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The Cost of Broad Definitions: How One Jury Charge May Have Undermined an $80 Million Verdict

by | Jun 18, 2024 | Firm News, Insurance Litigation

Words matter—especially in jury charges. Embellishing and broadening the definition of an employee can lead to a higher verdict at trial, but it may cost the plaintiff on appeal.

Recently, in JNM Express, LLC, et al. v. Mr. and Mrs. Lozano (“JNM Express”), the Texas Supreme Court remanded a case for further proceedings on whether the plaintiff was an employee of the defendants.[1]

In that case, the plaintiff, over the defendants’ objections, employed the employee definition set forth in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (“federal regulations”) instead of the state common-law or Texas Pattern Jury Charge definitions.[2]

At trial, the jury found the plaintiff was an employee of all three defendants and awarded the plaintiffs a whopping $80 million in damages, with $25 million charged against each of the 3 defendants for exemplary damages.[3] The award was later remitted to just under $14 million, with each defendant owing approximately $2.9 million in exemplary damages.[4]

Now, the remitted verdict hangs in the balance and hinges on whether, under the appropriate definition, the plaintiff was an employee of any one of the remaining defendants.

Factual Background

The plaintiff in JNM Express was hired as an independent contractor-driver to drive a load from Texas to Maryland in 2015 but never finished the route after the accident giving rise to the suit. [5] The tractor-trailer the plaintiff was operating was owned by JNM Express (“JNM”) and leased to ANCA Transport, Inc. (“ANCA”) and was transporting a load for the brokerage firm Omega Freight Logistics, LLC (“Omega”).[6] Jorge Martin owned JNM and ANCA, and his wife, Irene Martin, owned Omega, a brokerage company.[7]

It had been determined that the accident resulted from the plaintiff falling asleep at the wheel.[8] Following the accident, the plaintiff sued all three companies and both owners for negligence and gross negligence.[9] The plaintiff alleged that he (1) was an employee of all three companies and (2) the owners should be personally liable because they encouraged him to drive and falsify his log books.[10] Collectively, the defendants answered the plaintiffs’ petition, stating that the plaintiff was not their employee.[11]

Defining an Employee

One of the main issues on remand will be whether the plaintiff is an employee of any of the defendants. The plaintiffs successfully got their instruction and definition for an employee over the proposed instruction from the defendants, which came right from the Texas Pattern Jury Charges.

The plaintiffs’ instructions were modeled after federal regulations and broadly defined an employee as “any individual, other than an employer, who is employed by an employer and who in the course of his or her employment directly affects commercial motor vehicle safety. Such term includes a driver of a commercial motor vehicle (including an independent contractor while in the course of operating a commercial motor vehicle), a mechanic, and a freight handler.”[12]

The definition from the federal regulations effectively eliminated the distinction between an employee and a subcontractor recognized under Texas common law.[13] The defendants attempted and failed to move the trial court to utilize instead the definition outlined in the Texas Pattern Jury Charge for an employee, which provides “An “employee” is a person in the service of another with the understanding, express or implied, that such other person has the right to direct the details of the work and not merely the result to be accomplished.”[14]

In a footnote, the Court remarked that “asking a trial court to follow [the PJC] is hardly out of the ordinary.”[15] Further, while the Court acknowledged that the pattern jury charges are not themselves the law, courts “rarely disapprove of these charges.”[16]

The Court recognized the issue of the plaintiff’s employment status was critical in assessing whether the defendants were entitled to a comparative-negligence defense and whether any defendant may be liable for damages at all.[17]

In the end

Ultimately, the Court rendered a take-nothing judgment for the claim of damages against the owners personally and Omega. The court held that evidence that the plaintiff was an “employee” of Omega was legally insufficient under either the federal or common-law definition of an “employee.”[18] The Court also rendered a take-nothing judgment against the owners, finding that evidence was legally insufficient to support piercing the corporate veil.

On remand, whether or not the plaintiffs take anything from JNM and ANCA will depend on the appropriate definition of employee and whether or not they can assert comparative negligence as a defense.

Thus, after 14 years, the plaintiffs, in this case, may take nothing despite initially getting an $80 million verdict because they opted to define an employee broadly, according to federal regulations rather than common law.

[1] JNM Express, LLC v. Lozano, No. 21-0853, 2024 WL 1685012 (Tex. Apr. 19, 2024).

[2] Id. at *2.

[3] Id. at *1.

[4] Id. at *2.

[5] Id. at *1.

[6] Id

[7] Id

[8] Id

[9] Id

[10] Id

[11] Id. at *3.

[12] Id. at *4 (quoting 49 C.F.R. § 390.5).

[13] Id

[14] PJC 10.1

[15] JNM Express, LLC, No. 21-0853, 2024 WL 1685012 *2 Fn. 14.

[16] Id. citing  Ford Motor Co. v. Ledesma, 242 S.W.3d 32, 45 (Tex. 2007).

[17] Id. at *4.

[18] Id. at *4.


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