914 F.3d 976 (5th Cir. 2019), 17-41282, Puga v. RCX Solutions, Inc.

Docket Nº:17-41282
Citation:914 F.3d 976
Opinion Judge:CARL E. STEWART, Chief Judge
Party Name:Alexandro PUGA; Norma Puga, Plaintiffs-Appellees v. RCX SOLUTIONS, INCORPORATED, Defendant-Appellant
Attorney:Richard Phillips Hogan, Jr., Jennifer Bruch Hogan, Hogan & Hogan, Houston, TX, Thomas J. Henry, Law Offices of Thomas J. Henry Injury Attorneys, Corpus Christi, TX, for Plaintiffs - Appellees. Wanda McKee Fowler, Andrea Geohegan, Raffi Melkonian, Thomas Clark Wright, Wright, Close & Barger, L.L.P...
Judge Panel:Before STEWART, Chief Judge, and KING and OWEN, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:February 01, 2019
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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914 F.3d 976 (5th Cir. 2019)

Alexandro PUGA; Norma Puga, Plaintiffs-Appellees

v.

RCX SOLUTIONS, INCORPORATED, Defendant-Appellant

No. 17-41282

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

February 1, 2019

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

Richard Phillips Hogan, Jr., Jennifer Bruch Hogan, Hogan & Hogan, Houston, TX, Thomas J. Henry, Law Offices of Thomas J. Henry Injury Attorneys, Corpus Christi, TX, for Plaintiffs - Appellees.

Wanda McKee Fowler, Andrea Geohegan, Raffi Melkonian, Thomas Clark Wright, Wright, Close & Barger, L.L.P., Houston, TX, for Defendant - Appellant.

Jeffrey R. White, Esq., American Association for Justice, Washington, DC, for Amicus Curiae American Association for Justice.

Before STEWART, Chief Judge, and KING and OWEN, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

CARL E. STEWART, Chief Judge

RCX Solutions, Incorporated is a licensed motor carrier that contracted with a driver, Ronald Brown, to transport a load across Texas. During his drive, Brown crossed the median into oncoming traffic and crashed into Alexandro Puga’s truck, leaving Puga with significant injuries. The Pugas sued. After a week-long trial with expert testimony, a jury found RCX liable for Brown’s negligence and awarded Mr. Puga a variety of damages and his wife, Norma Puga, loss of consortium damages.

RCX now launches a multitude of challenges at the district court’s handling of the case. RCX claims that the district court wrongly interpreted the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations because it failed to take account of regulatory amendments. RCX contends that this misinterpretation subjected RCX to liability where none should exist. RCX also argues that the district court used faulty jury instructions, improperly allowed the Pugas’ expert to testify, and upheld an excessive jury award for Mrs. Puga’s loss of consortium. Finally, RCX claims that the district court erred in not applying a settlement credit to the final damages award. After reviewing the record, we AFFIRM the district court’s rulings with respect to all issues except the settlement credit. We REVERSE and REMAND to the district court for the sole purpose of calculating the appropriate settlement credit amount and modifying its final judgment accordingly.

I.

Sunset Transportation entered into a brokerage account with L’Oreal. In its role as a broker, Sunset was responsible for choosing a motor carrier for individual L’Oreal shipments on a load-by-load basis. Sunset chose RCX to transport the L’Oreal load involved in the accident. RCX did not have a contract with L’Oreal.

When it came time for RCX to transport L’Oreal’s load, RCX ran into equipment problems. So RCX contacted Ronald Brown to transport the load. Conveniently, Brown already had an RCX trailer in his possession. RCX had leased the trailer from another company, Xtra Lease, and

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RCX assumed responsibility for the trailer’s operation under the lease agreement. The bill of lading listed RCX as the carrier for the load. Brown also signed the bill of lading, apparently on behalf of RCX.1

While transporting the load, Brown swerved across the median into oncoming traffic, hitting Alexandro Puga’s truck. Brown did not survive the accident. Mr. Puga suffered a variety of injuries, including burns on large parts of his body and fractures in his spine, legs, pelvis, and fingers. Mr. Puga was still undergoing treatment and surgeries two-and-a-half years after the accident.

