Marilyn Tennissen Dec. 31, 2014, 2:33pm


January 

I-10 pileup settlement

The trial over who was to blame for a Thanksgiving Day pile up on Interstate 10 in 2012 began in Judge Donald Floyd’s court. A truck driver and the company that owned the tractor-trailer were sued for negligence by the family of a Pearland couple killed in the 140 vehicle pile up that occurred in dense fog. The family hired the biggest legal names in Southeast Texas to represent them – Walter Umphrey and Chip Ferguson of Beaumont and Joseph Jamail of Houston. The parties reached an undisclosed settlement after a week of testimony.

February

Carnival Triumph cruise fiasco

More than 4,000 passengers were stranded for days in the Gulf of Mexico after fire in the engine room of the Carnival cruise ship Triumph. Suits began to be filed against Carnival in Galveston, where the cruise began, and in Florida, where the company is based, on behalf of passengers who claimed the conditions on the disabled ship were deplorable, unsafe and unsanitary.

Local cases were sent to the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Florida-Miami Division. First trial began in Miami in February 2014. (Debra Oubre of Friendswood)

"The Court finds that the record evidence demonstrates that the fire and resulting conditions experienced by Plaintiffs aboard the Triumph is a mishap that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence," wrote Graham. "It is highly likely that Carnival was responsible for a reasonably probable causes to which the accident could have be (sic) attributed. Here, the facts of the occurrence warrant the inference of negligence." U.S. District Judge Donald Graham.

Graham also ruled that Carnival does not have to pay punitive damages to plaintiffs who say they were hurt and are seeking financial compensation.

March

Ship Channel Collision

In March two vessels collided in the Houston Ship Channel, which led to the closing of the channel and to numerous lawsuits. In one, Kirby Inland Marine claims its barge, loaded with marine fuel, was struck by Sea Galaxy Marine’s vessel the M/V Summer Wind. Kirby seeks $10 million in damages.

Cases were consolidated to the federal court in Galveston. Beaumont attorney Brent Coon took on the cases of various fishing companies and other businesses that claimed they were harmed by the collision, the oil release or the closing of the channel. As of Dec. 4, Sea Galaxy Marine and Cleopatra Shipping are seeking a limitation of liability in the proceedings.

Domino’s $32M 

A $32 million judgment against Domino’s Pizza made the National Law Journal’s list of top verdicts, No. 5 for Texas and No. 60 nationally. A Beaumont couple was hit head on by a pizza delivery driver. A woman was killed and the man was left with permanent brain injuries. A Jefferson County jury awarded the family, who was represented by Provost Umphrey attorneys, $32 million. Domino’s appealed, and on Dec. 10, the Record reported that the Ninth District Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments on Jan. 22.

May

Watts accused of fraud

A group of Vietnamese fishermen filed suit in May against powerhouse plaintiffs’ attorney Mikal Watts, alleging the lawyer committed fraud when he listed them as his clients in litigation against BP.

Watts claimed he represented 44,500 coastal residents whose livelihood was damaged by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The large number of clients helped Watts gain a potentially lucrative spot on the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee.

However, the plaintiffs suing Watts accuse him of “misappropriating” their identities and claim that none of them authorized Watts to represent them.

The case is still pending and awaits class action certification.

June

Lance Armstrong

The U.S. Postal Service was allowed to continue its quest to recover more than $40 million it spent sponsoring Austin cyclist Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France while he was on banned performance-enhancing drugs.

The suit was first filed by Armstrong’s former teammate on the Postal Service Team Floyd Landis under the False Claims Act. Armstrong denied doping allegations for years, but eventually confessed and was stripped of his seven Tour de France wins.

In another civil suit filed in Texas state court, a promotional company seeks at least $12 million in bonuses it paid to Armstrong.

August

School finance

When 2014 began, the trial over the constitutionality of the way Texas funds its public schools resumed in Austin.

State District Judge John Dietz presided over the trial stemming from suits filed by hundreds of the public school districts in Texas three years ago. He had already ruled that the $5.4 billion in cuts from the state’s public school funding made the finance system unconstitutional. But some of that funding has been restored and the recent legislature approved new testing standards, so Dietz reopened the case.

The case went to trial in Dietz’s court on Oct. 22, 2012. After 12 weeks of testimony, Dietz upheld all the major claims by the school districts that the system was unconstitutional.

Dietz said that the state does not adequately or efficiently fund public schools and that it has created an unconstitutional de-facto property tax in shifting the burden of paying for them to the local level.

Dietz verbally made his ruling in February 2013, but waited to issue a written decision. A few months later, lawmakers restored more than $3.4 billion to schools and slashed the number of required standardized tests.

Despite the changes, Dietz still found that the state fails to provide adequate funding or distribute it fairly among school districts in wealthy and poor areas.

The state will probably appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. If the high court rules against the state again, it would be up to the Legislature to create a new funding method.

Earlier in the year, Dietz himself came under scrutiny over emails he had been exchanging with plaintiffs’ attorneys in the school funding case. The state argued that Dietz was showing bias to the plaintiffs, and asked that he be removed from the case.

A regional judge looked into the matter, and did not find any evidence that the emails were prejudicial but were routine questions on matters of law. The judge ruled June 24 that Dietz was allowed to stay on the case.

December 

Eminent domain and the common carrier debate

Appellate judges in Beaumont heard oral arguments Dec. 18 in a case against a pipeline company that could more clearly define how Texas law defines a common carrier. 

Attorneys for Texas Rice Land Partners Ltd. and the Denbury Green Pipeline-Texas presented oral arguments to justices on the Texas Ninth District Court of Appeals in Beaumont on Dec. 18.

The case has been in the courts for more than six years, and began when Jefferson County landowners were approached by Denbury Offshore to conduct a survey on their land. Denbury had plans to build a gas pipeline through the Hollands’ property.

The property owners balked at allowing the survey, and the matter became a legal fight. Eventually, Denbury took the land anyway and built the pipeline, claiming the pipeline would be for public use and gave the company the right of eminent domain.

Since then, the case has been through Jefferson County District Court, the Ninth District appeals court and the Texas Supreme Court.

The district court ruled it was a common carrier, and the appeals court agreed, but the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case back to Jefferson County. There Judge Donald Floyd once again said the pipeline met common carrier status, and the company is seeking summary judgment.

However the landowners say the case has yet to be heard by a jury, and they want the appeals court to send it back to Judge Floyd for a trial.

The appellate judges have to consider a new standard for determining common carrier status that was developed by the Supreme Court when it heard the Denbury Green case.

The standard requires evidence that there is a “reasonable probability that at some point after construction the pipeline will serve the public by transporting gas for at least one customer who uses the pipeline to transport CO2 that the customer either keeps or sells to someone other than an affiliate of the pipeline company.”

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