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Mitchell Crane Services, Inc. v. Page

Supreme Court of Mississippi

November 21, 2013

MITCHELL CRANE SERVICES, INC.
v.
PATRICIA PAGE, JEREMY PAGE, JUSTIN PAGE, TIFFANY PAGE, SHARROD PAGE, JERMAINE PAGE, CHRISTOPHER R. ARONHALT, CORRINE PAGE, MELVIN PAGE, BRANDI HENRICKS, KRYSTLE MILLER AND DAVID WILLIAMS

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 06/23/2011

PEARL RIVER COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. PRENTISS GREENE HARRELL, TRIAL JUDGE

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: KAARA LENA LIND, WILLIAM E. WHITFIELD, III JAMES E. WELCH, JR.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: GENEVIEVE GEBHEIM McLEOD, MARK THOMAS McLEOD MITCHELL HARRY TYNER, SR. DALE EDWARD WILLIAMS

BEFORE RANDOLPH, P.J., KING AND COLEMAN, JJ.

RANDOLPH, PRESIDING JUSTICE

¶1. Two vehicles struck multi-ton counterweights owned by Mitchell Crane Services, Inc., which were on the traveled portion of Interstate 59 in Pearl River County. The accident occurred on July 25, 1999, at night. The occupants of the two vehicles sued Mitchell Crane. During the liability phase of a bifurcated trial, the jury found that a thief was seventy-five percent responsible, and Mitchell Crane was twenty-five percent responsible for any damages. The trial court denied Mitchell Crane's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). At the conclusion of the damages trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Patricia Page and the other plaintiffs (Page), in the amount of $2, 357, 406.80. The judgment was reduced by the trial court to $1, 178, 703.40 pursuant to Mississippi Code Section. § 85-5-7(2). Mitchell Crane renewed its motion for JNOV, which was denied. Mitchell Crane appealed, and Page cross-appealed. We reverse the judgment of the trial court.

FACTS

¶2. Mitchell Crane was in the business of selling and renting cranes. On Friday afternoon, July 23, 1999, a Mitchell Crane employee picked up a "pull truck" from a repair shop. The truck previously had been loaded with crane counterweights. He drove the truck back to the Mitchell Crane lot, located in Meridian, Mississippi, where he parked it, took the keys out, locked the door, and placed the keys in the key box inside an office. The truck and counterweights were to be used at a job requiring an eighty-ton crane at Slay Steel in Meridian on Monday morning. The counterweights were left on the truck over the weekend.

¶3. At approximately 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night, July 25, 1999, the plaintiffs, in two separate vehicles, struck objects in the road, later identified as counterweights, [1] which were strewn across I-59 South. One vehicle was driven by Melvin Page, and was occupied by Patricia Page, Corine Page, Tiffany Page, Sharrod Page, Justin Page, Jeremy Page, Jermaine Page, and David Williams, a family friend. The other vehicle was driven by Christopher Aronhalt and passengers Krystle Miller, Brandi Hendricks, and Paul Lee. Despite extensive damage to both of the vehicles, all of the occupants survived, albeit not without serious injuries. One of the investigating officers, along with Melvin, traveled to a nearby truck stop at Slidell, Louisiana, but could not find the truck that had carried the counterweights.

¶4. On Monday morning, July 26, 1999, a Mitchell Crane employee who had arrived for work at the Meridian lot reported to Walt Marcello, the president of Mitchell Crane, that the truck and counterweights were missing. After contacting other employees to see if they knew the location of the truck, Marcello filed a stolen-vehicle report with the police. Later in the week, Marcello was informed that the counterweights had been found and had been involved in an accident.

¶5. The truck, without the counterweights, was found abandoned in a hotel parking lot, located off Interstate 10, in Ocean Springs on September 1, 1999. The interior of the truck was trashed, and the straps on the back deck were broken. Exterior damage revealed a broken hood strap, paint chipped underneath the driver door, and a cut wire hanging from the engine. On September, 13, 1999, Page filed a lawsuit against Mitchell Crane, alleging that Mitchell Crane employees were operating the truck at the time of the collisions. Alternatively, Page pleaded that if the truck was stolen, Mitchell Crane had a duty to prevent unauthorized persons from stealing the vehicle. Upon the request of Mitchell Crane, the trial was bifurcated.

¶6. Trial testimony of Mitchell Crane employees established that any time an eighty-ton crane was moved, Mitchell Crane had to request a permit from the Mississippi Department of Transportation. Although a permit is not necessary to transport counterweights, the counterweights were moved only with the cranes. Mitchell Crane employees further testified that it was illegal to transport cranes on Sunday. Although Mitchell Crane had performed jobs in Louisiana on a few occasions previously, no work was scheduled to be performed in Louisiana the weekend or week of the accident.

ΒΆ7. Officer Ronnie Turan testified that "it is fairly common and routine that equiqment like [the pulltruck] is stolen in the state of Mississippi." Due to the "substantial foreign market for these kinds of vehicles, " Officer Turan testified that "sophisticated" thieves were able to get these kinds of ...


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