HOUSTON – The 14th District Court of Appeals affirmed in part and suggested a remittitur in part in an appeal filed by Critical Path Resources Inc. disputing damages awarded to nine Valero employees.
The employees were involved in an explosion while working a turnaround on a project managed by Valero in Tennessee. Three of the employees were severely burned and one died from his injuries.
Appellees Richard Cuevas, Daniel Cuevas, Guadalupe Torres, Luis de los Santos, Blake Smith and Nicolas Oscar Cuevas (Nico) and others were awarded $8,466,656.07 in damages, including pretrial interest, against Critical Path Resources for negligence. The opinion states a jury found Critical Path was "6 percent responsible for the explosion and resulting injuries."
According to the opinion, Daniel Cuevas, Nicolas Oscar Cuevas and Torres were working on an elevated platform to install a blind in the south flare line when an explosion occurred, severely burning all three of them. Richard Cuevas, Smith and de los Santos were working on the ground at the time and sustained injuries from the accident. Nicolas Oscar Cuevas passed away four days later from his injuries, the opinion states.
Critical Path appealed the jury's settlement findings on four grounds: the findings were insufficient to show Critical Path breached its duty of care; that the company's actions caused the accident; the trial court abused its discretion when it refused to submit a new and independent cause instruction; and the sufficiency of the evidence supporting some of the economic and non-economic damages.
The majority opinion of the court was given by Justices J. Brett Busby and concurred by Tracy Christopher on March 29. It sustained Critical Path's fourth claim and ruled the damages were excessive. The court suggested a remittitur, or if the company decided, it could pursue a new trial.
Justice Kevin Jewell dissented.
"In a thorough opinion, the court today overrules Critical Path’s legal sufficiency challenges to the jury’s proximate cause finding," he wrote in his dissent. "Regrettably, I cannot join the opinion or judgment because I agree with Critical Path that events occurring subsequent to its negligence destroyed any causal connection between Critical Path’s negligent conduct and the accident. Accordingly, the proximate cause element is unsupported by legally sufficient evidence, which compels the court to reverse the judgment. Because the majority does not do so, I respectfully dissent."
His opinion noted that the conduct of Valero, Critical Path and JVIC, the company who employed the injured parties, was "independent, extraordinary, and far from normal" given Valero's knowledge of the hazards surrounding the work site. His opinion stated this would lead the court to sustain Critical Path's legal sufficiency challenge to the proximate cause finding and that he would reverse the judgment in favor of Critical Path.