The Texas Supreme Court last week upheld a jury’s verdict in favor of a woman and her injured child. The case is Arvizu, et al. v. The Estate of George Puckett d/b/a Puckett Auto Sales, ___ S.W.3d ___ (Tex. 2012)(3/30/12). In this case, a company claimed it should not be responsible for driver who was delivering a vehicle on its behalf.
The negligent driver was employed by Montgomery County Auto Auction and was transporting a vehicle for its customer, Puckett Auto Sales. The jury found that the driver was employed by MCAA but was subject to control of Puckett. As a result, the trial judge entered a judgment against the driver, MCAA, and Puckett. On appeal, Puckett claimed the jury’s answers in its verdict were irreconcilable. The Supreme Court disagreed. Since the jury found “that MCAA was subject to Puckett’s control and was on a mission for Puckett’s benefit-which comprise the elements of a principal-agent relationship…MCAA is vicariously liable for its employee’s negligence [and] Puckett as principal is responsible for its agent’s conduct.” The Court was thus “able to reconcile the jury’s answers on the agency theory….”
In footnote 3, the Court wrote, “Nonemployee mission liability is a form of ‘respondeat superior liability outside the employment context.’ … ‘The key elements of such a theory are (1) benefit to the defendant and (2) right of control.'”
The Supreme Court further explained that “courts have a ‘duty to harmonize jury findings when possible.’ Courts must uphold jury findings if ‘there is any reasonably possible basis upon which they may be reconciled.’ … [If there is a conflict, the] court must determine whether the conflict is fatal to the entry of judgment.”
The party claiming a conflict “must show that one of the conflicting findings ‘necessarily requires the entry of a judgment different from that which the court has entered.'” Here, Puckett could not show that the purportedly conflicting findings would require different judgments. “Question 3 establishes a principal-agent relationship … [because] MCAA, a nonemployee, was on a mission for the benefit of Puckett and subject to Puckett’s control.” “Based on the combined findings in Questions 1 and 3, the judgment is valid against Puckett even if Question 2 had not been submitted… rendering any conflict between the jury findings immaterial to the judgment.” As a result, the Supreme Court enforced the jury’s determination of the case.