Dawson et al v. Smith
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Chief Judge Karon O Bowdre on 11/24/2015. (KAM, )
2015 Nov-24 PM 03:46
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
MARGARETA DAWSON, et. al.,
LOUISE KING SMITH,
This matter is before the court on Defendant’s “Motion for Partial Summary Judgment,”
requesting the court to enter summary judgment in her favor as to the Plaintiffs’ claims for
wantonness and willfulness and for punitive damages. (Doc. 23). The court ordered the
Plaintiffs to show cause in writing by October 26, 2015 why the court should not grant that
motion (doc. 30), but the Plaintiffs did not respond by the deadline. For the reasons stated in this
Memorandum Opinion, the court FINDS that the motion is due to be GRANTED.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Smith filed the motion for partial summary judgment on October 2, 2015. (Doc. 23).
The Initial Order (doc. 9, at 9) and Scheduling Order (doc. 13, at 5) referred the parties to
Appendix II as governing motions for summary judgment and advised the parties that motions
for summary judgment must comply with Appendix II requirements. Appendix II, attached to the
Initial Order, states: “All material facts set forth in the statement required of the moving party
will be deemed to be admitted for summary judgment purposes unless controverted by the
response of the party opposing summary judgment.” (Doc. 9. at 17). The Plaintiffs did not
respond to the motion for partial summary judgment. Accordingly, the undisputed facts stated
below include the facts listed in Defendant Smith’s brief that the Plaintiffs failed to dispute.
On October 6, 2014, the Plaintiffs—Margareta Dawson, Lestell Dawson, and Leonard
Rhoads—filed this lawsuit based on an automobile accident that occurred in April of 2014 in
Cleburne County, Alabama. Louise King Smith was operating a black Jeep Liberty in the righthand lane westbound on Interstate 20 when she observed a large, blue recycling bin or storage
“tub” in the left-hand lane of traffic. About the same time as Smith saw the storage bin, a lightcolored car, traveling in the left-hand lane beside her, swerved into her lane of travel, cutting her
off. Smith moved her vehicle onto the emergency shoulder, took her foot off the accelerator, and
before she could apply her brakes, she struck the rear of a Lincoln Towncar stopped on the
emergency shoulder. Margareta Dawson and Leonard Rhoads were inside the Towncar at the
time of the accident. Smith never saw the Lincoln Towncar until the point of impact; prior to the
accident, she was traveling with the flow of traffic, paying attention to stay in her own lane, and
maintaining a safe distance between other cars. Smith was not distracted, was not using a cell
phone, and never attempted to pass another vehicle by traveling on the emergency shoulder.
Neither Margareta Dawson nor Rhoads observed Smith’s vehicle before the accident.
A non-party witness, Luke Kelly, was also driving westbound on Interstate 20
immediately in front of Smith. Kelly testified that he was traveling at 70-72 miles per hour, with
the flow of traffic, and that Smith’s black Jeep Liberty would have been traveling at the same
speed with the flow of traffic. Kelly confirms that he observed a blue storage bin in the left-hand
lane of the Interstate immediately before the accident in question, and that a white vehicle
traveling beside him in the left-hand lane swerved to avoid contact with the bin and almost hit
Kelly’s vehicle. The white vehicle continued without stopping. Kelly swerved onto the far right
shoulder to avoid the white vehicle, saw the Towncar stopped there, and almost hit it, but
swerved back to the Interstate travel lane. Kelly did not have an opportunity to put on his brakes
and could not have stopped his vehicle in time to prevent hitting the Towncar. Kelly further
stated that he never observed the black Jeep Liberty pass him and he does not recall ever passing
The Plaintiffs assert the following claims against Smith: Count I—Negligent/Wanton
Conduct; Count II—Prima Facie and/or Per se Negligent Conduct; and Count III–Loss of
Consortium. They ask not only for compensatory damages but also punitive damages. In
paragraph 7 of the Complaint, the Plaintiffs also claim that Defendant “willfully” operated her
vehicle at the time of the accident. (Doc. 1, at 3, ¶ 7).
II. LEGAL STANDARD
Summary judgment is an integral part of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Summary
judgment allows a trial court to decide cases when no genuine issues of material fact are present
and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. When a
district court reviews a motion for summary judgment it must determine two things: (1) whether
any genuine issues of material fact exist; and if not, (2) whether the moving party is entitled to
judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c).
The moving party “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of
the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to
interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,’ which it believes
demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S.
317, 323 (1986) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56). The moving party can meet this burden by offering
evidence showing no dispute of material fact or by showing that the non-moving party’s evidence
fails to prove an essential element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof.
Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. Rule 56, however, does not require “that the moving party support
its motion with affidavits or other similar materials negating the opponent’s claim.” Id.
