A plaintiff who was awarded $1.475 million in a drunken driving case five years ago wants the Missouri Supreme Court to hold the defendant’s ex-employer and its insurance company liable.
It was just over nine years ago in March 2009 when Springfield area resident Ricky Griffits was rear-ended by a rental pick-up truck driven by James Campbell.
Campbell, a resident of Tennessee, was in town as an employee for BNSF Railways. Campbell worked as a foreman on a “tie gang”, a group that travels to various locations to perform maintenance and repair work.
During a day off after driving to Springfield, he met up with coworkers at the motel where they were all staying and ate barbecue, played video games, and drank “copious amounts” of alcohol which included including beer, whiskey and Coke, and vodka.
After a period of time, Campbell became intoxicated and was slurring his words. He was escorted back to his room by a couple of coworkers, including an assistant foreman who told him to stay in his room. Campbell then fell asleep but woke up within a few hours feeling hungry.
According to court documents filed for the Supreme Court case, Campbell got in his rental pickup that was supplied by BNSF and began driving toward a Ruby Tuesday Restaurant.
Less than two minutes later, he collided with a vehicle driven by Griffits and, according to Griffits attorney in the Supreme Court, “slammed into a whole bunch of cars”. Campbell’s pickup landed in the Ruby Tuesday parking lot.
He admitted to police that he’d been drinking, and testing revealed his blood alcohol content of more than twice the legal limit.
Ultimately, Campbell pled guilty to felony leaving the scene of an accident and felony second-degree assault for causing injury. He was ordered to pay Griffitts $46,000.
After an investigation, BNSF fired Campbell for violating company rules that prohibit “unauthorized use of a company-provided vehicle while off duty and under the influence of alcohol”, and for breaking company policy against operating BNSF work equipment or vehicles when using alcohol.
What followed was a series of court cases over numerous years that briefly lurched into a federal court and at one-time featured Campbell and Griffits on the same side against BNSF and its insurance company Old Republic.
After the two men entered an agreement allowing them to seek recovery against the railway and its insurer, a circuit court in Springfield issued a judgment in Griffitts’ favor for $1.475 million, which included a $25,000 credit for the rental company that supplied the pickup Campbell drove.
After that judgment went unsatisfied for 30 days, Griffitts filed a proceeding under a much-maligned Missouri statute known as “equitable garnishment” against Campbell, BNSF and Old Republic.
Griffits claimed Campbell was permitted to use the vehicle under the insurance policy and, therefore, the two companies were liable for the $1.475 million judgment against Campbell.
After several requests for a change of judge and a delay in action because of a stay in the case, a third judge in the Greene County Circuit Court in Springfield found in favor BNSF and Old Republic.
Judge Jason Brown said Campbell was not allowed to use the vehicle under the policy because he had been driving a BNSF provided vehicle in violation of the company’s rules prohibiting alcohol consumption while operating a work vehicle.
The Southern District Missouri Court of Appeals in Springfield upheld the lower bench ruling, which led to Griffits appeal to the state’s high court.
Before the Supreme Court judges in Jefferson City Griffits’ attorney, Daniel Molloy, argued that there could be disastrous results if the court accepted the BNSF and Old Republic position that insurance didn’t cover Campbell because he was drunk behind the wheel.
He applied their reasoning to a sleepy truck driver who got into a wreck after not getting the required time off. “If their position is accepted, then those sleepy truckers going down I-44 highway at 70 miles-per-hour, you wipe out a dozen people, then there would be no coverage for those people or to protect the sleepy driver for his negligence,” said Molloy.
He also argued that Missouri’s financial responsibility law requires insurance coverage of anybody who has expressed or implied permission to use the vehicle.
Attorney Laurel Stevenson represented BNSF and Old Republic in the Supreme Court, where she said the trial court properly determined coverage could be denied because a drunk driving case differs from other violations of company policy.
“We have a different public policy argument here involving a drunk driver than you do in that situation,” said Stevenson. “The trial court made that distinction.”
The Griffits case has proved to be important enough to draw the interest of two of the main attorney groups in the state. Both the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys (MATA) and the Missouri Organization of Defense Lawyers (MODL) filed friends of the court briefs.
MATA contends that Missouri law centers on whether a person driving a vehicle has permission to use the vehicle, not on whether the person has permission to operate the vehicle in a certain condition or manner.
Attorney Todd Werts of MATA told Missourinet that allowing the lower court decision to stand would open up the possibility for insurance coverage to be denied for almost anything.
“You could create any rule that would say that ‘Well, even though I gave you the keys and I told to drive the car, and I knew you were driving the car, well you drove 56 miles-per-hour in a 55 zone, so there’s no coverage’,” said Werts.
MODL argues that MATA’s use of the word “operate” is inappropriate and plays no role in insurance contracts. In MODL’s brief for the court, attorney Timothy Sansone wrote “there is no need to differentiate between the “use” and “operation” of a vehicle, and the Court should adhere to the plain language of the statute and the contract at issue”.
The Missouri Supreme Court has not made a determination in the Griffits case and typically hands down its decision six-to-eight weeks after the proceedings take place. The Griffits case was heard last Wednesday.