A popular and athletic girl while at Palestine High School, Michelle Gaines was homecoming queen and captain of the soccer team. She was active in not only soccer, but volleyball and track and made pretty good grades.
At age 19, her future was bright. She was preparing to head off to Hill College on a soccer scholarship and had dreams of eventually becoming a game warden.
But her plans ended on June 11, 2006, when an 18-wheeler hauling an oil rig ran through a red light at the intersection of Loop 256 and Sterne Avenue in Palestine, crashing into her 2000 Buick.
Fortunately, Michelle, now 26 years old, didn’t see the truck coming, which doctors say probably saved her life because she didn’t tense up. Instead, her body went with the motion of the wreck along with her vehicle, causing internal injuries mostly, but leaving her with a brain injury that has caused short-term memory and peripheral vision problems.
“It’s as if my daughter died that day but God gave me back another one that I love and cherish just as much as the first one,” her father, Mike Gaines, said.
As most people would suspect, that was the worst day in her father’s life.
“We got a phone call saying she needed to get to Tyler as soon as possible. I still remember that ride, it seemed like it took three to four hours to get there,” Mike said recalling the worry of wondering whether or not his youngest daughter would survive. “They wouldn’t tell us anything for hours, but finally they said she probably would live. It wasn’t until three days later that we learned she had a bad head injury.”
Fast forward to 2010, when an Anderson County jury awarded more than $8 million to Michelle in a civil lawsuit. The jury assessed damages against the tractor-trailer driver Kenneth Woodworth who hit her vehicle when running the red light. Woodworth had not had a driver’s license for six years, nor did he have a commercial driving license. During the trial, he also admitted he “had done some methamphetamines” the day before he inspected the brakes on the trailer he was pulling.
The jury also found against Benny Joe Adkinson, Woodworth’s employer and the owner of the rig.
The jury also found against Joseph Pritchett, a businessman who buys and sells new and old oilfield equipment with lots in Conroe and Robstown — the only one of the defendants with any money.
Michelle’s attorneys alleged Pritchett had lots of dealings over the years with Adkinson, and had entered into a joint enterprise to use this particular rig as a template for other rigs they would produce and sell together.
During the trial, Michelle’s attorneys presented evidence that alleged that not only had Pritchett and Adkinson destroyed evidence by cutting up the drilling rig before Michelle’s attorneys could have an expert examine it, but that there were payments totaling $96,000 that they claimed were bribes paid by Pritchett to Adkinson, designed to disguise his role in the enterprise. Pritchett’s attorneys denied there were any bribes.
In 2011, Pritchett’s attorneys went to the 12th Court of Appeals and won — overruling Michelle’s $8 million verdict. Pritchett’s attorneys argued successfully that it had never been proven that Pritchett had entered into a joint enterprise with Adkinson in this particular instance, even though Adkinson’s rig was headed to Pritchett’s lot on the day of the wreck.
The appeals court ruled that Michelle’s attorneys had failed to prove that Pritchett had any control over the drilling rig and what Adkinson had done with it, even though the first person Adkinson called after the wreck was Pritchett. Basically, that meant Pritchett didn’t have to pay anything.
The key point, according to Pritchett’s attorney, Jennifer Grace, was that setting a precedent by allowing Pritchett to be held liable would have a devastating effect on business in Texas.
“If this were allowed to impose liability, it would forever change the business landscape in Texas. Anybody that was in business with somebody else could potentially be responsible for their acts that they had no control over,” Grace said in previous interviews with the press.
Michelle’s family was devastated, working with her attorneys for any recourse to get the original verdict restored. Their only hope was to get the Texas Supreme Court to hear the case.
Unfortunately, on Oct. 26, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against hearing the case, which means the 12th Court of Appeals’ decision stands — and Michelle will never see a penny from the people deemed responsible for her accident.
“When the Texas Supreme Court denied to hear the case, it basically means they got away with murder. They covered up and destroyed evidence, lied and got away with it,” Mike said. “She will live off Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare for the rest of her life.”
Mike also feels strongly that the decision of the 12th Court of Appeals hurts the credibility of the justice system.
“The court is pretty much saying the jury was not smart enough to do a case like this. I am happy with the jury here and our court system here, but the trial took a week of my life and the life of the jurors and then the judge overturned it,” Mike said. “I do want to thank the jury for spending all of the time on the case.”
For Michelle’s family it’s devastating.
“That money was supposed to make her life better,” Mike said. “I was going to take her to Chicago to the No. 1 hospital for brain injuries, but now we will just have to depend on Medicare and Medicaid.”