United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma
DIANA CARROLL, as Special Administrator of the Estate of RODNEY JAMES CARROLL, deceased, Plaintiff,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.
FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
TIMOTHY D. DeGIUSTI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Court conducted a bench trial in this matter beginning on
February 22, 2017 and concluding on February 24, 2017.
Plaintiff, Diana Carroll as Special Administrator of the
Estate of Rodney James Carroll, Deceased
(“Plaintiff” or “D. Carroll”),
appeared in person and through counsel John P. Zelbst, David
Butler, and Clay Zelbst. Defendant, United States of America,
appeared through Assistant United States Attorneys Rebecca A.
Frazier, Amanda R. Johnson, and Daniel J. Card. At the
conclusion of the evidence, the Court took the matter under
advisement, and now issues its ruling as set forth herein.
this case, Plaintiff D. Carroll presents a cause of action
for the wrongful death of her husband, Rodney James Carroll
(“Mr. Carroll” or “R. Carroll”). Mr.
Carroll was killed on March 1, 2014, as he rendered
assistance to motorists in a disabled vehicle on the H.E.
Bailey Turnpike, Interstate Highway 44 (“I-44”),
at about 11:05 p.m. in Grady County, Oklahoma. Mr. Carroll
was struck when a school bus driven by Laughter Smith, acting
within the scope of his employment with Defendant, collided
with the disabled vehicle.
Earlier on the evening of March 1, 2014, Mr. Carroll picked
Plaintiff up at the airport in Oklahoma City, and they drove
toward their hometown of Chickasha, Oklahoma heading
southwest on I-44.
Trooper Shane Fitzwater, an 18-year veteran of the Oklahoma
Highway Patrol (OHP), was on duty on March 1, 2014. He
testified that the OHP was expecting rain, sleet, and icy
road conditions late that evening. Multiple witnesses,
including Trooper Fitzwater, testified that sometime just
before 11:00 p.m., the weather started to deteriorate
rapidly. When the Carrolls drove past the I-44 toll booth at
mile marker 97 - about seven miles from the collision site at
mile marker 90 - Plaintiff noticed precipitation accumulating
on the windshield of the Carrolls' car.
Laughter Smith (“Smith”) is employed at the
Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma as the
school's Residential Life Manager. On March 1, 2014, he
was the school's Dean of Students. He has an Oklahoma
Commercial Driver's License and a bus driver
certification. He has, as an additional duty, been driving a
bus for Riverside for the last six or seven years.
See Plaintiff's Ex. (“Pl. Ex.”)
March 1, 2014, Smith volunteered to drive a Riverside bus
transporting thirty female students and two faculty
chaperones from Anadarko to Moore (near Oklahoma City) to see
a movie and have dinner afterward. The driving time would be
about an hour each way. The bus left Anadarko around 5:30
p.m. Smith checked the weather before departing, and was
aware there was a chance that winter weather - specifically
icy precipitation - could develop in the area after midnight.
Smith understood from his training and experience as a bus
driver that the maximum legal speed for a bus on Oklahoma
highways is 65 mph, and that speeds should be slower when
road conditions dictate.
After the movie, the Riverside students were taken to a
Braum's restaurant for dinner. While the students were in
the restaurant, Smith took the bus to a gas station to get
fuel. At the gas station, Smith checked the weather again
using his cell phone. He saw that winter weather was moving
in sooner than previously expected, heading generally from
west to east, and that the storm included icy conditions. He
returned to the restaurant and instructed the chaperones and
students to hurry so that the group could quickly get on the
road to Anadarko. Smith did not take time to eat the food
that was ordered for him; he also decided to alter the return
route because of the approaching inclement weather, taking
the I-44 turnpike instead of secondary highways.