Following the accident, Mr. Puga and his wife, Norma, sued RCX, About Tyme, and Xtra Lease, claiming that Brown’s negligent driving caused Mr. Puga’s injuries. Prior to trial, RCX filed a motion under Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, requesting the court to enter judgment as a matter of law because the Pugas lacked sufficient evidence for a jury to find that (1) Brown was employed by RCX and (2) Brown acted negligently when the crash occurred. The district court denied the motion.

At trial, the Pugas designated Trooper Andrew Smith as an expert witness. Smith was the first responder to the accident and saw the explosion from the accident from afar. RCX sought to exclude Smith’s testimony regarding the cause of the accident. The district court denied RCX’s motion.

The trial concluded with a jury verdict in favor of the Pugas. The jury determined that RCX was "using motor vehicle(s) it did not own to transport property under an arrangement with Ronald Brown." As a result, the jury awarded the Pugas a variety of damages. The jury specifically awarded Mrs. Puga damages for loss of consortium, $1.6 million for past loss of consortium and $1.8 million for future loss of consortium.

After the trial, RCX filed a renewed Rule 50(b) motion, again requesting judgment as a matter of law, this time because amendments to Federal Motor Carrier Regulations precluded the jury from finding for the Pugas. The district court again denied the motion and entered judgment in favor of the Pugas. RCX now appeals.

II.

RCX first argues that federal law does not allow courts to hold motor carriers liable for the acts of independent contractors, a concept both parties refer to as the statutory-employee doctrine. RCX raised this argument for the first time in its post-verdict Rule 50(b) motion.

Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a party to move for judgment as a matter of law at trial before the jury renders its verdict. Under Rule 50(a), the movant must "specify the judgment sought and the law and facts that entitle the movant to the judgment." Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(2). If the pre-verdict motion is denied, then the party can renew its motion under Rule 50(b). But the renewed Rule 50(b) is "technically only a renewal of the [Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law]." Mozingo v. Correct Mfg. Corp., 752 F.2d 168, 172 (5th Cir. 1985) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). As a result, courts prohibit parties from using a Rule 50(b) motion to "assert a ground that was not included in the [original] motion." Id. ; see also

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In re Isbell Records, Inc., 774 F.3d 859, 867 (5th Cir. 2014) ("By not raising this argument at trial or in its Rule 50(a) motion, [the appellant] has waived its right to bring a Rule 50(b) motion on this ground."); Arsement v. Spinnaker Expl. Co., 400 F.3d 238, 247 (5th Cir. 2005) ("If a party fails to raise an issue in its Rule 50(a)(1) motions at trial, it may not do so in its post-trial Rule 50(b) motion.") (citation omitted); 9B Charles Alan Wright & Arthur K. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2537 (3d ed. 2018) ("[T]he district court only can grant the Rule 50(b) motion on the grounds advanced in the preverdict motion, because the former is conceived of as only a renewal of the latter.").

This rule makes sense in light of Rule 50(b)’s purposes. Rule 50(b) is designed to prevent a litigant from ambushing both the district court and opposing counsel after trial. See Dimmitt Agri Indus., Inc. v. CPC Int’l Inc., 679 F.2d 516, 521 (5th Cir. 1982) ("The rationale for the rule that a [Rule 50(b) motion] cannot assert a ground not included in a motion for directed verdict is obviously to avoid ‘ambushing’ the trial court and opposing counsel.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Quinn v. Sw. Wood Prods., Inc., 597 F.2d 1018, 1025 (5th Cir. 1979) ("When a claimed deficiency in the evidence is called to the attention of the trial judge and of counsel before the jury has commenced deliberations, counsel still may do whatever can be done to mend his case. But if the court and counsel learn of such a claim for the first time after verdict, both are ambushed and nothing can be done except by way of a complete new trial. It is contrary to the spirit of our procedures to permit counsel to be sandbagged by such tactics or the trial court to be so put in error."). By requiring a litigant to raise all arguments in its initial Rule 50(a) motion, the trial court is able to "re-examine the question of evidentiary insufficiency as a matter of law if the jury returns a verdict contrary to the movant," and opposing counsel is alerted to any "insufficiency before the case is submitted to the jury," giving the opposing party a chance to cure any defects in its legal theories or proof should the motion have merit. Scottish Heritable Tr., PLC v. Peat Marwick Main & Co., 81 F.3d 606, 610 (5th Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

Here, RCX did not argue that the statutory-employee doctrine was overruled in its Rule 50(a) motion, precluding it from raising the argument in its Rule 50(b) motion. In its oral Rule 50(a) motion, RCX argued...

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