- Chuck Lindell American-Statesman Staff
Injured on an oil rig off the coast of Egypt, mechanic Willie Williams was awarded $8.5 million by a Texas jury that blamed Houston-based Diamond Offshore Services for operating an unsafe rig that led to a career-ending back injury.
Diamond, however, argues that the jury was deprived of one essential piece of evidence — surveillance video that showed Williams changing an oversized tire on his truck, operating an excavator and tossing scrap metal outside his Mississippi home.
The company has asked the Texas Supreme Court to toss out the multimillion-dollar award, order a new trial and require the Houston judge to let jurors watch the 66-minute video, shot over three days by a private investigator, in hopes of undermining Williams’ injury claims.
“He’s telling the jury, ‘I’m in constant pain, it hurts me just to bend over.’ So we want to show the jury, well, here’s what he looks like when he bends over 37 times in the span of a few minutes,” Diamond’s lawyer, Constance Pfeiffer, told the Supreme Court during oral arguments on Dec. 7.
Undercover video is a courtroom staple for businesses defending against claims in slip-and-fall lawsuits and workplace injuries.
But Williams’ lawyers argue that the trial judge properly excluded the video because Williams never claimed that he couldn’t occasionally do the activities shown and because the footage was selectively shot by an investigator who did not continuously record events in a way that could have provided clearer context.
“When you have surveillance video like this, when the investigator uses stop-start to take only what they want, you’re not dealing with a sort of unbiased document,” lawyer Jeffrey Oldham told the court.
Williams’ lawyers also argued that Diamond is using the video argument to get a do-over despite a “mountain” of trial evidence showing that its negligence — including “a documented history of cutting corners on safety and maintenance” — caused a severe spinal injury that required two surgeries, the removal of two spinal discs, the amputation of spinal facet joints and a 2-inch screw holding it all together, court documents said.
“Williams will need at least one more surgery, though even with that he will still be restricted and have back pain. And he will need much more treatment, medications and therapy” but will always have a limp due to spinal cord damage, his lawyers told the court in legal briefs.
Williams was injured in 2008 while working alone to repair an elevator, an important piece of equipment that lowers drilling pipe into a well.
Williams claimed Diamond had no functioning replacements, despite rules requiring two spare elevators to be available, and did not properly maintain its working elevator. He also testified that he was ordered to immediately fix the balky equipment, ignoring repair protocols, so drilling could continue — a claim Diamond disputed.
In the years after the injury, Diamond continued to pay Williams about 85 percent of his $134,000-a-year salary before he filed suit in Houston, were Diamond is located, seeking compensation for past and future lost earnings, physical impairment, pain, suffering and medical expenses.
Diamond tried several times to introduce the surveillance video during the 2013 trial on Williams’ lawsuit, but state District Judge Alexandra Smoots-Hogan ruled that the footage could be shown only to refute testimony by Williams. Because Williams never claimed to be completely disabled and admitted to the actions depicted in the video — emphasizing that he could only perform them for a short time and that he would pay a price later — the video was not shown to jurors.
Diamond’s lawyers argued that the ruling, upheld in a 2-1 decision by the Houston-based 1st Court of Appeals, paves the way for similar videos to be routinely excluded in injury cases.
That would leave defendants entering court with one arm tied behind their back, Pfeiffer argued.
“The plaintiff is taking the stand and testifying as to their subjective pain and suffering and their (lost) abilities. We as the defendant can do very little to refute that,” she told the Supreme Court. “The best we can do is something like this, where we can get objective evidence of what the plaintiff looks like while they’re bending over when they’re working.
“There was nothing on this video that was unfair,” Pfeiffer said.
Oldham, Williams’ lawyer, scoffed at the notion that the case has wider implications for the use of video evidence in court, arguing that judges apply the rules on admitting footage based on facts that are unique to each case.
“What they offered was such a misleading and unfairly prejudicial video,” Oldham told the court.
“There is no reason for this court to create new rules for video evidence,” he said. “Diamond absolutely got a fair trial. There is no basis for throwing out this reasonable jury verdict so another jury can see what this jury already has heard about in detail.”
A ruling is expected by late June or early July.