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Brown v. Davis

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

October 24, 2014

KRISTEN BROWN, individually, and as next friend, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
KENNETH L. DAVIS, JR., et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

AUDREY G. FLEISSIG, District Judge.

This wrongful death action is before the Court on the renewed motion (Doc. No. 137) of Defendants William Davis and William Davis Logging, Inc. (the "Corporation") for judgment as a matter of law ("JMOL"), or in the alternative, for a new trial. For the reasons set forth below, the motion shall be denied. However, the Court will set aside the jury's finding in its verdict that the Corporation is liable for the negligence of Defendant Kenneth L. Davis, Jr.

BACKGROUND

This action was filed by Plaintiff Kristen Brown, individually and on behalf of her two sons, R.B. and A.B., for the death of her husband, Kyle Brown ("Kyle"). Plaintiffs claimed that Kyle died following a collision on the Champ-Clark Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River at Louisiana, Missouri. Plaintiffs alleged that Kyle was driving east over the Champ-Clark Bridge and that Kenneth Davis was driving west over the bridge, in a truck with a trailer loaded with a log skidder. The log skidder was owned by the Corporation and was being shipped for delivery to a purchaser. Plaintiffs alleged that William Davis, an agent of the Corporation, agreed to drive ahead of Kenneth Davis across the bridge to verify the bridge was clear and to block any eastbound traffic from entering the bridge, but that William Davis failed to perform these duties. Thus, Plaintiffs alleged that Kyle's vehicle entered the bridge while Kenneth Davis was crossing, and the log skidder being transported by Kenneth Davis struck the bridge, became dislodged, and landed on Kyle's vehicle, killing him.

Plaintiffs claimed that Kenneth Davis was reckless and negligent in his operation of the truck; that William Davis was reckless and negligent in failing to stop or warn oncoming traffic and failing to properly advise Kenneth Davis of oncoming traffic on the bridge; and that the Corporation was vicariously liable for the negligence of both William Davis and Kenneth Davis. Plaintiffs also alleged that the Defendants' actions were willful, wanton, and performed in reckless disregard for the safety of others, making Defendants liable for aggravating circumstances.

The jury trial commenced on June 16, 2014. Kenneth Davis admitted his negligence and that his negligence caused Kyle's death, but denied that his actions were willful, wanton, or in reckless disregard for the safety of others. William Davis and the Corporation denied that they were negligent and denied any liability to Plaintiffs.

Evidence was presented that Kenneth Davis was an independent contractor for the Corporation; that Kenneth Davis did not receive any salary or benefits from the Corporation; and that he operated a trucking company and performed services for both the Corporation and other customers. On the date of the accident, Kenneth Davis was driving a truck owned by William Davis, but which he operated under his own Department of Transportation number, and which he utilized in conducting his own business, Ken Davis Trucking. The only signage on the truck was that of Ken Davis Trucking. Kenneth Davis had been hired by the Corporation to pick up the log skidder and store it until William Davis was ready to sell it. Kenneth Davis alone picked up the log skidder, loaded it onto his trailer, and transported it to his lot. He was then hired by William Davis to transport it out of state to a buyer. Kenneth Davis loaded the log skidder onto the trailer without any involvement by William Davis. He alone determined how to load and secure the log skidder, and could have made the decisions to use flags or wide load signage. And Kenneth Davis alone determined the manner and speed in which he operated the truck.

Although the Corporation denied any control over Kenneth Davis, the Corporation admitted that William Davis was its agent. Evidence was also presented that William Davis agreed to cross the bridge in front of Kenneth Davis and advise him that the bridge was clear and/or block any eastbound traffic from entering the bridge while Kenneth Davis drove across; that William Davis left the scene for at least a few minutes to go to a gas station; that William Davis told Kenneth Davis the bridge was clear when, in fact, Kyle was proceeding east on the bridge; that William Davis did not block Kyle from proceeding east on the bridge; and that William Davis did not warn Kenneth Davis that any vehicle was proceeding east on the bridge. William Davis presented contrary evidence that he only told Kenneth Davis that he would warn of oncoming trucks, that Kyle was not driving a truck, and that there was sufficient room for Kyle's vehicle to pass safely across the bridge had Kenneth Davis not overcorrected and struck the bridge.

