Oklahoma Supreme Court upholds jury verdict for Toby Keith's family

The state's high court sided with a $2.8 million judgment awarded to Toby Keith's mother and her children in the traffic death of Keith's father, H.K. Covel.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: February 1, 2012
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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.