Jones v. Wright

Decision Date09 March 2023
Docket Number09-21-00217-CV
PartiesDIMPLES JONES AND DARREL L. JONES SR., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ES TATE OF DAYLEN J ONES, Appellants v. PAUL E. WRIGHT JR. AND PATRICIA D. WRIGHT, Appellees
CourtTexas Court of Appeals

Submitted on October 19, 2022

Before Golemon, C.J., Horton and Johnson, JJ.

OPINION

W SCOTT GOLEMON CHIEF JUSTICE

The underlying litigation arises from an auto pedestrian accident that killed Dimples Jones and Darrel L. Jones Sr.'s minor child, Daylen (collectively, "the Joneses").[1] In one issue, the Joneses appeal the trial court's summary judgment in favor of Paul E. Wright Jr. and Patricia Wright (collectively, "the Wrights"). As discussed below we will affirm the trial court's judgment.

I. Background A. Facts[2]

In December 2018, Daylen was killed when a truck driven by Barbara Jean Herndon hit him as the Joneses walked across Farm to Market Road FM 1960 after visiting the Wrights' property. The Wrights' property is bordered by FM 1960 to the north and County Road 612 to the west. At that location, FM 1960 is a two-lane road, with one lane going east and one going west.

For years, the Wrights have set up various Christmas light displays known as "Wrights' Lights" and allowed people to walk their property to view the lights free of charge. The Wrights put the displays up themselves and do not have any employees or hire people to help. Wrights' Lights is not a business enterprise, and the only money received is from local sponsors who provide funds to supply free candy canes to the visitors.

On the night of the accident, the Joneses were traveling westbound on FM 1960 and saw the Christmas lights to their left and cars parked on both sides of the road, so Dimples asked Darrel to stop to look at the lights. They parked on the shoulder of the north side of FM 1960, and Wrights' Lights was located on the south side of FM 1960, so the Joneses had to walk across FM 1960.

When they arrived around 7:00 p.m., it was dark outside. Both Dimples and Darrel testified that nobody needed to tell them to use caution when crossing the road. The Joneses watched for traffic in either direction before crossing and made it safely across to view the lights. The parties agreed that the Wrights did not charge an admission fee, and the Joneses "went in and followed the crowd." The Joneses stayed twenty to twenty-five minutes.

As they left, the Joneses prepared to cross FM 1960 to return to their parked car on the north side of the road. Dimples and Darrel testified that they looked both ways and did not see any cars coming on FM 1960, so they crossed the road. There were four or five other people who were crossing at the same time but further down. The evidence established that Dimples was in the front with Daylen a few steps behind her, and Darrel was a few steps behind Daylen. Darrel testified that Dimples made it safely across the road, but a dark-colored truck driven by Herndon "came out of nowhere" and hit Daylen. The Joneses explained that they did not believe the truck had its lights on or they would have seen it. Dimples testified they never would have crossed the road if they had seen a vehicle coming. Daylen was airlifted to a hospital, but he died before his parents arrived.

The Wrights both testified that they did not own the roadway and had no control over FM 1960. Paul explained that they previously asked for law enforcement agencies to assist with traffic control in that area, but they were told no officers could be spared. Patricia testified she thought that they had a voiceover playing over their speakers telling people to try not to park on the other side of FM 1960 and to be careful, because it is dangerous to cross the road. The Wrights testified that no similar accidents had occurred before or since Daylen was hit. After the accident, the State put "No Parking" signs up along FM 1960, and when people ignored those signs, the State put up barricades to prevent people from parking beside the road.

The Joneses sued the Wrights, asserting causes of action for survival, wrongful death, and negligence. The Joneses alleged that the Wrights owed them a "duty of care as an invitee" and "breached [their] duty to Decedent by failing to abate or warn the Decedent of a known hazard on the premises" and that "failure to exercise ordinary care proximately caused the Decedent's injuries/death." The Wrights answered and later moved to designate Herndon and the Joneses as responsible third parties.

