Court of Appeals hears arguments in Victoria

June 7, 2012 at 1:07 a.m.
Updated June 8, 2012 at 1:08 a.m.

They did not have convincing witnesses, compelling evidence or persuasive visuals to help make their cases.

With only 20 minutes allotted each, attorneys presenting oral arguments to the justices of the Texas 13th Court of Appeals on Thursday only had their legal expertise and savvy litigation skills to stand on as they delivered passionate arguments on behalf of their clients.

While the appellate court hears oral arguments about four times a month at their offices in Corpus Christi and Edinburg, once a year the justices travel to a different location within its 20-county coverage area to give attorneys an opportunity to argue their cases closer to home.

The justices were last in Victoria in 2008.

The six justices divided into two Victoria County courtrooms to hear five cases, a combination of criminal and civil, including three that originated in the Victoria district court.

One case in particular attracted a crowd to the courtroom - Robert Zissa Jr. v. Euton's Harley-Davidson Inc., Harley Davidson Motor Company, Harley Davidson, Tim Euton and Dawn Euton.

In July 2006, Zissa was test driving a motorcycle to check for malfunction as an employee of Euton's Harley-Davidson.

He ran a stop sign and collided with a sport utility vehicle at the intersection of Bridge and Power streets.

As a result of the collision, Zissa lost his right leg and suffered memory loss, and he incurred about $600,000 in medical costs.

He accused the motorcycle dealership of failing to instruct employees on how to safely operate motorcycles; failing to implement procedures to ensure employees would operate motorcycles safely; ordering Zissa to test drive a motorcycle without basic safety training and failing to provide a safe place to test drive motorcycles, among other claims.

After the accident, Euton's Harley-Davidson, who did not offer employees workers' compensation insurance, refused to assist Zissa in paying for the treatment of the injuries.

Zissa filed a lawsuit against the defendants in July 2009, but in June 2011, the trial court granted the defendants' motions for summary judgments, thus dismissing Zissa's case.

"Mr. Zissa was a safe driver. He wouldn't have run a stop sign," said James Juranek, Zissa's Houston-based appeal attorney. "He was not able to focus on driving because he had to divert his attention to the motorcycle and what was going on with it."

As he stood at the lectern, Juranek argued case law and poked holes in the defendants' argument.

In his written brief, Juranek said the defendants not only had a duty to instruct the employees on how to safely test drive motorcycles, while simultaneously diagnosing them for mechanical problems, but they also had a duty to implement safety rules for test driving motorcycles.

Juranek, who has the burden to prove there was a mistake made in the original ruling, said he hopes to convince the appellate court to reverse the summary judgment and grant them a new trial.

Meanwhile, Cynthia Sheppard, the Cuero-based attorney for the defendants, argued for the judgment to remain in place.

"There's no evidence of negligence on their part that caused the accident," Sheppard told the justices. "We can sympathize with Mr. Zissa and the fact that he didn't have workers' comp, but what we can't do is turn that sympathy into legal liability that doesn't exist."

She also argued that reversing the summary judgment would in essence penalize the defendants for not having workers' compensation.

In addition to oral arguments, the attorneys have to submit a written brief up to 50 pages arguing their case for appeal.

Although the parties argued their cases on Thursday, the justices still have up to six months to issue an opinion.

"We work off a cold, hard record," said Justice Greg Perkes. "We have to read that record over and over to get a feel of what happened."

Chief Justice Rogelio Valdez likened their job to grading the papers of judges and juries to review whether they did everything correctly within the confines of the law.

Overall, the proceedings went smoothly, the justices concurred.

"Thank you to everyone here for being so gracious and very accommodating and nice." said Justice Dori Contreras Garza, who also acknowledged the reception thrown for them by the Victoria County Bar Association.



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