Ninth Court to decide validity of $32M verdict delivered against Domino’s

David Yates Dec. 10, 2014, 2:22pm


Texas’ Ninth Court of Appeals will soon hear oral arguments on whether a $32 million verdict delivered against Domino’s Pizza should stand.

Last August, a Jefferson County jury deemed Domino’s Pizza as the negligent party behind a delivery boy’s fatal collision, serving up a $32 million dollar verdict against the popular pizza chain.

Court records show that on Feb. 4 Domino’s appealed. Ninth Court justices will hear the case Jan. 22.

Representing the estates of Devavaram and Ruth Christopher, Raghurami Reddy filed suit against Domino’s IP Holder, Mac Pizza Management and Joshua Balka on Sept. 7, 2012, in Jefferson County District Court.

According to the plaintiff’s original petition, on Aug. 11, 2012, the Christophers were traveling on S. Major Drive in Beaumont when Balka, while in the employment of Domino’s and MAC Pizza Management, crossed the center lane and struck their vehicle head-on.

Ruth, 65, sustained injuries and died the next day while Devavram, 70, sustained a permanent traumatic brain injury and was left with no positive cognitive function, the suit states.

The case went to trial Aug. 12, 2013, in the 58th District Court and ended 15 days later.

In a press release from plaintiff Reddy’s attorney at the Provost Umphrey Law Firm, the cause of the accident was later determined to be the “defective, worn tires on the delivery vehicle, one of which was without any tread.”

“The delivery driver, rushing to meet Dominos Pizza’s internal 30-minute delivery rule, was also cited for Failure to Control Speed,” the press release states.

Jurors found all three defendant parties, Balka, Domino’s and MAC Pizza, to be negligent in causing the collision, assigning the majority of the blame, 60 percent, to Domino’s, according to the court’s charge to the jury.

“We learned that Dominos has a very broad, undefined corporate policy that delivery drivers’ vehicles should be inspected,” said Provost Umphrey attorney Paul “Chip” Ferguson in a press release.

“However, Dominos does not enforce this policy with their franchises, and that led to the accident that took the life of Ruth Christopher and permanently disabled Devavaram Christopher. We also learned that Domino’s enforces a tragically unsafe delivery method by providing bonuses and other incentives for fast delivery.”

Although jurors found fault with MAC Pizza, the company had settled before the trial for $6 million, court records show.

Jurors further found that Domino’s failed to control the details of the injury producing acts of MAC Pizza and its employees at the 240 Dowlen Road store in Beaumont, and that Balka was operating a vehicle in the furtherance of a mission for the benefit of Domino’s.

A total of $32,154,506 in damages was awarded by the jury, which includes damages for mental anguish, loss of companionship, funeral expenses, medical expenses, impairment and disfigurement, the charge states.

In court documents, Domino’s asserted a general denial and argued that a third party, National Tire & Battery, negligently rotated Balka’s tires. Balka’s worn right tire and wet road caused him to hydroplane into the vehicle, the defendants argued.

The $32 million awarded is strictly actual damages, with no punitive damages included, according to Ferguson.

“It is believed to be one of, if not the, largest actual damages verdict ever returned against Dominos Pizza,” Ferguson stated at the time.

On appeal, Domino’s is arguing the trial court erred by failing to:

- Credit the company with the full amount of MAC’s settlement;

- Rendering judgment against Dominos because the company did not owe any duty as a matter of law and there is legally insufficient evidence to support any predicated finding to impose a duty; and

- Failing to submit NTB as a responsible third party.

“Domino’s requests that the Court reverse the final judgment … and render a take-nothing judgment as to Reddy’s claims against Domino’s,” states Domino’s appellate brief.

“Alternatively, Domino’s requests that the Court reverse the final judgment and … remand the case for a new trial. In the further alternative, Domino’s requests that the Court modify the judgment to allow Domino’s the full value of its settlement credit for the MAC settlement and to delete those damage awards not supported by legally sufficient evidence.”

Conversely, Reddy argues on appeal that when a franchisor exercises control over the activities of its franchisee’s employees, it may be liable for failing to exercise reasonable care in this control.

“Domino’s Pizza, LLC had both a contractual right of control and exercised actual control over the injury causing activities of MAC and Joshua Balka,” states the plaintiff’s appeals brief. “Domino’s owed a duty to exercise reasonable care in that control.”

Domino’s is represented in part by Houston attorney James Ray of Daw & Ray LLP.

Trial case No. A192-970

Appeals case No. 09-14-00058-CV

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