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Carroll v. United States

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

April 27, 2017

DIANA CARROLL, as Special Administrator of the Estate of RODNEY JAMES CARROLL, deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

          TIMOTHY D. DeGIUSTI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The 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.

         FINDINGS OF FACT

         1. In 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.

         2. 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.

         3. 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.

         4. 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.”) 2.[1]

         5. On 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.

         6. 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.

         7. 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 the collision.

         8. 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.

         9. Just 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.

         10. The 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.

         11. Mr. 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. 30.

         12. 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.

         13. Mr. 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.

         14. 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 ...


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