Supreme Court Reverses a Jury Verdict, Again

On December 5, 2008, the Supreme Court of Texas again reversed a jury verdict. In the case of Texas Department of Transportation v. York, the Supreme Court ruled that an unexpected loose layer of gravel is not a “special defect.”

Rebecca York was traveling on FM 979 on October 29, 2003. She lost control of her vehicle in a part of the roadway where – the day before – TxDOT had applied a layer of gravel to the surface. When it hit the gravel, Ms. York’s vehicle lost control, went across the centerline, and was struck by a truck. She died at the scene. A jury ruled that TxDOT was negligent and awarded her family $1,033,440. The trial judge cut that figure down to $250,000, because the statute puts the results of the State’s negligence on the victim to the extent that the damages exceed $250,000. In other words, a state agency does not have to bear responsibility for the portion of the damages caused by its negligence above $250,000. Despite this, TxDOT appealed. The court of appeals agreed with the trial court that the gravel in the roadway was a “special defect.”

The Supreme Court – in an unsigned ruling called a “per curium opinion” – said that the slippery gravel was not an “unexpected and unusual danger” to ordinary users of the roadway. The Court said that it was not similar to the danger presented by excavations or obstructions in the roadway, which are two conditions listed merely as examples in the statute. Because it reversed the decisions of the jury, the trial judge, and the court of appeals, the Supreme Court ruled that the case had to be tried all over again. This time, the standard which the York family will have to prove is much more difficult, so TxDOT may escape responsibility altogether. The family will have to prove that TxDOT not only knew of the condition it created, but further that it knew the condition posed an “unreasonable risk of harm.” Naturally, it is unusual that any agency will admit that it had such knowledge. So, it is now unexpected that the family will receive any compensation whatsoever.