Testimony and evidence varied regarding Smith's speed of
travel southwest on I-44. Smith testified that his speed
range was 50-65 mph, although he may have been going 45 or 50
mph just prior to the collision; OHP Trooper Lt. Roger Peck,
who talked with Smith at the scene of the collision,
testified that Smith stated he was driving 60-65 mph at the
time of the collision. Smith also testified that, after
passing the tollbooth, seven miles from the collision site,
he increased his speed to 65 mph and then decreased to 50 mph
at least twice between the tollbooth and the site of the
collision at mile marker 90. In light of all the evidence on
this issue, the Court finds it is more probable than not that
Smith was traveling between 60-65 mph immediately prior to
Smith testified that he saw or heard sleet on his windshield
soon after getting on I-44 (going southwest out of the
Oklahoma City/Moore area, the I-44 turnpike begins at mile
marker 107 near Newcastle), although he stated the sleet was
intermittent. D. Carroll testified that after passing the
tollbooth at mile marker 97, she noticed precipitation on the
windshield of the Carrolls' car. Trooper Fitzwater
testified that at 11:08 p.m., when he was dispatched to the
site of the collision, sleet was coming down and the roadway
on I-44 was already icy. Smith testified that the weather
conditions got worse after the tollbooth and as he got closer
to mile marker 90, ice started building up on the corners of
the bus windshield. Smith stated that about one mile from the
collision site, he saw a car stopped on the highway shoulder
and the driver appeared to be cleaning his windshield wipers.
When Smith got out of the bus immediately after the
collision, he noticed ice accumulated on the grass near the
highway shoulder; D. Carroll testified that immediately after
the collision involving the bus, when she got out of her car
to see what was going on, the roadway was icy and slick.
prior to 11:00 p.m., Laronna and Fred Gibbons were traveling
southwest on I-44 going from Oklahoma City to Duncan; Laronna
was driving the couple's 2008 Buick, and Fred was in the
passenger seat. Near mile marker 90, Mrs. Gibbons, at a speed
of about 60 mph, lost control of the car, hitting the barrier
in the center median of the highway, and coming to rest fully
within the inside (left) lane. Pl. Ex. 29.
Carrolls, traveling behind the Gibbons' vehicle, saw it
lose control and strike the median barrier. Mr. Carroll
avoided the spinning Buick, then pulled his car onto the
right shoulder of the highway and legally parked it there
with its hazard lights on. Mr. Carroll asked Plaintiff to
call 911 and report the accident. He then got out of his car,
crossed the roadway, and attempted to render aid to the
Gibbons. The Gibbons' car was disabled, and its lights
were not operable. Pl. Ex. 30.
Carroll was positioned next to the driver's side door of
the Buick, on or near the inside lane shoulder, between the
median barrier and the front driver's side of the Buick,
speaking to Mrs. Gibbons when the bus driven by Smith struck
the front passenger's side corner of the Buick. Pl. Ex.
Just prior to the collision, Smith had been following - in
his words, “shadowing” - a white pickup truck.
Westbound traffic on I-44 was heavy, and Smith described it
during testimony as a “constant line.” After
passing the tollbooth at mile marker 97, Smith shadowed the
white pickup until the collision occurred. Smith passed some
slower vehicles after getting on I-44, but beyond the
tollbooth and within one-half of a mile of the accident site,
he passed one slower-moving vehicle after it was passed by
the white pickup. When the white pickup, and in-turn Smith,
passed the slower-moving vehicle, they moved from the right,
outside lane to the left, inside lane. During this maneuver
Smith stated he “closed the distance” between his
bus and the white pickup. Smith saw the white pickup start to
slide, or “fishtail, ” as it began to move back
into the right, outside lane. Smith was distracted by the
fishtailing white pickup, and focused on it. He was about two
bus lengths behind the pickup at that point - the bus is
thirty-two feet long, thus two bus lengths is sixty-four
feet. Smith saw the white pickup veer suddenly to the right;
Smith remained in the left lane. Smith then saw, for the
first time, the disabled Buick in the left, inside lane of
I-44. He was one-to-two bus lengths away from the Buick -
thirty-two to sixty-four feet. He swerved to the right, but
struck the Buick (because of the way the Buick was
positioned, the impact was to the front passenger side of the
Buick). The impact caused the Buick to rotate and strike Mr.
Carroll. Pl. Exs. 1, 9, 30, 31.
Carroll suffered severe head trauma from the impact, and died
instantly. He was 61 years old. Mr. Gibbons, in the passenger
seat of the Buick, died of his injuries the following day.
Pl. Ex. 13.
Plaintiff was sitting in the Carrolls' car, parked on the
right shoulder of the highway, when the bus hit the Buick.
She did not see the collision. She did not realize that Mr.
Carroll had been struck and killed until another motorist
came to the car window and was pointing across the highway.
She looked and saw a dark form on the roadway. She got out of
her car and saw a group of people gathered; someone was
performing CPR on the body in the roadway. Plaintiff crossed
the road, which she remembers was icy and slick, and
identified her husband's body. She ...