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Brown v. Davis

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

February 23, 2016

Kristen Brown; A.B., by next friend Kristen Brown; R.B., by next friend Kristen Brown, Plaintiffs - Appellees
v.
Kenneth L. Davis, Jr., Defendant, William Davis; William Davis Logging, Inc., Defendants - Appellants

Submitted December 15, 2015.

Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis.

For Kristen Brown, A.B., by next friend Kristen Brown, R.B., by next friend Kristen Brown, Plaintiffs - Appellees: David A. Dimmitt, Richard Witzel, Witzel & Kanzler, Saint Louis, MO; John B. Greenberg, Lewis & Rice, Saint Louis, MO.

For William Davis, William Davis Logging, Inc., Defendants - Appellants: Kenneth L. Halvachs, Halvachs & Abernathy, Belleville, IL.

Before MURPHY, BENTON, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

MURPHY, Circuit Judge.

Kyle Brown was killed on a bridge crossing the Mississippi River between Missouri and Illinois when a large " log skidder" tractor fell off a truck onto his car. The truck hauling the log skidder was being driven by Kenneth Davis, Jr. (Ken) for his uncle William Davis and William Davis Logging, Inc. (WDL). Brown's wife Kristen brought this wrongful death action against Ken Davis, William Davis, and WDL on behalf of herself and her two children. The complaint asserted negligence based on Ken's driving and William's failure to block oncoming traffic. After the case was removed to federal court,[1] it was tried before a jury which returned a $3 million verdict for the Browns. William Davis and WDL appeal. We affirm.

I.

On December 14, 2011 William Davis, the president of WDL, and his nephew Ken Davis, an independent contractor, set out from Atlas, Illinois to deliver a John Deere 540B log skidder owned by WDL to a buyer in Eolia, Missouri. In order to reach Eolia, the Davises planned to travel west across the Mississippi on the Champ Clark Bridge. That bridge is 20 feet wide and has two lanes. Since the log skidder was 10 feet wide, it would have had to cross the centerline and encroach on the eastbound lane of the bridge.

At trial Sheriff Paul Petty of Pike County, Illinois testified about a 20 year local practice for wide loads crossing the bridge. According to the sheriff, the practice was for a driver with a wide load to call a law enforcement agent and request that all oncoming bridge traffic be stopped. Although Ken was aware of this practice, he preferred to " close" the bridge himself by sending another driver across first to block the eastbound lane. Ken testified that he had hauled loads across the bridge for William " thousands" of times. Often William was with him and would cross first in his pickup truck to close the lane until Ken and his load were safely across to the west. Ken stated that William had closed the bridge for him hundreds of times. William also testified that he had blocked traffic on the bridge himself and sometimes had called law enforcement to close it.

At the west end of the bridge where plaintiffs allege William Davis was supposed to block traffic there is a four way stop at the first intersection. There are two gas stations on the eastern corners of that intersection, and between them and the west end of the bridge is a motel. A driver heading east from either gas station or the motel may turn directly onto the road which leads to the bridge and avoid the four way stop at the intersection. Because of these access points on the west side of the bridge, William would be ideally positioned close enough to the bridge to block oncoming vehicles either from the intersection or from the three adjacent properties. The day before the accident, Ken loaded the log skidder onto a flatbed trailer for William who owned both the trailer and the truck.

The next morning the two met for breakfast at the Atlas Cafe, then went to Ken's lot, checked the trailer, and set off westbound for Missouri. William went first in the pickup. Ken followed with the log skidder and slowed as he approached the east end of the bridge and drove onto the shoulder to call William to check on any traffic. After William assured Ken that " the bridge was clear" and hung up, Ken drove west. As Ken passed under the first part of the bridge superstructure, he saw a car coming east over a rise in the center of the bridge. He " tried to move over because [it] was coming at [him] real quick," but he " got over too far" and hit the bridge with the log skidder. On impact the skidder ripped loose from the trailer and struck the top of the oncoming car, killing its driver, Kyle Brown. The collision occurred on the Illinois side of the bridge about 500 feet east of its center.

Ken Davis admitted that his negligence had caused the accident resulting in Brown's death so the key contested issue for the jury related to William's actions on the Missouri side of the bridge. Both William and another witness, Richard Brummell, testified about William's location, using an aerial photograph of the scene to explain to the jury what happened. William testified that as he headed west over the bridge toward Missouri, Ken called and asked him " to look out for trucks." William responded that " it's all clear." Then when William reached the Missouri side of the bridge, he stopped " a few car lengths" before the stop sign at the intersection ahead and " sat there for a few minutes" watching for oncoming traffic. William admitted at trial that from that location he would " probably not" have been able to stop traffic entering onto the road from the motel parking lot or the two gas stations closer to the bridge.

When William saw Richard Brummell's pickup truck approaching the Missouri intersection, he " told [Brummell] that Ken was coming across the bridge with a wide load." Brummell then stopped and waited. While he was waiting at the intersection, William looked in his rearview mirror and " could see the super structure of [the] truck . . . coming across the bridge." Later, however, he stated that he could have been mistaken about whether he had in fact seen it. After he stopped Brummell, William said he " saw no traffic." Apparently he believed Ken could safely proceed over the bridge at that point. William then crossed to the west side of the ...


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