Control over franchisee subject of Domino's appeal of $32M wrongful death verdict

By Marilyn Tennissen | Jan 26, 2015

After being hit with a $32 million verdict after a delivery driver caused a fatal wreck, Domino’s Pizza told a Texas appeals court that it was the franchisee, not the company, that had control over the driver’s actions. 

Justices Charles Kreger and Leanne Johnson and Chief Justice Steve McKeithen of the Texas Ninth Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Jan. 22 in Domino’s Pizza LLC vs Raghurami B. Reddy et al.

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.

Domino’s appeal focuses on the level of control the company actually had over the activities of the franchise.

During the trial, plaintiffs argued that driver Joshua Balka was speeding to make a delivery within a certain time frame.

Representing Domino’s, Michael Northrup said the company no longer has a “30-Minute Guarantee” program in place, Northrup said, and any incentive program for making speedy deliveries would have to come from the local franchisee, MAC Pizza.

Domino’s gives bonuses to store managers who had 85 percent of deliveries completed within 30 minutes, but MAC had established a 15-minute goal. Balka could not have been speeding to meet a deadline set by Domino’s, Northrup said.

Regardless, speed was not considered a cause of the accident, he said, which occurred in rainy weather. Balka’s car had a bald tire and hydroplaned on the wet pavement into oncoming traffic.

During the trial, plaintiffs argued that Domino’s had an inadequate policy regarding inspections of delivery drivers’ vehicles. Balka had testified that his car had been inspected once before he was hired.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Kenna Seiler told the appeals court that Balka’s tire was so bad it shouldn’t have been on the road.

She said that the store manager who employed Balka testified that Domino’s “controlled everything,” and that the company encouraged competition and “the need for speed.”

Northrup countered that a corporate employee would have to be in the car telling the driver where to turn, how fast to go, etc., to have the level of control over the franchise and its drivers that the plaintiffs allege.

Seiler also said the $32 million verdict was not the result of a “runaway jury,” but a reasonable amount to deal with the “horrific” injuries plaintiffs’ sustained and did not include any punitive damages.

Case Background

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.

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.

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.

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