$8 Million Jury Award Overturned by Courts

19-year-old's accident left her with permanent brain damage.

The first blessing, her father will tell you, is that she never saw it coming.

If she'd been tensed up, it would have only been worse when the 18-wheeler with no brakes on the drilling rig load it was carrying ran a red and slammed into 19-year-old Michelle Gaines as her car was crossing the 256 loop around Palestine in East Texas.

And when Mike Gaines saw his daughter in the emergency room at Mother Francis Hospital in Tyler, on June 11, 2006, his first thought was that everything was fine. His soccer- and ­volleyball-playing daughter wasn't at all torn up as he expected; she looked about perfect.

Michelle Gaines ran all the time, and played volleyball and soccer in high school.
Margaret Downing
Michelle Gaines ran all the time, and played volleyball and soccer in high school.
Michelle Gaines still hopes to live on her own and to regain her vision.
Margaret Downing
Michelle Gaines still hopes to live on her own and to regain her vision.

"There wasn't a scratch on her. I was ready to say, 'C'mon, let's go home,'" he says. "But it was all internal." The crash had broken her pelvis, punctured a lung and the force of the accident had smashed her brain against the inside of her skull and inflicted permanent damage. She wouldn't talk for months.

Three weeks later, Mike pulled a doctor aside only to be told "that she was brain dead. There was nothing I could do. That I could either take her home or put her in a nursing home." A mechanic, Mike didn't see how he could manage the feeding tubes and oxygen line his daughter needed. And he wasn't ready to buy their diagnosis.

Mike's lived his whole life in Palestine, population 18,000, and he got on the phone to friends who connected him to other friends. State Senator Todd Staples got involved. Then came the second blessing. A nurse at Mother Francis told Mike about what Baylor Hospital in Dallas was doing with cases like Michelle's. He hadn't known, but he believed her when she said the doctors there could really help his daughter. Problem was, there was a six-week wait to get into Baylor and the Tyler hospital was throwing her out now. They'd already tried to get his wife to sign the deed to their house over to the hospital because the family had no insurance.

That's when they got the third blessing. Michelle got pneumonia and under the law, Mother Francis couldn't oust that sick a patient. The family got the time they needed to get things set up with Baylor, which took Michelle on as a charity case. She stayed there three months.

But while there was remarkable improvement, Michelle wasn't the Michelle she'd been. Because of the pressure on her brain — it had gone undetected in Tyler, Mike says — Michelle's peripheral vision was gone and wasn't coming back even after a couple of operations. She had short-term memory loss. Mentally, she was — and remains — in a 12-year-old's territory.

The family went to court and in 2010, an Anderson County jury awarded more than $8 million to Michelle. The jury assessed damages against Kenneth Woodworth, the driver of the tractor-trailer — who had had no driver's license for six years (let alone a commercial one) and admitted he "had done some methamphetamines" the day before he inspected the brakes on the trailer he was pulling. They found against Benny Joe Adkinson, Woodworth's employer and the owner of the rig.

The jury also found against Joseph Pritchett, a businessman with lots in Robstown and Conroe who buys and sells new and old oilfield equipment, who'd had a lot of deals with Adkinson over the years and who, Michelle's attorneys say, had entered into a joint enterprise with Adkinson to use this particular rig as a template for other rigs they'd produce and sell. Pritchett, who was added later in the case, was the only one with any real money.

During the trial, there was a lot of evidence presented by Michelle's attorneys that not only had Pritchett and Adkinson destroyed evidence by cutting up the drilling rig before Michelle's attorneys could have an expert examine it, but that there were payments totaling $96,000 that they said were bribes paid by Pritchett to Adkinson, payments that — fortified by falsified invoices — were designed to disguise his role in the enterprise. (Pritchett's attorneys deny there were any bribes. They call that accusation pure "speculation.")

Mike had started working on the trust fund he'd set up for his daughter, one, he says, that would be unbreakable and would provide for housing, transportation and medical care long after he was gone.

But in 2011, Pritchett's attorneys went to the 12th Court of Appeals and won. They argued successfully that it had never been proven that Pritchett had entered into a joint enterprise with Adkinson in this particular instance, even though Adkinson's rig was going to Pritchett's yard. The appeals court ruled that Michelle's attorneys had failed to prove that Pritchett had any control over the drilling rig and what Adkinson had done with it, even though the first person Adkinson called after the wreck was Pritchett. They said Pritchett didn't owe a penny; he'd had nothing to do with the accident. It was a sad situation, his attorney Jennifer Grace says, but he's not responsible.

The key point, according to Grace, was that setting a precedent by allowing Pritchett to be held liable would have a devastating effect on business in Texas. "If this were allowed to impose liability, it would forever change the business landscape in Texas. Anybody that was in business with somebody else could potentially be responsible for their acts that they had no control over."

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4 comments
DahVeeD
DahVeeD

I think everyone looked better in high school. Sob story. "She's paying everyday." pft, I'm sure.

mediabeing
mediabeing like.author.displayName 1 Like

I say let new precedent be set!  The argument suggests that the oil industry will die if wheelers and dealers are held responsible for their business doings. Balderdash! 

This overturning of jury award is in keeping with the vile de-regulation movement. 

The dishonest greedy folks better wake up, before it's too late.

Houstonian
Houstonian like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Texas has one of the worst court system in US.  Judges are all incompetent and corrupt and only after a campaign contribution for their re-election.  They don't care about people and they never will care for people like Michelle.  Texas legal system is slowing becoming an arm pit of US jurisprudence.  

PolarBearQ
PolarBearQ like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

The texas suprme court has an almost unbelievable bias against individuals which it routinely sacrifices upon an alter composed of Texas citizens.  The statitistics are startling.  The supreme court routinely finds for corporate interests 80% of the time over individuals.  Recently, it held that worker's compensation claimants have virtually no recourse against their insurance companies, even when the insurer wholly fails to investigate a claim or if they deny a claim with no basis whatsovever.  This will not change until citizensa and voters begin to demand change.  We were sold a line about trials being bad because they supposedly dealt out jackpot justice. In reality its the justices that hit the jackpot.  Flush with campaign contributions, the odds are so skewed in the corporate houses favor with their blackrobed dealers that the little guy has hardly any chance at all.  I'm sorry Michelle. 

 
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