B. Motion for Summary Judgment, Response, and Evidence

The Wrights filed a Motion for Summary Judgment as to all claims. In their Motion for Summary Judgment, the Wrights argued that they did not own or control FM 1960 where the accident occurred, so the Joneses could not establish they were negligent on a premises liability claim. Specifically, the Wrights contended they did not owe a duty to the Joneses, and none of the four recognized exceptions to the general no-duty rule applied. The Wrights' evidence in support of their Motion for Summary Judgment included deposition testimony of Dimples, Darrel, Patricia, and Paul.

In their Response to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, the Joneses noted that the facts were "not much in dispute" but asserted the Wrights owed them a duty. The Joneses countered that an exception to the general no-duty rule permits liability to be imposed on an adjacent owner as to non-owned premises when that owner creates a dangerous condition. Particularly, they argued that when one releases "an agency that becomes dangerous by its very nature upon the highway," then premises liability will follow off the premises and onto the highway. The Joneses claimed that they and the other visitors to Wrights' Lights were the dangerous condition released upon the roadway. In their Response, the Joneses also relied on the deposition testimony of Dimples, Darrel, Patricia, and Paul along with an aerial photograph showing the Wrights' property location and where the Joneses parked.

In their Reply to Plaintiffs' Response to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, the Wrights reiterated their position that they did not owe a duty to the Joneses based on Texas case law. According to the Wrights, Texas law consistently holds a property owner generally has no duty to ensure the safety of people who leave the property of another and are injured on an adjacent roadway absent four enumerated exceptions, which the Wrights argued did not apply to the autopedestrian collision resulting in Daylen's death.

The trial court granted the Wrights' Motion for Summary Judgment.

II. Standard of Review

We review a trial court's decision to grant summary judgment de novo. See Shell Oil Co. v. Writt, 464 S.W.3d 650, 654 (Tex. 2015) (citation omitted). We view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Id. (citing City of Keller v. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d 802, 824 (Tex. 2005)). In doing so, we indulge every reasonable inference and resolve any doubts against the motion. See City of Keller, 168 S.W.3d at 824. "Undisputed evidence may be conclusive of the absence of a material fact issue, but only if reasonable people could not differ in their conclusions as to that evidence." Buck v. Palmer, 381 S.W.3d 525, 527 (Tex. 2012) (citation omitted).

A party moving for traditional summary judgment has the burden of establishing there is no genuine issue of material fact as to at least one requisite element of the asserted cause of action and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[3] See Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(c); Lightning Oil Co. v. Anadarko E&P Onshore, LLC, 520 S.W.3d 39, 45 (Tex. 2017) (citations omitted). With a traditional motion for summary judgment, only if the movant meets their burden of conclusively negating an essential element of a cause of action does the burden shift to the nonmovant to present evidence raising a genuine issue of material fact. See Energen Res. Corp. v. Wallace, 642 S.W.3d 502, 514 (Tex. 2022) (citations omitted). When the underlying facts are undisputed, the analysis becomes a question of law for the judge; however, if the facts are disputed, it is a question for the trier of fact. See Richey v. Brookshire Grocery Co., 952 S.W.2d 515, 518 (Tex. 1997).

III. Analysis

In their sole issue, the Joneses ask whether the trial court erred in granting the Wrights' Motion for Summary Judgment and specifically assert that the Wrights owed them a duty as an exception to the general no-duty rule applies, specifically that the Wrights created a dangerous condition by releasing a crowd onto the roadway. In other words, the Joneses claim that these crowds crossing FM 1960 were a dangerous condition, which proximately caused the death of their son, Daylen. Alternatively, they urge us to adopt a new exception to the general no-duty rule. The Wrights argue that the trial court properly granted their Motion for Summary Judgment, because they did not owe the Joneses a duty as they crossed FM 1960 to return to their parked car, and no recognized exception applies to the general rule that adjacent property owners owe no duty to protect individuals using a public roadway.

A. Law and Elements of Cause of Action

To bring a negligence action in Texas, a plaintiff must establish: (1) one party owed the other a legal duty; (2) a breach of that duty; and (3) damages proximately caused by the breach. Nabors Drilling, U.S.A., Inc. v. Escoto 288 S.W.3d 401, 404 (Tex. 2009) (citation omitted). "The threshold inquiry in a negligence case is whether the defendant owes a legal duty to the plaintiff." Centeq Realty, Inc. v. Siegler, 899 S.W.2d 195, 197 (Te...

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