306 S.W.3d 230 (Tex. 2010), 07-0541, TXI Transportation Co. v. Hughes

Docket Nº:07-0541.
Citation:306 S.W.3d 230, 53 Tex.Sup.Ct.J. 431
Opinion Judge:MEDINA Justice.
Party Name:TXI TRANSPORTATION COMPANY, et al., Petitioners, v. Randy HUGHES, et al., Respondents.
Attorney:Reagan W. Simpson, King & Spalding LLP, Austin, H. Victor Thomas, Amy Eikel, King & Spalding LLP, Houston, Charles W. Hurd, Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P., Houston, Christopher N. Forbis, Sewell and Forbis, Decatur, Michael C. Steindorf, III, Ben Taylor, Fulbright & Jaworksi L.L.P., Dallas, Mark E. ...
Judge Panel:Justice MEDINA delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice JEFFERSON, Justice HECHT, Justice O'NEILL, Justice GREEN, Justice WILLETT, and Justice GUZMAN joined, and in Part III of which Justice WAINWRIGHT joined. Justice WAINWRIGHT filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting...
Case Date:March 12, 2010
Court:Supreme Court of Texas
 
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306 S.W.3d 230 (Tex. 2010)

53 Tex.Sup.Ct.J. 431

TXI TRANSPORTATION COMPANY, et al., Petitioners,

v.

Randy HUGHES, et al., Respondents.

No. 07-0541.

Supreme Court of Texas.

March 12, 2010

Argued Oct. 16, 2008.

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Reagan W. Simpson, King & Spalding LLP, Austin, H. Victor Thomas, Amy Eikel, King & Spalding LLP, Houston, Charles W. Hurd, Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P., Houston, Christopher N. Forbis, Sewell and Forbis, Decatur, Michael C. Steindorf, III, Ben Taylor, Fulbright & Jaworksi L.L.P., Dallas, Mark E. Stradley, Stradley & Wright, for Petitioners.

Dee J. Kelly, Jr., Kelly Hart & Hallman LLP, Fort Worth, Michael A. Simpson, Simpson, Boyd & Powers, P.L.L.C., Bridgeport, Derrick S. Boyd, Simpson, Boyd & Powers, P.L.L.C., Decatur, George Alan Powers, Simpson, Boyd & Powers, P.L.L.C., Bridgeport, Brian Scott Stagner, Kelly Hart & Hallman LLP, Fort Worth, for Respondents.

Allen Linn Williamson, Simpson, Boyd & Powers, P.L.L.C., Decatur, for other interested parties.

Justice MEDINA delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice JEFFERSON, Justice HECHT, Justice O'NEILL, Justice GREEN, Justice WILLETT, and Justice GUZMAN joined, and in Part III of which Justice WAINWRIGHT joined.

OPINION

MEDINA Justice.

In this wrongful death and survival action, stemming from a multi-fatality vehicular accident, we consider the reliability of an accident reconstruction expert's testimony, the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting the verdict, and whether the admission of evidence concerning the illegal immigrant status of one of the parties to the accident was harmful error. The court of appeals, in a divided decision, concluded that the expert's testimony was reliable and therefore legally sufficient to support the plaintiffs' verdict. 224 S.W.3d 870, 888. The court also held that the driver's illegal status was relevant impeachment evidence or, alternatively, its admission was harmless error. Id. at 897. We agree that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the expert's testimony. However, we do not agree that evidence of the driver's illegal status was either relevant or harmless. Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals's judgment and remand the cause for a new trial.

I. The Litigation

Several members of the Hughes family were killed when their vehicle collided with an eighteen wheel tractor-trailer rig heavily loaded with gravel. The accident occurred outside the city of Paradise on

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Highway 114, a two-lane highway. At the time of the accident, Kimberly Hughes was driving west toward Paradise with four other family members in her GMC Yukon. Ricardo Rodriguez, who was driving the gravel truck for TXI Transportation Company (" TXI" ), was traveling east in the opposite direction. For reasons in dispute, the Yukon crossed the center line into the eastbound lane, collided with the gravel truck and careened down the length of its trailer. At the gravel truck's tail end, the Yukon spun sideways into the path of an eastbound Ford pickup. The resulting collision killed everyone in the Yukon except Hughes's infant grandson.

Hughes's husband and other family members sued Rodriguez and his employer, TXI, for the deaths. After a seven-day trial, a jury found that Rodriguez's and TXI's negligence proximately caused the accident, and awarded compensatory and exemplary damages. The trial court rendered judgment on the verdict. The court of appeals set aside the award of exemplary damages, but otherwise affirmed the judgment against Rodriguez and TXI.1224 S.W.3d at 881.

What caused the Yukon to cross the center line into Rodriguez's eastbound lane was the critical issue at trial. Both sides relied on accident-reconstruction experts to explain their respective theories. Hughes's accident-reconstruction expert opined that the gravel truck crossed the center line first, forcing Hughes to steer defensively into the eastbound lane where the collision occurred.

