Special Jury Instructions for Professional Truck Drivers?

by Eric Pearson

In the usual negligence lawsuit involving a car collision, the jury will be asked whether a driver exercised “ordinary care,” which is defined in Texas as “that degree of care that would be used by a person of ordinary prudence under the same or similar circumstances.”   In Townsel v. Dadash, Inc., No. 05–10–01482–CV,  2012 WL 1403246 (Tex. App.–Dallas April 24, 2012), the plaintiff alleged her injuries were caused by the negligence of a  professional tow truck driver.  The plaintiff argued that the jury should have been given the following additional instruction:

Furthermore, professionals who undertake work calling for special knowledge and skill are required to possess a standard minimum of special ability. Therefore, a professional tow truck driver is held to the standard of care that would be exercised by a reasonably prudent professional tow truck driver acting under the same or similar circumstances. Whereas, an ordinary person is only required to act as a reasonably prudent person would act under the same or similar circumstances.

The Dallas Court of Appeals disagreed.  It concluded that the trial court did not err in refusing to submit the proposed additional instruction on a different standard-of-care instruction for a “professional” tow truck driver.   Quoting from the Texas Supreme Court’s opinion in Jackson v. Axelrad, 221 S.W.3d 650 (Tex.2007), the court of appeals stated that “the traditional reasonable-person standard … tak[es] into account both the knowledge and skill of an ordinary person and such superior attention, perception, memory, knowledge, intelligence, and judgment as the actor himself has.”  In other words, by asking the jury to evaluate the defendant’s conduct within the context of phrase “the same or similar circumstances,” a jury is instructed to consider the defendant’s superior skills and knowledge.

In a case against a professional tow truck driver (or any professional driver), the plaintiff will need to present evidence to the jury explaining the “circumstances” that should be considered when evaluating the conduct of the professional driver.   Such evidence will usually come in the form of testimony from an expert witness who is qualified to discuss the training, experience, legal obligations and other circumstances regarding professional drivers in the same field as the defendant driver.

Another way to hold a professional driver accountable to a “higher” standard of care is to identify a specific legal obligation the driver violated.   There are numerous specific regulations governing professional drivers that might apply in any given set of circumstances.  It’s obviously important to know whether any particular laws might make a claim against a negligent professional truck driver easier to prove.

Don’t assume a claim against a professional driver is just a “car wreck.”   The driver and the trucking company will be represented by lawyers who are experts in defending professional drivers and you will want experts on your side too.