Craft et al v. Triumph Logistics, Inc. et al

Filing 57

OPINION. Signed by Honorable Judge Myron H. Thompson on 4/8/2015. (wcl, )

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IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA, NORTHERN DIVISION GWENDOLYN CRAFT, BRANDY CRAFT, and JULIE BUTLER, ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) Plaintiffs, v. TRIUMPH LOGISTICS, INC., and RECO GEROME WILLIAMS, Defendants. CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:14cv93-MHT (WO) OPINION In this case stemming from a traffic accident between a car and a large truck, plaintiffs Gwendolyn Craft, Brandy Craft, and Julie Butler sued defendants Triumph Logistics, Inc. and Reco Gerome Williams, asserting claims of not only negligence but also claims of wantonness against Triumph and Williams (hereinafter “wantonness claims”), wanton-training (hereinafter as claims “training well as against claims”). negligentTriumph Jurisdiction proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (diversity). and only is The case is before the court on the defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ wantonness claims against both Triumph and Williams and on the plaintiffs’ training claims against Triumph.* The motion will be granted. I. SUMMARY-JUDGMENT STANDARD “A party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense--or the part of each claim or defense--on which summary judgment is sought. The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material * The plaintiffs also charge the defendants with “gross negligence.” Under Alabama law, gross negligence is a degree of negligence; it is not the same as wantonness. See Miller v. Bailey, 60 So. 3d 857, 867 (Ala. 2010) (“Gross negligence is negligence, not wantonness.”) (internal citations omitted); Armistead v. Lenkeit, 160 So. 257, 259 (Ala. 1935) (“Gross negligence is defined as a want of slight care, as distinguished from ordinary care, on the one hand, and less culpable than wanton injury, on the other.”) Because the defendants did not move for summary judgment on negligence, this opinion will not address these claims. These claims survive. 2 fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The court must view the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). II. BACKGROUND Gwendolyn Craft was driving a rented minivan from New Orleans, Louisiana to Atlanta, Georgia to watch a professional football game. She had three passengers in the car, including the two other plaintiffs in this suit. The weather conditions were clear, and the traffic was normal for a weekday afternoon. On a northbound stretch of highway between Mobile and Montgomery, Alabama, the plaintiffs were involved in a car accident with Reco Williams, who was employed by Triumph and driving a commercial-freight truck. Craft was driving in the left lane, and Williams was adjacent in the right lane. 3 Without looking into his driver-side mirror, Williams crossed over into Craft’s lane. Craft swerved left off the highway to avoid a collision shoulder with and Williams’s then truck, driving into passing the onto grass. the Without slowing down, Craft then swerved right, and her minivan began to spin. Craft reentered the roadway mid-spin, crashing twice into Williams’s truck. Craft and her passengers sustained injuries. III. DISCUSSION Triumph and Williams move for partial summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ wantonness claims based on Williams’s operation and driving of the truck, and on the plaintiffs’ negligent- or wanton-training claims. A. Wantonness Claims Against Triumph and Williams To hold a defendant liable for wanton conduct in Alabama, a plaintiff must establish a high degree of culpability. While negligent conduct is characterized by “inattention, thoughtlessness, or heedlessness” and 4 “a lack of due care,” Monroe v. Brown, 307 F. Supp. 2d 1268, 1271 (M.D. Ala. 2004) (Thompson, J.), wantonness is characterized by “a conscious act.” Ex parte Essary, 992 So. 2d 5, 9 (Ala. 2007) (internal citations omitted). Wantonness is willful misconduct undertaken with the knowledge that the likely or probable result will be injury, that is, with a conscious disregard for the rights or safety of others. See, e.g., Alfa Mut. Ins. Co. v. Roush, 723 So. 2d 1250, 1256 (Ala. 1998); Bozeman v. Central Bank of the South, 646 So. 2d 601 (Ala. 1994). Wantonness can also be established by reckless disregard for the rights or safety of others. See 1975 Ala. Code § 6–11–20(b)(3). therefore, “[c]onduct which is Wantonness