Thursday, May 20, 2004

Star Telegram | 05/20/2004 | Jury blames 4 deaths on rock hauler, awards $23.58 million

Star Telegram | 05/20/2004 | Jury blames 4 deaths on rock hauler, awards $23.58 million

Jury blames 4 deaths on rock hauler, awards $23.58 million

By Don Chance

Special to the Star-Telegram

A Wise County jury has awarded $23.58 million to three Paradise families who sued TXI after four relatives died in a collision with one of the company's rock-hauling trucks.

The award, handed down last week, included $16 million in compensation and $7.58 million in punitive damages.

Kim Hughes, 38, her two children, Afton Royse, 17, and Shiloh Hughes, 14, and Kim Hughes' mother, Joyce Watkins, 71, were killed in the collision on Dec. 17, 2002.

Royse's toddler son, Jagr, survived in a car seat.

Decatur lawyer Derek Boyd represented the Hughes, Royse and Watkins families in suing TXI.

"The families are very pleased with the verdict," Boyd said, "but they are most pleased that Kim Hughes was found not at fault."

According to Boyd, on Dec. 17, 2002, TXI rock truck driver Ricardo Rodriguez was hauling a full load eastbound on Texas 114 between U.S. 287 and Interstate 35W.

Texas Industries Inc. is a supplier of construction materials headquartered in Dallas.

Kim Hughes was driving a sport utility vehicle westbound on Texas 114, returning to her Paradise home, when the TXI truck drifted into her lane. After the SUV sideswiped the truck, Hughes lost control, and the vehicle spun into oncoming traffic where it collided with a Ford pickup.

Boyd said that the jury of eight men and four women returned the verdict May 13 in Decatur after about nine hours of deliberation over two days.

Judge John Fostel, of the 271st District Court, said the testimony was highly emotional in the seven-day trial but added that that kind of reaction is not unusual in a case involving deaths within the same family.

The jury, Fostel said, found Hughes completely without fault in the incident, placing 100 percent of the blame on the defendants: Rodriguez; Aurelio Melendez, the truck owner who leased the truck to TXI; and TXI, for hiring Rodriguez, a previously deported undocumented worker, who returned to the United States with falsified identification, and was hired with no background check.

Fostel said that the final award was not unusually high, considering the circumstances of the case.

"It's large," he said. "But there were a lot of parties involved. It wasn't like there was only one plaintiff, and one set of damages."

In his closing argument, Boyd said, the families never asked for a specific amount, although he said what they had asked for early in the proceedings added up to between $30 million and $40 million.

"It was in that range," Boyd said, "but basically, we told the jury it was up to them to decide the damages. They went through the process and came up with the final total."

TXI spokesman Randy Jones declined to speculate on whether the company would appeal. "That's being looked into," he said.

TXI counsel Charles Hurd, of Houston's Fulbright & Jaworski, did not respond to numerous phone calls.


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