Robert Cornish’s Wrongful Death Lawsuit and the Law

By Michael GrossmanDecember 01, 2016Reading Time: 7 minutes

It should be noted that Grossman Law Offices has no involvement in the case I am about to discuss. No one in our firm is privy to inside information and no one is working on the case, or knows any of the participants. It's just an interesting case from a legal standpoint that happened to pop up in the news.

This past September, Robert Cornish, 32, was reportedly tending to a mechanical issue on the side of Loop 410, when he was allegedly struck and killed by Jewell Hendrickson. The attorney for the Cornish's allege that Ms. Hendrickson was texting at the time of the accident, lost control of her vehicle, and crossed the median, before her vehicle struck Mr. Cornish.

This is a sight we see far too often in Texas, where almost 500 people were killed by distracted drivers last year. What makes this case different from most motor vehicle accident wrongful death lawsuits is that in addition to Ms. Hendrickson, Mr. Cornish's employer, Sageleaf Custom Homes, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

For those who aren't familiar with the how personal injury law works, the inclusion of Sageleaf Custom Homes may seem like a bit of a head-scratcher. After all, if news reports have the details of the case right (be cautious, they often don't), isn't it Ms. Hendrickson who should bear responsibility for the accident? By all accounts, it was her vehicle who allegedly fatally struck Mr. Cornish.

Some may go no further and simply conclude that this is an attempt by a personal injury attorney to look for the "deep pockets" in order to "shake down" innocent parties for as much money as possible. This cynical view of the legal profession is rooted in ignorance of how personal injury law works in Texas. In my opinion, the circumstances of the case, a desire to see justice done, and the professional obligations of the Cornish family's attorney require that Sageleaf Custom Homes be included in the lawsuit. Here's why:

Why Sageleaf Custom Homes Is In the Lawsuit

The most immediate reason that Sageleaf Custom Homes is included in the lawsuit is because their is evidence that allegedly links their poor maintenance practices to the accident. If the suit is to be believed, Sageleaf has a history of poor trailer maintenance. It was a problem with the trailer that forced Mr. Cornish to pull over in the first place.

Some may discount this as a contributing cause of the accident. After all, we see vehicles pulled over on the side of the road every morning when we commute to work, what's the big deal? This neglects that the shoulder of roads is reserved for emergencies. As motorists, we're not permitted to pull over to the side of the road on a lark, or a whim. The reason is because the shoulders of roadways are incredibly dangerous.

We speak often about how speed differentials can contribute to accidents. Short of wrong-way accidents, there are no bigger speed differentials than between vehicles traveling at highway speed and stopped traffic that is not moving at all.

Making matters more dangerous is the fact that people are often outside of the vehicle when they are stopped for an emergency. This affords them no protection in the event of an accident, contributing to the danger of the situation. So in essence, the plaintiff is alleging that Sageleaf's negligent maintenance was a major factor that put Mr. Cornish in a dangerous position in the first place.

While it is obvious that Mr. Cornish would almost certainly still be alive, but for the distracted driver losing control of her vehicle and striking Mr. Cornish, it is equally plausible that if Mr. Cornish's trailer had been properly maintained, he wouldn't have been in that position in the first place.

Some people might still view this as a stretch and it doesn't address the issue of going after "the deep pockets." What people fail to realize is that personal injury attorneys have a professional duty to go after all parties whose negligence harmed their client, regardless of the depth of their pockets.

In fact, should an attorney fail to do so, they would be guilty of actionable legal malpractice. In short, the client would have the ability to file a grievance with the State Bar, as well as pursue their attorney civilly.

Our system is an adversarial one. While most of us are taught in every day life about the need for balanced arguments that consider the both sides, our legal system goes about achieving that balance in a different way than most people are used to. Instead of both sides constructing nuanced arguments that consider the relative merits of each side, like most people do in the normal course of life, we have decided that we get a closer approximation of the truth if each side pushes its argument as aggressively as possible.

