Beddingfield v. Linam

Decision Date17 May 2013
Docket Number1101163.
Citation127 So.3d 1178
PartiesJim Cody BEDDINGFIELD, Jimmy Larry Beddingfield, and Rebecca M. Beddingfield v. Trace Rex LINAM.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Benjamin R. Rice and Ellen M. Melson of Wilmer & Lee, P.A., Huntsville, for appellants.

John P. Burbach and Travis S. Jackson of Sirote & Permutt, P.C., Huntsville, for appellee.

MAIN, Justice.

Jim Cody Beddingfield and his parents, Jimmy Larry Beddingfield and Rebecca M. Beddingfield, the defendants in this action, appeal from a judgment entered on a jury verdict in favor of Trace Rex Linam, the plaintiff in this action, and from the trial court's order denying their postjudgment motion for a judgment as a matter of law (“JML”) or for a new trial. We reverse, render a judgment in part, and remand.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

On July 2, 2004, Jimmy Larry Beddingfield (“Larry”) and his wife Rebecca M. Beddingfield (“Becky”) were preparing for a family reunion and Fourth of July celebration to be held at their house on Lake Guntersville on the following day.1 Larry and Becky's son, Jim Cody Beddingfield (“Cody”), who was then 14 years old, had come to the lake house that day with his parents. Larry's nephew, Jeff Beddingfield (“Jeff”), also had come to the lake house on July 2 to handle the task of cooking the barbecue to be served at the party. Jeff's wife, Lisa Beddingfield (“Lisa”), was to arrive the following day with their children. However, because Cody was at the lake house on July 2, Lisa drove there on July 2 from Huntsville to drop off her son, Jay Malone (“Jay”), who was then 14, and his friend, Trace Rex Linam (“Trace”), who was then 15. Jay and Trace were best friends and had known each other since the first grade. Jay had known Cody since Jeff and Lisa had married several years before. The three boys, who had spent time together on two previous occasions, planned to “hang out” at the lake while Larry, Becky, and Jeff prepared for the approximately 75–100 people who were expected at the lake house the following day.

Jay and Trace testified that they saw Becky, Larry, and Jeff when they arrived or shortly thereafter. Lisa and Jeff testified that Becky took Lisa on a tour of the house that lasted approximately 15 minutes, after which Lisa left. Jay and Trace testified that they had lunch with Cody and then the three boys went fishing for awhile. All three boys testified that they then came back to the house and found a large pile of fireworks on a porch at the back of the house. The boys said that there were M–80s, artillery shells, a big cannon, and approximately 500 bottle rockets in the pile. None of the adults who testified at trial or the boys testified that he or she had bought the fireworks, knew that the fireworks were on the back porch, or knew how the fireworks had come to be on the back porch.2 The boys took bottle rockets and M–80s to the dock on the lake, where they began lighting the fireworks and throwing them toward the lake.3 Trace and Jay testified that they had shot fireworks before, including bottle rockets, but Trace said that he had never shot them without adult supervision. Cody testified that he had never shot bottle rockets before shooting them with Trace and Jay on July 2. It is undisputed that there was no adult supervision on this occasion.

After the three boys shot bottle rockets for about an hour, Trace and Jay testified, Trace went back to the house to use the restroom or to get a drink of water. As Trace came back outside and walked down a hill toward the dock, he stopped on the grass on the shore to tie his shoe. As he was bent over, he said, he heard a whistling noise and, immediately thereafter, something hit his left eye so hard that he was knocked down. Trace said his eye was burning and began bleeding and that he began screaming. He said he immediately lost vision in his left eye. Trace stated that “the last thing I saw with my two eyes was Cody and Jay standing there, and Cody had his arm out.” Jay and Cody said that after the bottle rocket hit Trace, they ran to him and took him inside the house. Trace stated that once they were in the house, “Cody said he didn't want to get in trouble and just to say it was just an accident.” Jay ran to get his stepfather Jeff, who looked at Trace's eye and had him put ice on it. Jeff recognized that Trace's eye injury was serious, so he telephoned Trace's parents, Charles Gary Linam (“Gary”) and Beverly Linam (“Beverly”), and told them Trace had been injured and that he was going to take Trace to the hospital. Jeff said he asked Gary and Beverly where they wanted him to take Trace. Gary and Beverly told Jeff to take Trace to Huntsville General Hospital, and Jeff got in his vehicle with all three boys. Gary and Beverly met Jeff and the boys at the hospital.

Jay's testimony about the events surrounding Trace's injury was similar to Trace's testimony. In response to questions from Trace's attorney, Jay testified as follows:

“Q. Was Trace injured by a bottle rocket at some point?

