Alabama Supreme Court reverses $2.5 million wrongful death ruling after eyewitness not disclosed

By Angela Underwood | Dec 20, 2017

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Legal Newsline) – The Alabama Supreme Court has reversed a multimillion-dollar verdict in a wrongful death case stemming from a fatal accident.

The Dec. 8 ruling in a lawsuit out of Wilcox Circuit Court was authored by Justice William Sellers, who sided with Mitchell’s Contracting Service in its appeal against Robert Guy Gleason Sr., administrator of the estate of Lorena Gleason, that sought a new trial.

The wrongful death complaint, which resulted in a jury awarding $2.5 million to the estate, was brought on by Gleason, who argued his wife was killed by one Mitchell’s drivers when a dump truck caused her vehicle to leave the road and hit a tree that resulted in her death.

Mitchell's denied its drivers caused Lorena Gleason's car to leave the roadway. 

However, Mitchell’s Contracting's appeal sought to deny the award based on erroneous evidence, specifically the alleged eyewitness account by Agee Smith of the fatality. The ruling states Gleason's witness list did not indicate that Smith witnessed the accident.

"Mitchell asserts that Gleason, in responding to Mitchell's interrogatories, failed to identify Agee Smith as an eyewitness to the accident and that, as a consequence, the trial court should have continued the trial to give Mitchell's counsel an opportunity to depose Smith and to otherwise prepare for Smith's testimony," according to the appeal.

While Mitchell's argues Gleason’s wife was negligent, Gleason contends it was a dump truck driver who caused the fatality, and both parties provided an accident reconstructionist to prove their points due to no actual third-party witness present during the accident.

Citing General Motors Corp. v. Jernigan from 2003, Sellers notes it is not the appeals court's role to reweigh the evidence, “rather, the issue is whether from the evidence presented ‘fair-minded persons in the exercise of impartial judgment [could] reasonably infer the existence of the fact sought to be proved,’” according to the appeal.

Though Sellers notes that the trial court did not err in refuting Mitchell's Contracting's motion for a judgment, it should have allowed Mitchell’s counsel to depose and prepare for a last-minute witness. Seller cites Mitchell's Contracting's defense of Barganier v. Barganier from 1995 and Edwards v. Valentine from 2005 vis-à-vis a party's failure to deliver comprehensive and honest discovery.

“We can find no cases where this court has considered the consequences of a party's failure, in response to interrogatories in a civil action, to disclose the existence and identity of an eyewitness to an accident that resulted in death or serious injury preventing the accident victim from testifying,” according to the ruling.

Based on no past precedent, Sellers authored that Mitchell’s Contracting's defense was indeed marred by Gleason's failure to disclose Smith in enough time for Mitchell’s counsel to depose. Of nine judges reviewing the matter, four dissented and five concurred, ultimately remanding the matter for a new trial.

“In keeping with the high standards of professional conduct, plaintiff's counsel had a duty to inform defense counsel that there was an eyewitness to the accident; it was not enough to include the witness's name and address on a general witness list,” according to the ruling.

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