Once the moving party meets its burden of showing the district court that no genuine
issues of material fact exist, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party “to demonstrate that
there is indeed a material issue of fact that precludes summary judgment.” Clark v. Coats &
Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). Substantive law determines which facts are
material and which are irrelevant. Id. at 248. In responding to a motion for summary judgment,
the non-moving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as
to the material fact.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586
(1986). The non-moving party must “go beyond the pleadings and by [its] own affidavits, or by
the ‘depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,’ designate ‘specific facts
showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.’” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P.
56(e)); see also Advisory Committee Note to 1963 Amendment of Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e), 28
U.S.C. app. (“The very mission of summary judgment procedure is to pierce the pleadings and to
assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.”). “The non-moving
party need not present evidence in a form admissible at trial; however, he may not merely rest on
his pleadings.” Graham v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co., 193 F.3d 1274, 1282 (11th Cir. 1999)
(citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324). If he does merely rest on his pleadings, or if the evidence is
“merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.”
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted).
In reviewing the evidence submitted, the court must “view the evidence presented
through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden,” to determine whether the nonmoving
party presented sufficient evidence on which a jury could reasonably find for the nonmoving
party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 254; Cottle v. Storer Commc’n, Inc., 849 F.2d 570, 575 (11th Cir.
1988). All evidence and inferences drawn from the underlying facts must be viewed in the light
most favorable to the non-moving party. Graham, 193 F.3d at 1282. The non-moving party
“need not be given the benefit of every inference but only of every reasonable inference.” Id.
The evidence of the non-moving party “is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be
drawn in [its] favor.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. After both parties have addressed the motion
for summary judgment, the court must grant the motion if no genuine issues of material fact exist
and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56.
Smith argues in her motion that no evidence, must less substantial evidence, exists to
support the Plaintiffs’ allegations that she acted willfully and/or wantonly in the operation of her
vehicle on April 20, 2014, and that her actions do not support a claim for punitive damages.
The Alabama Code defines wantonness as “[c]onduct which is carried on with a reckless
or conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.” Ala. Code § 6-11-20(b)(3) (1975). The
Supreme Court of Alabama has defined wantonness as “‘the conscious doing of some act or the
omission of some duty, while knowing of the existing conditions and being conscious that, from
doing or omitting to do an act, injury will likely or probably result.’” Ex parte Capstone Bldg.
Corp., 96 So. 3d 77, 84 (Ala. 2012) (quoting with approval Bozeman v. Central Bank of the
South, 646 So. 2d 601, 603 (Ala. 1994)). The Alabama Supreme Court also explained that
“‘[w]antonness is not merely a higher degree of culpability than negligence’ and that negligence
and wantonness ‘are qualitatively different tort concepts.’” Ex parte Capstone, 96 So. 3d at 85
(quoting with approval Lynn Strickland Sales & Serv., Inc. v. Aero-Lane Fabricators, Inc., 510
So. 2d 142, 145 (Ala. 1987)).
Because the Plaintiffs also assert that Smith acted willfully, the court also considers the
Supreme Court of Alabama’s definition of “willfulness”: “To constitute willful or intentional
injury there must be knowledge of the danger accompanied with a design or purpose to inflict
injury.” Ex parte Capstone, 96 So. 3d at 84 (quoting with approval Alabama G.S.R. Co. v.
Moorer, 22 So. 900 (1897)).
The court agrees with Smith that the undisputed facts cannot, as a matter of law, support a
finding of wantonness or willfulness. Rather, the facts reflect that, at the time of the accident,
Smith was reacting to the white car swerving into her lane of traffic, and when Smith herself
swerved onto the emergency shoulder to get out of the white car’s way, she hit the Towncar. A
third-party witness confirms Smith’s version of the events, and the Plaintiffs Margareta Dawson
and Leonard Rhoads acknowledge that they did not see Smith’s car before the impact, so the
Plaintiffs cannot testify about the events leading up to the impact or how she was operating her
jeep. No evidence reflects that, at or immediately before the accident, Smith was engaging in
risky behavior such as passing on the shoulder, texting, or going faster than the flow of traffic.
Given the undisputed facts—the circumstances and timing of the events leading up to the
accident, and the fact that Smith did not see the Towncar before the point of impact—she could
not have had the degree of consciousness that injury was likely to result as required to establish
wantonness, and she could not have possessed the knowledge of the danger coupled with a
design or purpose to inflict injury as required to establish willfulness.
Accordingly, the court FINDS that the motion for partial summary judgment is due to be
GRANTED. The court will ENTER SUMMARY JUDGMENT in favor of Smith and against
the Plaintiffs as to any claims asserting that her conduct was wanton and/or willful. In light of
that ruling, the court WILL STRIKE her claims for punitive damages based on allegations of
wanton and/or willful conduct.
Dated this 24th day of November, 2015.
KARON OWEN BOWDRE
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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