159 S.W.3d 897 (Tex. 2004), 02-0557, Volkswagen of America, Inc. v. Ramirez

Docket Nº02-0557.
Citation159 S.W.3d 897
Party NameVOLKSWAGEN OF AMERICA, Inc., Petitioner, v. Andrew RAMIREZ, Sr., et al., Respondents.
Case DateDecember 31, 2004
CourtSupreme Court of Texas

Page 897

159 S.W.3d 897 (Tex. 2004)



Andrew RAMIREZ, Sr., et al., Respondents.

No. 02-0557.

Supreme Court of Texas

December 31, 2004

Argued April 23, 2003.

Rehearing Denied March 11, 2005.

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Ben Taylor, Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P., Dallas, Roger W. Hughes, Adams & Graham, L.L.P., Harlingen, Rafael Edward Cruz and Joseph Hughes, Warren W. Harris, Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, Houston, David M. Prichard, Brendan K. McBride, Prichard, Hawkins & Young, LLP, San Antonio, for amicus curiae.

C. Thomas Schweizer, Lynne Liberato, Kent Rutter, Alene Ross Levy, Haynes and Boone, LLP, Timothy R. Bersch, Houston, Eduardo R. Rodriguez, Rodriguez, Colvin, Chaney & Saenz, L.L.P., Brownsville, Ian Ceresney, Herzfeld & Rubin, P.C., New York, NY, for petitioner.

Michael James Garza, McAllen, Albert A. Munoz II, David H. Hockema, Hockema, Tippit & Escobedo, L.L.P., Roger Reed, Reed, Carrera & McLain, L.L.P., Edinburg, David M. Gunn, Kevin H. Dubose, Alexander Dubose Jones & Townsend, LLP, Houston, Douglas Alexander, for respondent.

Justice WAINWRIGHT delivered the opinion of the Court in which Justice HECHT, Justice OWEN, Justice SMITH, Justice BRISTER, and Justice MEDINA joined.

In this case, we consider whether there was sufficient evidence to support a jury's finding that a defect in an automobile manufactured by Volkswagen of America, Inc. was the proximate cause of a fatal two-car accident. After a unanimous jury returned a defense verdict, the trial court granted a motion for new trial and the second jury returned a verdict awarding substantial monetary damages. Because we hold that the evidence was not legally sufficient to support causation, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and render a take-nothing judgment in favor of Volkswagen.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

On November 26, 1996, Haley Sperling was driving a 1996 Volkswagen Passat eastbound on U.S. 83, a divided highway with two lanes of traffic in each direction. The eastbound and westbound lanes of U.S. 83 are separated by a grass median that gently slopes down from both sides of the highway to a flat concrete strip in the median's center. Sperling was traveling in the inside eastbound lane as she approached a Camaro heading in the same direction in the outside lane. The two cars bumped twice, after which Sperling's car immediately crossed the median and collided nearly head-on with a Ford Mustang traveling westbound on U.S. 83. The Mustang was driven by Diana Ramirez Guerra (Guerra) and occupied by her fourteen-year old daughter, Jacquelyn Guerra (Jackie). Sperling and Guerra died as a result of the collision, and Jackie suffered severe head trauma. Andrew Ramirez Sr., Ester Ramirez, and Andrew Ramirez Jr., as administrator of Guerra's estate and next friend of Jackie (collectively the Ramirezes), sued Volkswagen, alleging that a defect in the Passat caused the accident.

In the first trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Volkswagen. The trial court rendered a take-nothing judgment against the Ramirezes but subsequently granted a motion for new trial under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 320, relying on the familiar refrain--"in the interest of justice." 1 As with the first trial, the focus of the second trial was whether a defect in the Passat's left rear

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wheel assembly caused the accident. The parties do not dispute that the wheel separated from the Passat, but they do dispute when the wheel assembly detached and whether the detachment caused the accident or resulted from it. Crucial to this difference of opinion is the undisputed fact that after the collision, the left rear wheel of the Passat was found completely detached from the car's stub axle and lying on its side, positioned directly under the left rear wheel well. The Ramirezes argued that the wheel separation occurred while Sperling traveled in the eastbound lanes of U.S. 83, causing her to lose control of the vehicle, cross the median, and collide with Guerra's Mustang. To support this theory, the Ramirezes offered the testimony of Ronald Walker, their accident reconstruction expert.