At the close of Plaintiffs' evidence, Defendants William Davis and the Corporation moved for a directed verdict, and at the close of all evidence, these Defendants moved for JMOL. In both motions, William Davis and the Corporation argued that Plaintiffs failed to establish William Davis's individual liability because there was no evidence that William Davis undertook any duty, increased the risk of harm, or directly caused Kyle's death. Further, these Defendants argued that because William Davis was only acting as a representative of the Corporation, William Davis could not be held individually liable. Finally, they argued that the Corporation could not be held vicariously liable for Kenneth Davis's negligence because the uncontroverted evidence showed that Kenneth Davis was an independent contractor, and there was no evidence that the Corporation controlled Kenneth Davis's operation of the truck. The Defendants conceded, however, that the Corporation could be held vicariously liable for William Davis's actions because of the admitted agency between William Davis and the Corporation.

The Court denied the motions for directed verdict and JMOL. The Court found that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that William Davis was individually liable, and Defendant Corporation was vicariously liable for William Davis's actions. The Court did note that it had "very serious concerns" regarding whether the Corporation could be vicariously liable for Kenneth Davis's actions because it was "doubtful that there [was] enough evidence in this record to support" a finding of agency as between the Corporation and Kenneth Davis. (Doc. No. 140 at 132, 141.) However, the Court allowed this issue to be submitted to the jury as well because the Court was not in a position to grant JMOL regarding any agency between Kenneth Davis and the Corporation without a more careful review of the record. ( Id. at 139-41.)

During closing arguments, Defendants William Davis and the Corporation also made an oral motion for a mistrial after Plaintiffs' counsel stated to the jury that Kyle's life was worth more than $700, 000. The Court denied the motion for mistrial, but instructed the jury to disregard the comment.

The jury received 14 jury instructions before retiring to deliberate. Instruction No. 7 advised the jury that its verdict must be for Plaintiffs and against William Davis if the jury believed, first, that William Davis undertook or agreed to participate in the process of transporting the log skidder over the Champ-Clark bridge; second, that William Davis either failed to stop or warn oncoming traffic when he agreed to do so, or failed to properly advise Kenneth Davis of oncoming traffic when he undertook to do so; third, that William Davis was negligent in any one or more of these respects; fourth, that William Davis's negligence increased the risk of harm; and fifth, that as a direct result of such negligence, Kyle died. (Doc. No. 129 at 8.) Instruction No. 9 informed the jury that the verdict must be for Plaintiffs and against the Corporation if the jury found for Plaintiffs on Instruction No. 7. ( Id. at 10.) And Instruction No. 10 advised the jury that it must find the Corporation responsible for any negligence of Kenneth Davis if it believed that Kenneth Davis was transporting the log skidder within the "scope and course of agency" of the Corporation, meaning (1) the action was performed by Kenneth Davis to serve the business of the Corporation according to an express or implied agreement with the Corporation; and (2) the Corporation either controlled or had a right to control the physical conduct of Kenneth Davis. ( Id. at 11.) Instruction No. 10 was derived from Missouri Approved Instructions No. 13.06 (Scope of Agency-Servant or Independent Contractor).

Defendants William Davis and the Corporation objected to Instructions 7, 9, and 10, arguing that they were incomplete statements of the law and were not supported by sufficient evidence, and Defendants offered instead a proposed instruction outlining factors for determining agency as derived from the Restatement of the Law of Agency. The Court overruled Defendants' objections to the jury instructions, holding that the instructions were proper statements of the law and were supported by the evidence in this case.

The jury returned a verdict on June 19, 2014. (Doc. No. 130.) In sections I through III of the verdict form, the jury found in favor of Plaintiffs and against Defendants Kenneth Davis, William Davis, and the Corporation, and the jury found Plaintiffs' total damages to be $3, 000, 000. In section IV of the verdict form, the jury found that the Corporation was responsible for the negligence of Kenneth Davis, as described in Instruction No. 10. Finally, in sections V and VI, the jury found that Kenneth Davis was not liable for aggravating circumstances, but that William Davis was liable for ...


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