is, carried on with a reckless or conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.” Id. Because negligence is the “inadvertent omission of duty,” and wantonness is about the “state of mind with which the act or omission is done,” Essary, 992 So. 2d at 9, the Alabama Supreme Court has explained: “Wantonness is not merely a higher 5 degree of culpability than negligence. Negligence and wantonness, different plainly tort and concepts simply, of are qualitatively actionable culpability.” Tolbert v. Tolbert, 903 So. 2d 103, 114 (Ala. 2004) (internal citations omitted); see also Jinright v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., 607 F. Supp. 2d 1274, 1275-76 (M.D. Ala. 2009) (Thompson, J.). Alabama courts will allow a jury to determine whether conduct was wanton if there is any evidence that would allow that determination. Cash v. Caldwell, 603 So. 2d 1001, 1003 (Ala. 1992) (“Wantonness is a question of fact for the jury, unless there is a total lack of evidence from which the jury could reasonably infer wantonness.”). This determination of consciousness or recklessness underlying the question of wantonness may rely on inferences drawn from the circumstances. Klaber v. Elliott, 533 So. 2d 576, 579 (Ala. 1988). The plaintiffs argue that Williams was wanton because he failed to look to his left or signal before 6 he drove his vehicle into the left lane. However, this conduct, on its own, is not sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact concerning wantonness. To establish wantonness, the evidence must support a conclusion that the defendant engaged in conduct conscious, or in knowing disregard, that it was likely to cause injury. But the plaintiffs have not pointed to any evidence that would allow a jury to determine, consistent with Alabama law, that Williams had the requisite level of consciousness and awareness that his moving into the plaintiffs’ lane would likely cause injury. Simply put, the fact that Craft saw Williams’s truck move over into her lane does not prove that he knew that he was moving into their lane--for he could have been drifting without realizing he was doing so-and that by doing so he knew, or recklessly disregarded, that he likely would harm others on the road. See wantonness while as knowing Essary, “the of 992 So. conscious the doing existing 7 2d at 9. of some conditions (defining act and ... being conscious that, from doing ... an act, injury will likely or probably result.”) (emphasis in original). If mere inattention, contributes to the without accident, something that is, more that without some exacerbating circumstance, could constitute wantonness, then the concepts of negligence and wantonness would collapse into one. Moreover, under Alabama law, there is a presumption that “courts do not expect an individual to engage in self-destructive behavior.” at 1276 (internal Jinright, 607 F. Supp. 2d citations dangerous behavior at issue is omitted). When the “similarly likely to harm the perpetrator (as it is, for example, in most cases involving car accidents),” Alabama courts presume that defendants behavior. Id. do not engage consciously in that Here, for example, the presumption is that Williams would not have changed lanes deliberately if he were aware that it would cause an accident in which he could be injured. 8 The court recognizes the limitations of this presumption in a situation, such as this one, where the defendant is driving a tractor-trailer truck. When a large commercial truck is involved in a crash with a much smaller passenger vehicle, the truck driver may be shielded from some of the impact of the crash. Yet this asymmetry analysis here. a series presumption of does not change large unpredictable against truck court’s First, automobile accidents can set off reactions, self-destruction driver will attempt to avoid them. a the cannot be sure and that means the any Second, a driver of that surrounded by only smaller vehicles. he or she is Because there are so many trucks on highways, the driver of a large truck bears the substantial risk of colliding with not only smaller vehicles but also with equally large, if not larger, vehicles. (Indeed, because, under the plaintiffs’ version of the facts, Williams did not look before crossing over, there reasonably could have been a vehicle at his left that was the same size as his 9 truck, or larger, that could have put him in serious danger.) Third and finally, there is no evidence that the fact Williams was driving a large truck played any role in the accident. Cf. Fike