The Texas Supreme Court threw out a $15.8 million verdict, ruling unanimously that lawyers improperly introduced evidence that a gravel truck driver involved in a 2002 accident that killed four members of a Wise County family was an illegal immigrant.
By repeatedly mentioning the truck driver’s immigration status, lawyers for the Hughes family clearly sought to inflame jurors’ passions against the driver and his employer, TXI Transportation Co., the court ruled.
“Such appeals to racial and ethnic prejudices, whether ‘explicit and brazen’ or ‘veiled and subtle,’ cannot be tolerated because they undermine the very basis of our judicial process,” the 8-0 opinion written by Justice David Medina said.
On a clear, dry day in December 2002, Kimberly Hughes was driving four family members to Fort Worth for Christmas shopping. Returning home to Paradise, about 30 miles to the northwest, their GMC Yukon sideswiped a fully loaded gravel truck traveling in the opposite direction.
Only 1-year-old Jagr Royse survived. His grandmother, Hughes; his great-grandmother; and his uncle were killed. So was his mom, Afton Hughes Royse, who was pregnant with twins.
At trial, a TXI expert argued that roadway gouge marks and other evidence showed that the accident occurred in truck driver Ricardo Rodriguez’s lane — proof that Hughes was at fault.
But an accident reconstruction expert the Hughes family hired — Kurt Marshek, a University of Texas professor emeritus in mechanical engineering — concluded that the gravel truck had first drifted into Hughes’ lane, forcing her to instinctively veer left to avoid hitting the truck or a roadside ditch on the right. When Rodriguez corrected his course, the vehicles met in the truck’s original lane, Marshek concluded.
Wise County jurors agreed and ordered TXI Transportation — a subsidiary of Dallas-based TXI Corp., the state’s largest cement producer — to pay $22.4 million to Hughes family members. An appeals court cut the award to $15.8 million.
During the trial, jurors heard almost 80 references to Rodriguez crossing the border illegally, serving four months in jail for an immigration violation and being deported with an order not to return for 10 years.
Hughes family lawyers argued that the information was needed to attack Rodriguez’s credibility, particularly on testimony that he never lied to get a U.S. driver’s license and that he was unsure whether he could legally work in this country. More important, Hughes lawyers said, highlighting Rodriguez’s immigration status showed that TXI was negligent because it failed to properly investigate its employee’s driving record.
In it’s ruling, however, the Supreme Court said Rodriguez’s legal status should not have been an issue at trial.
Courts have consistently held that immigration status cannot be used to impugn somebody’s character because the information is more likely to prejudice jurors than to provide relevant information, Medina wrote in his opinion.
The immigration information was not relevant to the negligence claim against TXI, Medina wrote. Hughes lawyers needed to prove that TXI’s failure to fully screen Rodriguez created a foreseeable risk that he would negligently drive his gravel truck, he said.
The case was TXI v. Hughes, 07-0541.
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