The state Supreme Court on Tuesday overruled an appellate court and reinstated a $2.8 million judgment awarded to country music star Toby Keith's mother, Carolyn Joan Covel, and her children in the traffic death of the Norman singer's father.
The defendants in the case, a Tulsa bus company and an Arizona insurance company, had successfully appealed the 2007 McClain County jury verdict to the state Court of Civil Appeals.
The appellate court reversed the verdict with directions to enter judgment for the defendants, Elias and Pedro Rodriguez, doing business as Rodriguez Transportes, and Republican Western Insurance Co. The Covels appealed to the state Supreme Court.
During the jury trial, an expert in accident reconstruction testified that a bus with properly working brakes would have slowed enough so the collision would not have been as severe and Keith's father, H.K. Covel, would not have died in the 2001 accident. The defendants did not object to that testimony during the trial, according to the Supreme Court's opinion.
The Supreme Court voted 8-1 to reinstate the jury's verdict.
After a five-day trial, jurors unanimously found against the bus company and the insurance company, and awarded the Covel family members $2.8 million and $5,000 in punitive damages. According to evidence presented at the trial, the charter bus owned by the Rodriguezes was in need of brake work and the owners had been advised of the brake problem before the March 2001 accident on Interstate 35 near Goldsby.
Covel, who was from Moore, was driving north on Interstate 35 when his pickup was bumped by another vehicle, knocking it across the median, according to testimony
Initially it was speculated that Covel might have suffered a medical problem, causing his truck to veer out of control. But lawyers for Covel's family asserted that Covel's truck had been bumped from the rear by another driver.
Covel's widow and her children, Tonni Covel, Toby Keith Covel and Tracy Kaye Covel, alleged H.K. Covel would not have died if the bus had been equipped with properly working air brakes.
The bus company said its bus was not the cause of the accident and that the driver was confronted with a sudden and unavoidable accident.
The bus company maintained that even if the brakes on the bus were defective it was merely a condition and not a cause of the accident.
Chief Justice Steven Taylor, in a dissenting opinion, wrote that the brakes on the bus “had absolutely nothing to do with this collision.”
“It is undisputed that the bus was obeying all traffic laws and had brakes that met all federal standards,” Taylor wrote. “This was a sudden, instantaneous and unavoidable event. No matter what kind of brakes the bus may have had, there is nothing the bus driver can do about a flying car instantly appearing from the other side of the highway.
“It is fundamentally unfair for the bus insurance company to be required to pay over $2.8 million because Mr. Covel lost control of his vehicle,” he wrote, saying he agreed with the Court of Civil Appeals that the traffic expert's opinions were not based on scientific foundation and were an assertion insufficient to support the huge verdict.
Justice James Edmondson, writing the majority opinion, said the damages awarded were not excessive. The plaintiffs asked the jury to award $1.7 million per plaintiff, or $6.8 million.
“The jury awarded considerably less,” he wrote.
Evidence from Pedro and Elias Rodriguez and the bus driver showed that no pretrip inspection of the bus was done and they did not have commercial drivers' licenses, Edmondson wrote. The driver testified by deposition that he had not received any specialized training for driving a bus.
Elias Rodriguez stated that he had the brakes repaired in Mexico, but there were no repair tickets or receipts that the repairs were done.