v. Peace, 964 So. 2d 651, 662 (Ala. 2007) (rejecting argument that hauling an oversized load constitutes an “inherently dangerous” activity “because the major oversized load could risk have of been harm from the alleviated if [defendants] had used reasonable care.”). To conclude otherwise would mean that any collision between a car and a large truck, resulting from mere negligence or inattention of the driver of the larger vehicle, always would constitute wantonness. there must be circumstance. some exacerbating or Instead, differentiating See, e.g., Griffin v. Modular Transp. Co., 2014 WL 896627, at *4 (N.D. Ala. 2014) (Acker, J.) (finding evidence of wantonness in case where only the flatbed portion of tractor-trailer truck was blocking the highway, not the cabin with the driver’s seat, because “[a] collision between a car and the flatbed 10 portion of a tractor trailer does not carry the same risk of injury to the trailer driver as it does to the car driver”) (emphasis in original). However, the presumption that a defendant did not consciously rebutted engage when in there self-destructive is reason to behavior believe that is the defendant was suffering from impaired judgment (such as alcohol consumption) or the act itself is “so inherently reckless that it would signal the kind of depravity consistent with disregard safety and self-preservation.” of instincts of Jinright, 607 F. Supp. 2d at 1276-77 (citing Ex Parte Essary, 992 So. 2d 5, 16 (Ala. 2007)). example, might “Inherently be driving reckless” in reverse behavior, on a for major interstate, see Johnson v. Baldwin, 584 F. Supp. 2d 1322 (M.D. Ala. 2008) (Thompson, J.); driving through an intersection “at a very fast speed” after ignoring a stop sign, see Clark v. Black, 630 So. 2d 1012, 1016 (Ala. 1993); or abruptly moving from the right lane into the left lane after seeing a video store on the 11 left and deciding to stop and get a movie. Green v. Leatherwood, 727 So. 2d 92 (Ala. Civ. App. 1998). each of these inattention, instances, that is, something an more exacerbating than In mere circumstance, contributed to the accident. Here, there is no evidence that Williams suffered from impaired judgment. driver’s vehicle. license and He held a valid commercial was qualified to operate his There is no evidence that he had used drugs or alcohol, or was talking on his phone or texting. And he was not over his commercially allowed ‘service hours’ at the time of the accident. There is also no evidence that Williams’s conduct was inherently reckless. The failure to adjust one’s driving to accommodate special dangers on the road, such as bad weather or reduced visibility, may evidence the kind of recklessness from which a driver’s consciousness or reckless disregard of probable harm could be inferred. v. Meadows, 847 See, e.g., Hornady Truck Line, Inc. So. 2d 908 12 (Ala. 2002) (finding evidence of wantonness when truck driver failed to check his mirrors and drifted or merged into the left lane, where the truck was traveling at an unsafe speed during a heavy storm). As the court explained in Hornady, a factfinder could impute conscious disregard to a truck driver operating his vehicle at an unsafe speed during a bad storm because the driver “knew the weather “knew conditions,” the traveling.” speed “knew at Id. at 915. the which road conditions” their vehicles and were The plaintiffs in that case brought negligence and wantonness claims, and, while “inattention alone was sufficient to allow the case to go to the jury on the negligence claim,” the court found that the combination of the speed of the truck and the weather conditions, coupled with the driver’s inattention, was also sufficient wantonness claim to the jury. In this case, however, to submit the Id. at 915, 916. the plaintiffs have not presented evidence of unsafe road conditions such that Williams’s knowledge of those conditions, coupled with 13 his inattentiveness, wantonness. could support an inference of Nor is there is any evidence that Williams was driving at an unsafe speed or engaging in any other reckless conduct. At best, Williams inattentively drifted into the left lane; at worst, he deliberately merged into the left lane without signaling or checking his mirrors. But even “failing to look to one’s left before crossing a lane, while imprudent and likely negligent, is not so inherently reckless as to signal the kind of depravity required by Essary. It is also, quite simply, not suggestive of the kind of knowledge of likely injury required by the consciousness wantonness claims in Alabama.” standard applied to Jinright, 607 F. Supp. 2d at 1277. Therefore, because the plaintiffs have not provided any facts from which it could be inferred that Williams consciously or recklessly caused the accident, their submissions show “a total lack of evidence from which the jury could reasonably infer wantonness.” 