(CN) - The owner of a driving school cannot challenge a jury's award of damages to a mother who had to yank her daughter out of the course because of possible inappropriate contact with an instructor, a Texas appeals court ruled.
Cheryl Hole enrolled her daughter in Rio Grande Defensive Driving School. When Hole's husband went to pick up the girl from class one night, he found her behind the school with her driving instructor in "what Hole's husband alleged was a suspicious and compromising position," according to the court's opinion.
Concerned about her safety, the Holes withdrew their daughter from the school and wrote a letter demanding a full refund and an explanation.
Cheryl Hole filed suit when Michael Wansey, the owner of the school, denied wrongdoing and sent a check for $18.
The Holes' daughter had been just four hours short of completing the course at Wansey's school, and Wansey said he would only send a "pro-rata" refund for those hours. At a second driving school, which was more expensive, the daughter had to start the course from the beginning.
In Wansey's letter of "explanation," he said Mr. Hole had simply walked in on his daughter talking to the instructor about the Junior ROTC program during the instructor's smoke break.
"That's called exercising her 1st Amendment rights," he wrote, as quoted in the ruling. "Our instructor was politely answering her questions. That's the scene you saw when you nearly knocked out instructor off his feet. ... Your threats are rejected. ... "Until you march up to our door with a writ in your hand, you don't give us orders."
A jury awarded Cheryl Hole $225 for breach of contract, $225 for negligent hiring, $5,000 in attorney's fees and $15,000 in exemplary damages for gross negligence.
After Wansey appealed the ruling, the Texas' 13th district court for Corpus Christi-Edinburg reversed the findings of breach of contract and attorney's fees, reducing the award by $5,225.
Wansey sufficiently proved that the Holes were not entitled to a full refund under their contract, and that the contract makes no promises about driving instructors, according to the ruling.
The three-judge panel affirmed that Wansey must pay Hole actual and exemplary damages for negligent hiring and gross negligence.
Hole presented evidence that two previous instructors at the school had lost their licenses due to inappropriate behavior with students. Wansey also admitted that he did not perform background checks before hiring employees.
"The Holes' withdrawal of their daughter from Wansey's school was a natural and continuous consequence of Wansey's lax screening procedures," Justice Nelda Rodriguez wrote for the court.
The court also upheld the exemplary damages for gross negligence, ruling that the $15,000 award was not excessive and that Wansey exacerbated the matter by with his "hostile" letter.
"Wansey's disregard produced repeated incidents of inappropriate contract between instructors and students," Rodriguez wrote. "Wansey's flippant response to the Holes' inquiries is but further evidence of his indifference to the situation."
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