Death of plaintiff could haunt nomineeDavid Pasztor, AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
July 14, 2002
When he died last summer, Willie Searcy was 22 and had been a quadriplegic for more than eight years, immobile since April 1993 when a car veered across a highway median near Dallas and slammed into his stepdad's pickup.
Searcy's prolonged suffering and death may yet haunt the nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen to a federal judicial post.
Her opponents say Owen's handling of Searcy's lawsuit against Ford Motor Co. vividly demonstrates her failings as a judge on the state's highest civil court. Searcy was a passenger in the 1988 Ranger pickup when the accident occurred. His family sued Ford, arguing that a defective seat belt caused the teen-age boy's spinal cord to be severed in the crash.
A jury agreed, awarding Searcy and his family $40 million in damages. An appeals court reduced the amount to $30 million. Then the case reached the Texas Supreme Court.
Attorneys for both sides asked the high court to rule as quickly as possible, Ford because it hoped the verdict would be reversed, and Searcy's family because they desperately needed money.
But for more than two years the case sat, undecided. For more than a year after oral arguments, the case languished with Owen, who drew the assignment of writing the opinion. Searcy waited, and suffered.
"The family did not have the money to provide the medical care he needed," said Jack Ayres, the family's attorney. "The lack of concern by the court about the very real nature of this child's condition was reprehensible to me."
The delay became a source of gossip and embarrassment within the high court offices, said Susan Hays, a Dallas attorney who was clerking for former Justice Rose Spector at the time.
Owen already had a reputation for slowness in handling her caseload, but the delay in the Searcy case went far beyond that, Hays said.
"People bitched in the halls about that one," she said. "To let it sit for two years was just so uncaring."
When Owen finally issued the court's opinion in March 1998, it wiped out the damages and ordered a new trial. Owen's opinion held that the original lawsuit was filed in the wrong court, a question that was not among the issues the Supreme Court had agreed to hear when it accepted the case.
Neither side had argued it when they appeared before the court, Ayres said, and Owen's opinion reached unusually far in search of a reason to reverse the case.
"We felt like we were ambushed," Ayres said.
In an odd move, the court issued a one-paragraph order along with its opinion, something of an apology for taking so long. The order agreed, after the fact, that the court should have granted the motion to speed up the case.
"While members of this court disagree over whether our disposition in this case has been timely, . . . we unanimously agree that the parties' request should have been granted," the order said.
While he will not comment on specifics of the case, Chief Justice Tom Phillips said in an interview that "the court should have done a better job." Owen is not talking to reporters while her nomination is pending. The ruling sent the case to Dallas County for a new trial. While the case lingered, Searcy's family did the best it could, Ayres said.
They managed to scrape together enough money to hire a nurse to stay with him until 4 a.m. His mother would rise at 5 a.m. to take over the constant care Searcy required.
Sometime in that quiet hour on July 3, 2001, Searcy's respirator failed. There was no one there to notice.
Ayres said he has been contacted by a staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee about the possibility of testifying at Owen's confirmation hearing. He said he will do so if asked.
"There's no question, absolutely no question, that the delay contributed to causing Willie's death," Ayres said. "We could have saved his life if we'd had the funds to do it."