One of the things that always surprises me when people react to a lawsuit is that they remark that one of the attorneys is biased. Of course they're biased, they're paid to be biased. If your attorney isn't biased in favor of your case, then your attorney isn't doing their job.

All of this is to say that while many people are shocked that Sageleaf is included in this case, if there is evidence to suggest that they didn't properly maintain their equipment, it would be far more shocking from my perspective if they weren't included as a defendant.

The Cornish Wrongful Death Case and How "Legal Outrages" Begin

I realize for some people it still won't sit right that the employer is included as a defendant in this case. Their reaction is going to be that the texting driver did far more to cause Mr. Cornish's death than any failure to maintain the trailer on the part of the employer. For those folks, their uneasiness with the employer's inclusion in the case will be just one more sign that something is wrong with our civil justice system. In their minds it will confirm a stereotype that our courts of out of control and that anyone can be sued for anything, at any time.

What people forget is that this case will be resolved one of several ways. The judge could decide that the case has absolutely no merit and dismiss it out of hand, the sides could negotiate a settlement, or the case will be heard in front of a jury of regular people like you and me. It is the last potential outcome that serves as the best bulwark to the integrity of our system. The great thing about juries is that any concerns that we might have regarding the validity and worthiness of a case, even unease that the employer is a defendant will be felt by those in the jury box. Attorneys for both sides will understand these potential pitfalls before the case gets that far. And if it does, you can be certain that the employer's attorneys will make every effort to point the finger at the texting driver and not their client, while the plaintiffs will know they have to make a compelling argument to convince a skeptical jury.

I won't even begin to speculate on the outcome of this case. There's no way to know who, if anyone, will be found liable. What I do have confidence in that there is no better way for this case to be decided than by employing the judgment of 12 regular people who will hear all of the evidence in the case, not just what is being reported in the media.

One thing I do know is that if that same jury, the only people who aren't parties in the case to hear and see all of the evidence, place some of the blame on the employer, the story will be spun by certain interests as an example of what's wrong with our civil justice system. We'll be treated to hyperventilating headlines about like "Man Struck by Texting Driving and Employer Is Found Liable?"

These stories, yet to be written, will be filled with outrage, but short on the details of the case. They'll likely leave out the fact that if the employer is found liable, then by necessity, the texting driving will be as well. Without knowing more about the details of the case, the one thing that is inconceivable is that the employer would be found completely liable for the accident and the texting driver let off the hook.

At its core, our civil justice system is about apportioning responsibility among all negligent parties. In most cases, responsibility is pretty cut and dry, meaning that much of the litigation process is concerned about the amount of compensation, not who is to blame. However, there are always complicated situations, like the one surrounding Mr. Cornish's death, where a case can be made that more than one person is responsible.

Two qualities that our civil justice system in general, and this case specifically, demands are humility and patience. We have to avoid the temptation of instant gratification, the desire to believe that we know what happened based upon a few sentences in a news account. At this point in any case, no one knows all the facts, not even to litigants. That's why filing suit is followed by a long process of discovery, where each side learns what the other knows. At this point in a case, the plaintiffs could have the facts and the law on their side, or both defendants could lack all culpability. The only way of analyzing the case in any rational manner is to freely admit what we don't know.

Patience is also important, because this process will play out over months. I realize that our culture of celebrity gossip and hot political takes encourages us to make snap judgments based on limited information, but the law cannot work that way; If it did, it wouldn't be the law, it would be a mob. As a society we've all preferred the fairness and predictability of the former to the rashness of the latter. Like I said before, maybe this case is without merit, but part of having a functioning legal system is that those who are wronged are given both the time and opportunity to make their case.

There are those who will jump on the employer's inclusion as a symptom of what is wrong with our civil legal system. Such people are opportunists. The only thing they really find offensive about our civil justice system is that they're the ones who are held accountable for their negligent behavior. They'll exploit the weaknesses of our system, the necessity of employing patience and humility, to stoke the fires of popular outrage. Their purpose isn't any interest in justice, but in a justice system that exempts them.