APPELLANT
v.
CHRISTOPHER FISHER, APPELLEE

          On Appeal from the County Court at Law Walker County, Texas Trial Court No. 12520V; Honorable Tracy Sorensen, Presiding

          Before CAMPBELL, and PIRTLE and PARKER, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          PATRICK A. PIRTLE, JUSTICE

         Appellant, Eugene Harbin, appeals from a judgment following a bench trial awarding Appellee, Christopher Fisher, $3, 906.44 in damages based upon the theory of negligent entrustment. Fisher suffered those damages as a result of a vehicular collision involving his vehicle and Harbin's vehicle, while it was being operated by Harbin's fiancée, Julia Collins. In a single issue, Harbin asserts the evidence at trial was legally insufficient to support the trial court's finding that he negligently entrusted his vehicle to Collins.[1] We agree. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's judgment and render judgment in Harbin's favor.

         Background

         In February 2016, Collins was driving a Dodge owned by Harbin, and Fisher was driving a Chevrolet owned by Robert Harper north on IH 45, a four-lane highway. When Collins attempted to make a lane change from left to right, Fisher sounded his horn to gain her attention and warn her of an impending collision. Collins continued to make that change, and as a result, she struck the vehicle being driven by Fisher. The collision pushed him off the road where his vehicle struck a tree. Thereafter, Fisher filed an action in Justice of the Peace Court Number 1 in Walker County against Harbin for negligently entrusting his Dodge to Collins. A finding was issued in Fisher's favor and Harbin appealed to the Walker County Court at Law for a trial de novo. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 506.3 ("A trial de novo is a new trial in which the entire case is presented as if there had been no previous trial.").

         In October 2017, a bench trial was held. Prior to trial, the following stipulations were entered into by the parties: (1) on the date of the collision, Harbin owned the Dodge Charger involved in the collision; (2) Harbin entrusted his vehicle to Collins; (3) Collins's negligence proximately caused the collision with Fisher; and (4) the Chevrolet driven by Fisher sustained damages of $3, 906.44, in addition to $41.00 in court costs.

         Harbin and Collins were the only witnesses at trial. Harbin testified that in February 2016, Collins was his fiancée and they had been living together for three years.[2] Prior to giving her permission to drive his Dodge, she was driving a Chevrolet Malibu under an insurance policy that insured her and her mother. When her mother needed the use of the Malibu, Harbin allowed Collins to drive his Dodge on a daily basis. Harbin had purchased his insurance policy on the Dodge prior to the collision and excluded Collins from his policy because he believed she was covered on the policy with her mother and saw no reason to pay extra for additional insurance.

         Harbin also testified that on numerous occasions, he had ridden as a passenger while Collins was driving. Based on his experience, he considered her a good driver who paid attention to the road and obeyed traffic laws. He had never known her to receive a traffic ticket in the three years they were together although he had heard generally that she had received a couple of traffic tickets years ago. At the time of the collision, she was a licensed driver.

         Collins testified that in 2014, she was driving the Malibu when she was hit while picking up her child at school. She also received three convictions for speeding in 2008, 2009, and 2010. She testified that at the time of the collision, she was insured under the policy issued on the Malibu and had been driving the Dodge about a month. She considered herself a good driver and had not had a speeding ticket in more than six years.

         In its final judgment issued November 29, 2017, the trial court found in favor of Fisher and awarded him $3, 906.44 in damages and $41.00 in court costs. Thereafter, the trial court issued its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law wherein it found that Harbin negligently entrusted his Dodge to Collins because she had several moving violations in the past, was involved in at least one collision prior to her collision with Fisher, and Harbin had excluded her from his insurance policy on the Dodge prior to the collision.

         Standard of Review

         In conducting a legal sufficiency review, we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the challenged finding and indulge every reasonable inference in support of it. City of Keller v. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d 802, 822 (Tex. 2005). We also credit favorable evidence if reasonable jurors could, while disregarding contrary evidence unless reasonable jurors could not. Id. at 827. A challenge to the legal sufficiency will be sustained when, among other things, the evidence offered to establish a vital fact does not exceed a scintilla.[3] Kroger Tex. Ltd. P'ship v. Suberu, 216 S.W.3d 788, 793 (Tex. 2006). In addition, so long as the evidence falls within the zone of reasonable disagreement, we may not invade the fact-finding role of the jurors, who alone determine the credibility of the witnesses, the weight to be given their testimony, and whether to accept or reject all or part of their testimony. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d at 822. The final test for legal sufficiency must always be whether the evidence at trial would enable reasonable and fair-minded people to reach the verdict under review; id., and generally, if an appellate court sustains a "no evidence" or "legal sufficiency" issue, the appellate court must reverse and render judgment. See In re State ex rel. K.D.C., 78 S.W.3d 543, 551 (Tex. App.-Amarillo 2002, no pet.) (citing Chevrolet, Inc. v. Lewis, 709 S.W.2d 176, 176 (Tex. 1986)).

         Negligent ...


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