14 Cash, 603 So. 2d at 1003; see also Askew v. R & L Transfer, Inc., 676 F. Supp. 2d 1298 (M.D. Ala. 2009) (Thompson, J.). Summary judgment will be granted in favor of Triumph and Williams on the plaintiffs’ wantonness claim. B. Negligent- and Wanton-Training Claims Against Triumph The plaintiffs also charge that, under Alabama law, Triumph is liable for negligently or wantonly training Williams. training, To support a claim of negligent or wanton the plaintiffs must demonstrate that (1) Williams committed a tort recognized under Alabama law, see Stevenson v. Precision Standard, Inc., 762 So. 2d 820, 824 (Ala. 1999); (2) Williams was incompetent to drive his commercial vehicle, see Lane v. Central Bank of Alabama, N.A., 425 So. 2d 1098, 1100 (Ala. 1983); (3) Triumph had actual notice of Williams’s incompetence or would have known had it exercised due diligence, see Armstrong Bus. Servs., Inc. v. AmSouth Bank, 817 So. 2d 665, 682 (Ala. 2001); and (4) Triumph either negligently or wantonly failed to respond to 15 this notice. at 1304. See id.; see also Askew, 676 F. Supp. 2d Triumph argues that the plaintiffs cannot satisfy these elements because there is no evidence that Williams was an incompetent driver or that it knew or should have known of Williams’s alleged incompetence. “Incompetence” is defined as the “state or fact of being unable or unqualified to do something.” Halford v. Alamo Rent-A-Car, LLC, 921 So. 2d 409, 416 (Ala. 2005) (quoting 2004)). measured Black’s Law Dictionary 780 (8th ed. In Alabama, “the incompetence of a driver is by the driver’s demonstrated ability (or inability) to properly drive a vehicle,” Halford, 921 So. 2d at 413-14, characteristics such “habitual negligence.” and as this may “general be measured by incompetence” or Edwards v. Valentine, 926 So. 2d 315 (Ala. 2005). The plaintiffs make two arguments to support their contention that Williams was incompetent. First, they argue that Triumph’s failure to train Williams properly 16 means that he necessarily was incompetent; in the alternative, they argue that Williams’s driving record and history of violations establish incompetence. The court rejects the first argument. Williams was a professional commercial driver with several years of experience. He earned his commercial driver’s license after receiving training and education at a technical college, and he passed the necessary tests to obtain his commercial license. He worked several different commercial-truck-driving jobs prior to and between his terms of employment at Triumph, and he passed a road test when hired by Triumph. Prior to the accident, he was trained in defensive driving by another trucking company. His commercial driver’s license had never been suspended or revoked. Moreover, the plaintiffs admitted at the pretrial conference that Williams’s commercial-license training included instruction on safe lane changes. Common sense, too, dictates that drivers look before changing lanes. While it may be 17 that Williams could have benefitted from additional training, there is simply no evidence in the record that Triumph’s failure to train Williams proximately caused this accident. Under the plaintiffs’ line of reasoning, any employee--even with extensive experience or a spotless record--would be considered “incompetent” unless fully retrained by each successive employer. not the standard in Alabama. This is simply Competence is not measured solely by training; it is measured by one’s ability to perform the task at hand. So. 2d at 414, 417 (explaining See Halford, 921 that a driver’s competence is measured by “actual ability to properly operate “evidence physical a motor relevant abilities vehicle,” to [the and his experience and record.”). Triumph itself and is determined driver’s] or her mental prior by and driving That he was not trained by does not establish that Williams was incompetent. Turning to the plaintiffs’ second theory, the court also rejects the argument 18 that Williams’s driving record establishes several traffic his incompetence. violations on his Williams personal has driving record, including a ticket for speeding issued when he was driving his pregnant girlfriend to the hospital to