Ace Hardware and driver win appeal of their earlier crash lawsuit victory

In the current legal environment, it seems trucking companies are always losing court cases (they aren’t) and awards can be mind-numbingly large. Here’s a story of a big rig crash in which  the driver and his employer have won down the line, including an appellate decision last week.

The defendant in the case is not a big trucking company. Rather it is Ace Hardware and its driver Robert Burton. The original crash occurred in 2012, when Svetlana Owens collided with and slid under a tractor-trailer driven by Burton on California’s Highway 68. That highway is located entirely in Monterey County.

In the appeal decision handed down in the Sixth District of California’s Superior Court, Judge Nathan Mihara upheld an earlier lower court decision that rejected the lawsuit filed by Owens even though, as the decision states, she suffered “a severe traumatic brain injury, a fractured pelvis and other injuries” but “subsequently made a remarkable recovery.”

Since the plaintiff never won at any step of the way, the Ace Hardware case can’t be considered a nuclear verdict. But the plaintiff’s attorney did ask the jury for $10 million in closing arguments.

The description of what happened is detailed. Burton drove the route for Ace two days a week and started his trip that day with a stop at an Ace store in Salinas at 4:45 a.m. The incident took place on January 20, 2012, so sunrise would have been relatively late. Burton made multiple stops and when the incident occurred it was starting to get light. (An online sunrise/sunset table shows Salinas’ sunrise on that day as 7:20 a.m.)  But Burton had his headlights on regardless. 

It was raining; what Burton testified in the lower court cases was a “little bit of a mist” or “maybe a heavy drizzle.” Burton said his visibility was about a “five or six” on a scale of 10. 

Burton also testified that the road was a tough one to drive on, with a lot of “S” curves that could be dangerous “if you are not paying attention.” He also said that the biggest problem on the road was the risk of crossing the double-yellow line into oncoming traffic. 

“When he saw headlights from a westbound car, he checked his rearview mirror and saw that his trailer was a foot to a foot and a half inside his lane,” Judge Mihara wrote about what happened next. “Burton focused on keeping his vehicle in his lane as he entered the curve. He was at ‘the apex of that turn’ when the accident occurred.”

“They went straight under the truck”

There was a witness to what happened next, a man named Ronald Berti who was driving his pickup truck eastbound, the same direction as Burton. Berti testified that the Ace Hardware truck was “all in its own lane. I saw lights coming and the lights never turned,” Berti had testified in the lower court proceedings. “They went straight under the truck.”

He testified also that the Ace Hardware truck was “2 to 3 feet from the centerline. The whole truck was in the lane,” he said. Berti added that he was “100%” sure that Owens’ car crossed the double yellow line before going under the truck.

Owens testified to the contrary. She “testified that she did not cross the double yellow line and that she had no opportunity to avoid hitting the trailer,” according to the recap from Judge Mihara.

A California Highway Patrol officer on the scene also testified that it was Owens who crossed over the double yellow line, not the truck.

The Owens argument in the court was that Burton, driving the Ace Hardware truck, had come into her lane, not the other way around. But a unanimous verdict held in favor of Burton and the hardware company. She asked for a new trial, did not get it, but did file the now-unsuccessful appeal.

Owens’ arguments for an appeal rested on several procedural grounds, including her allegation that the instructions to the jury were improper. But Judge Mihara rejected that. “The jury was essentially instructed that it was required to find Burton negligent if his vehicle crossed over the double yellow line,” he wrote. The court’s instructions, “even if they had been erroneous, could not have had any impact on the jury’s verdict.”

Owens also appealed on the basis of the admissibility of gouge marks at the scene of the accident, a computer animation of the collision and whether Berti’s testimony about what he saw was unfairly limited. 

“Owens asserts that the jury’s verdict is not supported by substantial evidence, but her one-paragraph argument contains no record citations or analysis independent of her claims… which we have already rejected,” the judge wrote in his summation. “Thus, she provides no support for this contention and we therefore reject it.”

For more articles by John Kingston, please go here.