“A. Yes.

“Q. Where were you when that injury occurred?

“A. I was on the dock.

“Q. Where was Cody Beddingfield?

“A. He was right next to me on the dock.

“Q. And where was Trace?

“A. He was on the shore, right where the dock started.

Q. Tell us what happened?

A. Cody, he lit a bottle rocket and pointed it at Trace and shot it at him.

“Q. Let's talk about that. Can you describe for the jury, what you—did you see this happen?

“A. Yes.

“Q. Describe for the jury what you saw, what Cody Beddingfield did.

“....

“A. Okay. He lit it in his hand like that and then pointed it, then shot it.

“Q. Okay. Who did he point it at?

“A. At Trace.

“Q. What was the position of Trace when he was struck by the bottle rocket immediately before he was struck?

“A. He was kneeling over. I think he was tying his shoe or something like that. I don't really remember.

“Q. Did you observe whether Trace was looking at Cody Beddingfield then or you then?

“A. No, he wasn't.

“Q. Was he lighting a bottle rocket when he was struck, was Trace?

“A. No.

“Q. Did Cody Beddingfield say anything to you immediately before he aimed, lit and shot that bottle rocket at Trace?

“A. Yes, he just said, hey, watch this.

Q. Hey, watch this?

“A. Yeah.

“....

“Q. All right. Now, did he give any warning to Trace whatsoever that he was about to shoot and aim a bottle rocket at him?

“A. No.

“Q. He didn't yell out anything?

“A. No.

“Q. When he said, hey, watch this, was that a volume that, your understanding that for you just to hear?

“A. Yes.

“Q. Did he hit his target?

“A. Yes.”

Jay said that, upon impact, Trace screamed “my eye, my eye.” Jay said he and Cody thought Trace was joking at first but quickly realized that Trace was badly hurt. Jay also said that after the boys reached the house, Cody asked him “if we would just tell everyone that he threw it up in the air and it came down and hit him.” Jay said he agreed at that time so Cody would not get in trouble. Later, however, Jay stated that he told the truth about how Trace's injury occurred. On cross-examination, he testified:

“Q. Now, I believe you told me as far as this incident or this description of events that you've told us about, that you were asked if you had later told some adults about the story that you say Cody suggested. Who were those adults?

“A. At first, I just told my mom and my stepdad.

“Q. When did you tell them?

“A. I don't remember.

“Q. It was some time later, wasn't it?

“A. Right.

Q. You never did tell anything like that to Becky or Larry, did you?

“A. No.

“Q. In fact, I think you agreed with me that at the time I took your deposition, that would have been the first time they would have ever heard that from you?

“A. Right.”

Jay also stated on cross-examination that on the previous occasions when he and Cody had been shooting bottle rockets, Larry and Becky were not with them. Jay said he did not know whether Cody's parents knew the boys had been shooting bottle rockets or that Cody had been aiming the bottle rockets at cows. Jay said that, at the lake house on July 2, the boys did not talk to Larry or Becky about the fireworks and that none of the boys asked permission from any of the adults present to shoot the bottle rockets.

Cody's recollection of the incident differed from Trace and Jay's. He testified that he lit a bottle rocket and threw it as Trace was bending over to tie his shoe. Cody said that he did not point the bottle rocket at Trace, that he did not intend to hit Trace, and that hitting Trace with the bottle rocket was an accident. He denied asking Trace and Jay to say that Trace's injury was an accident, but he said that he told Jeff on the day it happened that it was an accident. Cody also stated that as Jeff drove to the hospital, Cody “repeated over and over [to Trace] how sorry I was and how big of an accident it was, and I didn't mean to hurt him.” Cody further testified, in response to questions from his attorney, as follows:

“Q. Now, am I correct, and correct me if I am wrong, am I correct that your explanation of the bottle rocket episode was the bottle rocket essentially misfired or went the wrong direction?

“A. Yes, sir.

“Q. Is that the understanding that your parents would have had that day?

“A. Yes, sir.

“Q. Do you know that they ever heard any other explanation before the deposition of Jay Malone that was taken a little over year or two ago?

“....

“A. No, they didn't.”

It is undisputed that none of the adults present at the lake on July 2 were aware that the boys were shooting bottle rockets until after Trace was injured. Jeff testified that he was involved with digging the pit he needed for the barbecue, which was on the opposite side of the house from the dock where the boys were, and said that he did not hear any fireworks. Jeff stated that he was having trouble getting the fire started because, he said, some of the wood appeared too green, so Larry left and went about a mile...

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