deliver their child; an accident from age 17, before he received his commercial driver’s license; a tag violation; a seatbelt violation; and a failure to stop. The only violation he has received while driving his commercial vehicle is an overweight ticket. An employee’s “mistake or single act of negligence” does not establish incompetence, because even “the most competent may be negligent.” Southland Bank v. A & A Drywall Supply Co., Inc., 21 So. 3d 1196, 1217 (Ala. 2008) (internal citations omitted). habitually negligent incompetent.” has been diverse establish on that Id. (emphasis removed). cited for circumstances the may But “one who is kind several behind of amounts to incompetence. moving each ‘habitual account be Though Williams violations, citation do negligence’ the not that Cf. Pritchett v. ICN Medical 19 Alliance, Inc., 938 So. 2d 933 (Ala. 2006) (holding that defendant’s use of an improper safety technique during cosmetic surgery on 30 to 40 occasions evidenced habitual negligence and established a jury question on incompetence). Williams had several years of truck-driving experience and a commercial driver’s license in good standing, both demonstrating his “ability to properly handle an automobile on the road.” at 414. Halford, 921 So. 2d As this court explained in Askew, “blemishes on an otherwise clean professional driving record do not amount, under the law, to incompetence. The law requires that a driver have had a ‘demonstrated ability to properly drive a vehicle’; it does not require that he have a record completely free of mistake.” Askew, 676 F. Supp. 2d at 1303 (citing Halford, 921 So. 2d at 413-14); see, e.g., id. (explaining that a driver’s record with two accidents did not moving violations and four minor amount to incompetence); Pryor v. Brown & Root USA, Inc., 674 So. 2d 45, 52 (Ala. 1995) 20 (“[Defendant]'s prior driving record--two speeding tickets and a suspended prosecution of a DUI charge over a 10-year period--is not sufficient to support a claim of negligent entrustment.”); Thompson v. Havard, 235 So. 2d 853, 857 (Ala. 1970) (“[P]roof of two moving violations or accidents within a two year period prior to [the] accident ... is probably insufficient [to create a fact issue of the driver’s incompetence.]”) (internal citations omitted). Even if the plaintiffs had established that Williams was incompetent, his employer could be liable for negligent or wanton training only if it knew or should have known about his incompetence and failed to respond adequately to that notice. But the plaintiffs have not presented evidence that Triumph had or should have had incident either for notice which it or knowledge might have of any prior to offer needed supplemental training. The plaintiffs cite Big B, Inc., v. Cottingham to support their argument that 21 employers may be held liable for negligent training even when the employer is not on notice of prior similar offenses. 634 So. 2d 999 (Ala. 1993), abrogated on other grounds, Horton Homes, Inc. v. Brooks, 832 So. 2d 44 (Ala. 2001). In Big B, a store manager was accused of making improper sexual advances toward a part-time employee, and he later sexually assaulted a suspected shoplifter. The employer train, was and remained trained sued the as “reason after Id. incompetence incident the in question incident. scenarios, that how for a to fact employer to failure question had properly and question detain As the court explained, the employer had to employment” shoplifter found whether manager shoplifters. the court to the by the was it at arose [the manager’s] received 1003. in two in of Though employer’s based notice the the for failure for first manager’s factually liability its fitness different the to second address proactively a recurring problem: the mistreatment of women in the workplace. In Big B, therefore, the court 22 was already on notice of past similar conduct. Here, in contrast, Williams’s employer was not only not on notice of past general incompetence, but was also not on notice of past similar conduct. Because the plaintiffs have failed to put forth sufficient evidence of Williams’s incompetence or any persuasive reason why Triumph should have been on notice of that alleged incompetence, summary judgment in favor of defendant Triumph on the plaintiffs’ training claims is appropriate. * * * An appropriate order will be entered. DONE, this the 8th day of April, 2015. _/s/ Myron H. Thompson UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 23

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