Miss. SC orders new trial in wrongful death case

Jessica M. Karmasek Jul. 6, 2011, 10:29am


JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - The Mississippi Supreme Court has ordered a new trial in a wrongful death lawsuit against a roofing company.

The Court, in its June 16 ruling, reversed the decision of the Rankin County Circuit Court in favor of the roofer and remanded the case, finding that the court improperly instructed the jury and denied two heirs the right to participate fully in the trial.

Leah Dooley filed the suit against Independent Roofing Systems Inc. and Cedric Byrd, an Independent Roofing employee, for her son Jonathan Dooley's death.

Byrd attempted to drive his truck and trailer into the driveway of a house located on Mississippi Highway 468 in Rankin County, but misjudged the turn. As a result, he left part of his trailer on the road for a short period of time.

The Chevy Malibu in which Jonathan traveled with his mother collided with the trailer. Jonathan died instantly.

A jury unanimously found that Byrd and Independent Roofing were not liable.

The trial court denied the plaintiffs' alternative motions for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial, and they appealed.

Chief Justice William L. Waller Jr. authored the Court's opinion.

"We make clear today that each wrongful-death beneficiary has a right to participate fully in all aspects of this trial," it wrote.

"Here, as in any other case that involves multiple plaintiffs, Dewey (Jonathan's father) had a right to question all the witnesses. The defendants cross-examined Leah on the negative information about Dewey and Kaitlyn (Jonathan's half-sister) in Leah's response to the joinder motion, but Dewey had no opportunity to address the validity of that information.

"Further, Dewey was denied the right to question Leah, Byrd and Keys -- the only witnesses who were present when the accident occurred. The alleged jury confusion or prejudice from different trial strategies must yield to each wrongful-death beneficiary's right to participate fully in the litigation with her chosen counsel. The trial court committed reversible error in denying Dewey's right to question all the witnesses."

The plaintiffs also took issue with the trial court's refusal of several proposed instructions that addressed negligence per se, traffic-safety rules and an alternate theory of the case.

In particular, they challenged the trial court's grant of jury instruction numbers 10 and 11, which prohibited the jury from apportioning fault for the dark shadows along the roadway or the alleged narrow and steep condition of the driveway.

At trial, the plaintiffs argued that both questions were vague and would confuse the jury. On appeal, they added that the shadows and the driveway should have been considered by the jury.

The Court agreed.

"Issues regarding shadows or the driveway are factual considerations that should have been available to the jury," it wrote. "Because jury instructions numbers 10 and 11 improperly removed fact issues from the jury's consideration, the trial court erred in granting both instructions."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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