Appeals court agrees victorious plaintiff should not receive damages

David Yates Mar. 17, 2010, 9:51am


A plaintiff who was stiffed with a zero damages award despite landing a victory in an automobile collision trial was told recently by an appeals court that justice had indeed been served.

In 2007, Nathaniel Stephens sued Ashleigh Petry over a rear-end collision, which occurred Sept. 5, 2006. A trial was held a year after the suit was filed.

As the Southeast Texas Record reported in November 2008, jurors concluded it was Petry's negligence that caused the car wreck. Nonetheless, Stephens walked out of the courtroom empty handed.

During the trial, Stephens testified that he was in another car wreck on Dec. 23, 2007 – a year after his collision with Petry.

Although he testified that his level of pain did not change after the second incident, Stephens said he no longer could enjoy his hobbies and now had trouble sleeping through the night.

"My quality of life has changed in that I'm a craftsman and I actually enjoy what I do," Stephens testified. "I'm an electrician. And I can no longer approach what I do with the same type of zeal that I had before the accident.

"I am having to use the physical therapist directives as to doing some things to relieve discomfort for my neck. I work on ladders a lot. I have to . . . step back from doing the job along those lines."

He credited his loss of joy, current insomnia and difficulty working to Petry's alleged negligence.

However, the jury – after only listening to one day of testimony – did not find that Petry was responsible for Stephens' current pain and discomfort, even though they did find her negligent for failing to control her speed and rear-ending him.

Arguing that the jury's failure to award damages is against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence, Stephens filed an appeal Feb. 26, 2009, in the Ninth District Court of Appeals of Texas.

On March 11, more than a year later, justices affirmed the award, ruling that juries are the sole judge of the credibility of the testimony and evidence presented by expert witnesses and litigating parties.

"Although there is evidence that Stephens was injured in the accident, the jury may not have believed that his pain, anguish, any necessary future medical care, and any physical impairment resulted from the accident with Petry, but were instead caused by his preexisting condition," wrote Justices Steve McKeithen in the court's opinion.

"Because the jury is the sole judge of the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given to their testimony, it was free to accept or reject all or part of the witnesses' testimony and the evidence.

"Therefore, we cannot say that the jury's failure to award damages to Stephens ... was so contrary to the great weight and preponderance of the evidence as to be manifestly unjust. Accordingly, we overrule Stephens's sole issue and affirm the trial court's judgment."

Court documents show Stephens was traveling north on Concord Road and approaching the Cottonwood Drive intersection when "Petry, driving a 1999 Buick Regal, failed to control her speed and collided with the rear of plaintiff's vehicle."

The trial started Nov. 17, 2008, and ended the following day in Judge Milton Shuffield's 136th District Court.

Stephens was represented in part by attorney Tim Ferguson of the Ferguson Firm in Beaumont.

Petry was represented in part by attorney Joel Sprott of the Munisteri, Sprott, Rigby, Newsom & Robbins law firm of Houston.

Trial case No. D179-569
Appeals case No. 09-09-00078-CV

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