Walker testified that while the Passat was traveling in the eastbound lanes of U.S. 83, its left rear wheel detached from the stub axle but stayed "tucked underneath" the left rear wheel well as the car entered and fishtailed across the grass and concrete median at 50 to 60 miles per hour, collided with the Mustang, and spun partially around before coming to rest. Walker further testified that the "laws of physics" explain how the wheel was able to remain pocketed in the rear wheel well throughout the turbulent accident sequence. Walker opined that a defect in the wheel was the proximate cause of the accident. Volkswagen contends that Walker's testimony was unreliable because he did not present any scientific support for his opinion that a wheel could behave in the manner he described. Specifically, Volkswagen complains that Walker failed to conduct tests, cite studies, or perform calculations to support of his "floating wheel" theory. In addition to the expert testimony, at trial the Ramirezes showed a videotaped interview of an unidentified witness at the scene of the accident who purported to see the Passat's tire blow up before it crossed the median and collided with the Mustang.

Volkswagen contested the existence of any defect and argued that the accident was due to Sperling's reaction to the contact between her car (the Passat) and the Camaro. Volkswagen offered expert testimony to support its position that the Passat's wheel separation was a result of the accident and not the cause of the accident. Volkswagen also claimed that the unidentified witness's testimony was unreliable hearsay.

In response to Volkswagen's assertion that there was no evidence of causation, the Ramirezes counter that their metallurgical expert, Edward Cox, provided evidence that the defect caused the accident. In this Court, Volkswagen does not challenge the reliability of Cox's testimony that a defect existed in the left rear wheel assembly, but does assert that Cox was not offered to opine on causation and his brief opinion that the defect caused the accident constitutes no evidence to support the verdict. Cox testified that because there was grass in the grease in the wheel hub, the left rear wheel assembly must have come off before the Passat entered the median and therefore caused the accident. Cox does not attempt to explain how the left wheel remained "tucked" in the left rear wheel well throughout the accident sequence.

In the second trial, the jury returned a 10 to 2 verdict in favor of the Ramirezes. Volkswagen moved for judgment not withstanding the verdict, arguing that the trial court wrongfully admitted unreliable expert testimony that was legally insufficient to support the jury's finding. The trial court denied Volkswagen's motion and entered a final judgment awarding the Ramirezes over seventeen million dollars in

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damages. Volkswagen subsequently moved for a new trial on the basis that the verdict was rendered by only nine qualified jurors. Volkswagen learned that one of the ten jurors who signed the verdict was a convicted felon, which it argued disqualified him from serving on the jury. The trial court denied the motion.

Volkswagen appealed the trial court's judgment. Among the issues presented to the court of appeals was Volkswagen's contention that there was no evidence of negligence to support the jury's verdict because the testimony of Walker and Cox was unreliable and therefore had to be disregarded. Volkswagen also alleged that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing the Ramirezes to present the videotaped statement of the unidentified witness because the testimony constituted inadmissible hearsay. Volkswagen further argued that one of the jurors who was convicted of a felony was disqualified from serving on the jury because article 42.12, section 20 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, which grants Texas courts the power to discharge a convicted felon from the disabilities of a felony, is unconstitutional. Lastly, Volkswagen claimed that the trial court abused its discretion by discarding the initial judgment for Volkswagen and granting a motion for new trial.

The court of appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court. 79 S.W.3d 113, 128. It concluded that Walker's and Cox's testimony met the common law standards for reliability and the unidentified witness's statements did not constitute hearsay. Id. at 122, 124-25. The court of appeals denied Volkswagen's juror claim, holding that article 42.12, section 20 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure is constitutional, and a dismissal of a conviction under the statute restores the right of a convicted felon to serve on a jury. Id. at 120-21. Additionally, the court declined to review the trial court's order granting the Ramirezes' motion for a new trial, stating that the trial court's order granting a new trial is not subject to review from a final judgment. Id. at 128 (citing Cummins v. Paisan Constr. Co., 682 S.W.2d 235, 235-36 (Tex.1984) (per curiam)).

Volkswagen petitioned this Court for review. Since we conclude that there was no evidence to support causation, we do not reach Volkswagen's challenge to the trial court's order granting a new trial or to the constitutionality of article 42.12, section 20 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

II. Legal Sufficiency Review

A party may raise a properly preserved complaint on appeal that scientific evidence is unreliable and thus no evidence to support a judgment. See Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc. v. Havner, 953 S.W.2d 706, 711-12 (Tex.1997); see also Coastal Transp. Co. v. Crown Cent. Petroleum Corp., 136 S.W.3d...

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