Appeals court says Houston cab company not negligent for injury, reverses damages

David Yates Mar. 26, 2008, 7:55am

Justices on the Texas Ninth Court of Appeals reversed and remanded a Montgomery County jury's verdict that a taxicab company negligently entrusted a cab to an independent contractor on March 20.

Back in 2004, William Fields sued Houston Cab Co. and Felicia Simmons for injuries he received while entering Simmons's cab. According to court documents, the jury found Simmons and Houston Cab negligent and awarded Fields $418,806.31 in damages, and the trial court rendered judgment for that amount against Houston Cab and Simmons, jointly and severally.

Houston Cab appealed 284th District Court Judge Cara Wood's decision on Nov. 16, 2006.

"We reverse and render judgment that Fields recover nothing against Houston Cab, and affirm the judgment against Simmons," an opinion authored by Justice Hollis Horton stated.

The incidents surrounding the original suit began on Nov. 13, 2003, when William Fields, his wife, and two of their friends took a cab, driven by Simmons, from a restaurant to a tennis club. Fields claimed that as he was getting in the back seat, the cab accelerated before he was completely inside. As a result, Fields fell on the street.
Simmons claimed that her cab never moved, and she testified that Fields stumbled either over his feet or off the curb, the opinion stated.

Fields' treating physician testified that the accident caused a cartilage tear in his right knee and a herniated disk. Ultimately, Fields had knee surgery to repair the cartilage. The jury found that Simmons' negligence caused Fields' injury.

Only three days before the Nov. 13 incident, Simmons executed an independent contractor agreement with Houston Cab. The company had agreed to provide Simmons with a taxicab and in return, Simmons agreed to pay a fee. Under the agreement, Simmons had the sole discretion to determine what zones or areas she worked in, what days or hours she worked, the routes she would use to transport passengers, and the methods by which she would obtain customers, the opinion stated.

During the trial, Fields had argued Simmons had a checkered driving history and Houston Cab was negligent and liable for giving one of its cabs to an unfit driver.

Simmons had originally obtained a Texas driver's license in March 1997, but it was suspended on Jan. 13, 2000, for lack of liability insurance. At trial, Simmons acknowledged that she did not have a driver's license from Jan. 13, 2000, until Oct. 29, 2003, the opinion stated.

On Oct. 29, Simmons obtained a temporary driver's permit and then received her taxicab license from the city of Houston on Nov. 6, 2003. Simmons testified that she began driving the cab on Nov. 10, had never driven a cab before November 2003, and that she had not driven a motor vehicle at all for the three-year period before October.

On appeal, Houston Cab contended the evidence is legally insufficient to show that it negligently entrusted the cab to Simmons, arguing that the evidence failed to show Simmons was an incompetent or reckless driver or that Houston Cab knew or should have known that she was incompetent or reckless, the opinion stated.

On the other hand, Fields contended there is legally sufficient evidence of Simmons's incompetence and Houston Cab's negligent entrustment. As to Simmons's incompetence, Fields argued that the suspension of Simmons's driver's license for lack of insurance is legally sufficient evidence.

He also argued that Houston Cab's violation of its policy requiring drivers to have three years of driving experience represent legally sufficient evidence to support the jury's decision.

As to the jury finding on negligent entrustment, Fields maintained that Houston Cab's failure to request Simmons's driving record from the Department of Public Safety represents legally sufficient evidence of its negligence. To support this argument, Fields relied on section 521.459 of the Texas Transportation Code.

"In this case, the record shows that Simmons was a licensed driver when she contracted with Houston Cab and when Fields was injured," the opinion stated.

"The record also shows that Simmons received a taxicab license from the city of Houston prior to the accident. While driving without insurance is a statutory violation and may be questionable financially, it is not evidence that one is a reckless or incompetent driver who might endanger the physical safety of others. Thus we agree that Simmons's no-insurance citations are insufficient to show her incompetence or recklessness.

"In summary, we find nothing in Simmons's driving record to support the jury's finding that prior to Fields' injury, Simmons was a reckless or incompetent driver."

Still, Houston Cab's internal policies required applicants to have had "the past three years of licensed driving experience in the U.S.," the opinion stated.

"In our opinion, evidence showing that Houston Cab violated its independent-contracting policy does not relieve Fields from the legal requirement that he prove each element of his negligent entrustment claim," the suit said.

"While the testimony relied on by Fields shows that Simmons did not meet Houston Cab's own rules, the issue in this case is not whether Houston Cab was negligent in contracting with Simmons, but whether Houston Cab negligently entrusted the cab to her. The only issues submitted by Fields to the jury were based on his negligent entrustment claim.

"Having reviewed Fields' arguments and the evidence, we conclude that Fields has failed to prove that Simmons, prior to the accident, was reckless or incompetent. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's judgment against Houston Cab Company and render a take-nothing judgment in favor of Houston Cab Company. The findings supporting the judgment against Simmons are not challenged on appeal. Therefore, the trial court's judgment as to Simmons is affirmed."

Fields initially sued Yellow Cab Company of Houston, Inc., Greater Houston Transportation Company, Houston Cab Company and Felicia Simmons. Yellow Cab is a trade name used by Houston Cab. At trial, Houston Cab was the only remaining corporate defendant, according to the opinion and court documents.

The final appeal was submitted on Sept. 6, 2007, before Chief Justice Steve McKeithen, Justice Charles Kreger and Justice Horton.

Fields was represented by attorney John C. Schwambach.

Houston Cab was represented in part by attorney Kay J. Hazelwood.

Appeals Case No. 09-06-00506-CV

Trial Case No. 04-01-00005 CV

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