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A Tragic Accident and a Continuing Legal Battle

Michelle Gaines is unlikely to ever live on her own after an auto accident. A jury awarded her $8 million in damages, but the decision was overturned. Her lawyers argue that if her appeal isn't heard, it would set a troubling precedent.

Michelle Gaines, 26, in her bedroom in Palestine, TX, on Sunday, July 22, 2012.

Michelle Gaines was the most popular girl at Palestine High School. The athletic, dark-haired 19-year-old was preparing to head off to Hill College on a soccer scholarship.

Her plans ended on June 11, 2006, when an 18-wheeler hauling an oil rig careened through a red light and crashed into her 2000 Buick.

“It’s as if my daughter died that day,” Mike Gaines said, “but God gave me back another one that I love and cherish just as much as the first one.”

The truck smashed the sedan into a mangled crescent and left Gaines with a broken pelvis and punctured lung. And, most devastating, a portion of her brain was sheared off. She was in a coma for about six months, and then she was in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centers for another eight months.

Now, at the age of 26, Gaines has the mental maturity of a 12-year-old, no short-term memory and no peripheral vision. The former prom queen’s group of friends is long gone.

“I try to hire girls around her age to take her out to eat, maybe go do the girl thing, go shopping or something,”  Gaines said. “I just try to make life as easy on her as I can.”

In 2010, a jury awarded Gaines more than $8 million in damages. The truck’s driver, its owner and another businessman involved with the oil rig were held liable, and the jury agreed with Gaines’ lawyers, who argued that after the accident there was an effort to cover up the businessman’s involvement with bribes and by destroying evidence.

But the state’s 12th Court of Appeals overturned the verdict last year, ruling there was not enough proof that the businessman, Joseph Pritchett, was liable in the accident. Mike Gaines and his daughter’s lawyers say that her future now rests with the Texas Supreme Court, which previously declined to hear the case. They say that if the court does not reconsider, it could set a precedent that allows defendants to avoid responsibility for their actions by destroying evidence and bribing witnesses.

“It has long been the story of humans that when they get caught doing a bad act, they lie about it and hide what they’ve done,” said Scott Clearman, a lawyer for Michelle Gaines.

Rob Roby, a lawyer for Pritchett, says that his client had no role in the accident. He vehemently disagrees with Gaines’ lawyers’ implication of a cover-up.

“This case never should have been submitted to a jury,” Roby said.

Scott Smith, a criminal defense lawyer in Austin who is not involved in the case, said he was appalled that the original verdict was overturned and that the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear Gaines’ appeal. He said it sets a double standard for criminal cases and civil cases.

The evidence implicating Pritchett, Smith said, is tantamount to circumstantial evidence that is routinely used to prosecute criminal cases.

“How do you have respect for a legal system that allows that kind of inconsistency and illogic?” Smith said.

But Olin Guy Wellborn, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said the appellate court’s decision was reasonable. Gaines’ lawyers, he said, failed to show that the destroyed evidence would have proved that the men each had equal control over transportation of the rig.

On the day of the accident, Kenneth Woodworth was driving the 18-wheeler to Corpus Christi, transporting a rig owned by Benny Joe Adkinson. Woodworth was headed to an equipment yard owned by Pritchett, where Adkinson planned to blueprint the rig’s parts so he could replicate them.

After the accident, Gaines’ lawyers sued all three men, claiming that Woodworth and Adkinson were negligent because Woodworth had no license and the trailer’s brakes were defective. Pritchett, they said, was also liable because he and Adkinson were engaged in a “joint enterprise” to profit from the rig.

Woodworth and Adkinson pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and received probation. Neither appealed the civil court’s decision that they were liable. But neither of the men has the money to pay the judgment, Gaines’ lawyers say. Pritchett, they argue, does.

Without money from Pritchett, Clearman said, taxpayers will have to pay for Gaines’ care. She can walk and talk, but her memory loss and impaired vision make it unlikely that she will ever be able to live independently.

Gaines tries to help improve his daughter’s memory with little exercises, like taking notes about TV programs she watches. But the messes she often makes because of her forgetfulness and limited sight upset and depress her. When she learned that the jury had awarded her $8 million that would pay for her rehabilitation, Mike Gaines said, she was ecstatic.

“I haven’t even told her that this happened,” he said. “I just know it’s going to shatter her.”

Pritchett’s lawyers acknowledge that the accident was tragic and that their client did business with Adkinson. But they say he had no control over how the rig was transported.

“There is a complete lack of evidence that Pritchett had an equal right to control or any control at all over the handling and/ or transporting of the trailer/rig in question,” his lawyers wrote in court documents.

The jury decided otherwise after hearing evidence that Pritchett paid Adkinson a total of about $96,000 after the accident. Gaines’ lawyers alleged in court that the payments were bribes to keep Adkinson from implicating Pritchett as having any involvement, an allegation that Pritchett and Adkinson deny.

Jurors also heard testimony that Adkinson burned his business records after the lawsuit was filed and that he and Pritchett had previously worked together to refurbish and sell oil field equipment.

Gaines’ lawyers told jurors that after they had arranged to inspect the rig at Pritchett’s yard, Adkinson hauled it away and cut it up for scrap. After it was destroyed, they said, bank records showed Pritchett paid Adkinson $60,000.

Pritchett said the money was a loan. Adkinson said it was payment for equipment.

Pritchett’s lawyers argued in court documents that he had had no part in Adkinson’s decisions to burn his records or to scrap the rig; Adkinson, they said, was responsible for the rig and the accident.

Adkinson, 81, said he pleaded guilty to criminal charges and did not appeal the verdict because he did not have money to fight the case. But he insists that he was not guilty and that Pritchett was not involved.

“They’re just trying to ruin Mr. Pritchett’s life,” he said.

When Pritchett appealed the $8 million verdict, the 12th Court of Appeals decided that Gaines’ lawyers had not proved that he was in a “joint enterprise” or that he had any responsibility for the accident.

Judge Brian Hoyle wrote in the court’s opinion that “none of the evidence shows that Pritchett had an equal right to control the alleged enterprise.”

The request for the Supreme Court to reconsider taking up the case is probably the last chance for the Gaineses to restore the $8 million judgment.

Until that decision comes — which could be soon, or could take weeks or months — Mike Gaines said he would continue working to get his daughter the best care he can afford.

“All I can do is just keep on fighting,” he said, “like I have been since Day 1.” 

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