TXI sought to exclude Hughes's expert, objecting that his opinion was unreliable. TXI also objected to evidence regarding Rodriguez's status as an illegal immigrant on grounds of relevance and prejudice. Because the trial court overruled both objections, the jury learned Rodriguez had previously been deported and had made several misrepresentations regarding his immigration status to obtain his Texas commercial driver's license and his employment with TXI. The dissent in the court of appeals concluded that the trial court had erred by admitting the expert testimony of Hughes's accident reconstructionist and the evidence of Rodriguez's illegal immigrant status. Id. at 922 (Gardner, J., dissenting). We granted TXI's petition for review to consider these issues.

II. The Accident-Reconstruction Expert

TXI argues the trial court erred by overruling its timely objection to Hughes's reconstruction expert, Dr. Kurt Marshek, whom it contends expressed an unreliable opinion that Rodriguez caused the accident by crossing the center line first.

A. The Standard of Review

For an expert's testimony to be admissible, the expert witness must be qualified to testify about " scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge," TEX.R. EVID. 702, and the testimony must be relevant and based upon a reliable foundation. Exxon Pipeline Co. v. Zwahr, 88 S.W.3d 623, 628 (Tex.2002). An expert's testimony is relevant when it assists the jury in determining an issue or in understanding other evidence. TEX.R. EVID. 702. But, expert testimony based on an unreliable foundation or flawed methodology is unreliable and does not satisfy Rule 702's relevancy requirement.

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E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Robinson, 923 S.W.2d 549, 556-57 (Tex.1995) (discussing TEX. R. EVID. 702).

When the reliability of an expert's testimony is challenged, courts " ‘ should ensure that the [expert's] opinion comports with the applicable professional standards.’ " Helena Chem. Co. v. Wilkins, 47 S.W.3d 486, 499 (Tex.2001) (quoting Gammill v. Jack Williams Chevrolet, Inc., 972 S.W.2d 713, 725-26 (Tex.1998)). To aid in that determination, we have suggested several factors to consider when assessing the admissibility of expert testimony under Rule 702.2 We have emphasized, however, that these factors are non-exclusive, and that they do not fit every scenario. Gammill, 972 S.W.2d at 726. They are particularly difficult to apply in vehicular accident cases involving accident reconstruction testimony. Ford Motor Co. v. Ledesma, 242 S.W.3d 32, 39 (Tex.2007) (citing Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. Mendez, 204 S.W.3d 797, 802 (Tex.2006)); see also Gammill, 972 S.W.2d at 727. Nevertheless, the court, as gatekeeper, " must determine how the reliability of particular testimony is to be assessed." Gammill, 972 S.W.2d at 726. Rather than focus entirely on the reliability of the underlying technique used to generate the challenged opinion, as in Robinson, we have found it appropriate in cases like this to analyze whether the expert's opinion actually fits the facts of the case. Volkswagen of Am., Inc. v. Ramirez, 159 S.W.3d 897, 904-05 (Tex.2004). In other words, we determine whether there are any significant analytical gaps in the expert's opinion that undermine its reliability. Id.

B. The Expert's Testimony

Dr. Kurt Marshek, an emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas, testified for Hughes. In preparing for his testimony, Marshek reviewed the police accident report and photographs from the accident scene, visited and took measurements at the accident site, specifically measured the gouge and scrape marks created by the accident, ran skid tests with an exemplar vehicle and measuring device to determine the roadway's coefficient of friction, inspected and photographed the Yukon, collected data on the Yukon's speed and braking during the five seconds before impact from the vehicle's " black box," performed a time-distance analysis, and reviewed the accident scene witnesses' statements and depositions. Employing this data, Marshek rendered drawings of the accident site to illustrate his theory of the accident. Marshek's theory was that Rodriguez left his lane of travel, crossed over the center line into the westbound lane, and partially re-entered his eastbound lane before the initial impact with the Yukon. Marshek further concluded Kimberly Hughes steered sharply left into the eastbound lane to avoid Rodriguez's gravel truck, which then at least partially occupied her lane, resulting in the collision in Rodriguez's eastbound lane.3

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Using the physical evidence, Marshek described his version of the initial collision and each vehicle's subsequent movements. The first impact occurred with the gravel truck's second axle, creating downward pressure on the Yukon's tire and forcing the rim to carve a gouge in the eastbound lane six inches from the center line. Reddish paint and rubber marks on the gravel truck's tires revealed where the Yukon made contact with the tires at the second, third, fourth, and fifth axles. Rim and axle damage to the second and fourth axles demonstrated more substantial contact. After the initial collision, the gravel truck's significant mass dictated the Yukon's direction, forcing the Yukon's rear end to move clockwise and adopt the gravel truck's trailer's angle. While following this angle, the Yukon's front left rim first gouged and then scraped the concrete at an angle to the center line. After hitting the fourth axle, the Yukon's left rear rim moved back toward the centerline creating a scrape mark. As it cleared the trailer's end, the Yukon was fully in its westbound lane, moving slightly...

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