Alexis et al v. Law et al
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS- denying 3 MOTION to Dismiss Based upon Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Please note that when filing Objections pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b)(2), briefing consists solely of the Objections (no longer tha n ten (10) pages) and the Response to the Objections (no longer than ten (10) pages). No further briefing shall be permitted with respect to objections without leave of the Court. Objections to R&R due by 7/16/2012. Signed by Judge Sherry R. Fallon on 6/29/2012. (lih)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF DELAWARE
ALEX ALEXIS and LINDA K. ALEXIS,
RUSSELL L. LAW and BUILDERS
TRANSPORTATION CO., LLC,
Civil Action No. 11-1211-LPS-SRF
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Pending before the Court in this diversity action is a motion to dismiss pursuant to
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), which was filed by defendants Russell L. Law and
Builders Transportation Co., LLC ("Defendants") on December 14, 2011 for purposes of seeking
dismissal of claims for punitive damages and allegations of willful and wanton misconduct. (D.I.
3) For the following reasons, I recommend that the Court deny Defendants' motion.
Plaintiffs Alex Alexis and Linda K. Alexis (together, "Plaintiffs") initiated this action in
the Superior Court of the State of Delaware in and for New Castle County on November 13,
2011. (D.I. 1 at ~ 1) Plaintiffs are residents of the State of Maryland. (D.I. 1, Ex. 1 at ~ 1)
Defendants removed the action to this Court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction on December 7,
2011. (D.I. 1) Defendant Russell L. Law ("Law") is a resident of the State of Virginia. (D.I. 1,
Ex. I at ~ 2) Defendant Builders Transportation Co., LLC ("Builders") is a limited liability
company formed under the laws of Tennessee and engaging in substantial interstate commerce in
the State of Delaware. (Jd. at ~ 3) Builders is a freight hauling company which employs Law as
a truck driver. (Id. at ~ 4)
On January 18, 2011, Alex Alexis' vehicle became disabled in the far right lane of the
Delaware Memorial Bridge due to a mechanical failure. (Id. at ~ 6) His vehicle was then struck
by a Freightliner tractor trailer driven by Law and owned by Builders. (Id. at ~~ 7-8, 16)
According to Plaintiffs, Law proximately caused the accident when he failed to stop and
continued traveling towards the disabled vehicle, anticipating that he could switch lanes or
maneuver around the vehicle. (ld. at ~ 8) As a result of the accident, Alex Alexis suffered
personal injuries, was transported to the emergency room in an ambulance, and underwent
surgery. (ld. at ~ 9)
Plaintiffs assert a claim against Defendants for willful and wanton misconduct at Count V
of the complaint, demanding punitive damages for Law's "willful and wanton disregard for the
acceptable practices needed to be followed when operating a commercial tractor-trailer, and for
the safety and well-being of other drivers." (Id. at ~ 24) Furthermore, Plaintiffs allege that Law
"demonstrated conscious indifference to a highly unreasonable risk of harm to the health, safety
and welfare of others." (Id. at ~ 25)
To state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint
must contain a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to
relief" Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). Although detailed factual allegations are not required, the
complaint must set forth sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to "state a claim to relief that
is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); see also
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 663 (2009). A claim is facially plausible when the factual
allegations allow the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the
misconduct alleged. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56; Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 663. At bottom, "[t]he
complaint must state enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal
evidence of [each] necessary element" ofthe plaintiffs claim. Wilkerson v. New Media Tech.
Charter Sch. Inc., 522 F.3d 315, 321 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). The
court need not accept as true "threadbare recitals of a cause of action's elements, supported by
mere conclusory statements." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 663.
In support of their motion to dismiss, Defendants argue that punitive damages are not
warranted because Defendants failed to act with an "evil motive" or intent to injure plaintiff Alex
Alexis, and therefore, Defendants' conduct amounts to no more than ordinary negligence. (D.L 3
at 4) According to Defendants, Law's state of mind cannot be inferred from the mere happening
of the accident, and Plaintiffs fail to allege the kind of conduct that must be punished or deterred.
(Id. at 4-5)
In response, Plaintiffs contend that the complaint sufficiently pleads a basis for punitive
damages. Plaintiffs note that Law knew the vehicle was immobile and that his decision to
continue traveling towards it "with a several-ton Freightliner tractor trailer traveling at a high rate
of speed created a significant risk of death to any occupant of that vehicle." (D.L 4 at 3)
Moreover, Plaintiffs claim that it is premature to dismiss claims for punitive damages at the
pleadings stage. (Id. at 4)
This Court, sitting in diversity jurisdiction, is bound to apply the law of Delaware to
Plaintiffs' common law tort claims. See Sellon v. Gen. Motors Corp., 521 F. Supp. 978, 981 (D.
Del. 1981). Viewing the facts in the complaint in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, I find that
the complaint sufficiently pleads a cause of action for punitive damages based on recklessness or
willful and wanton conduct.
The availability of punitive damages for a plaintiff "turns on whether the plaintiff can
establish a prima fac ie case that the tortfeasor's driving exhibited a willful and wanton disregard
for the safety of others." Enrique v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 2009 WL 2215073, at *1
(Del. Super. July 16,2009). A defendant's conduct must reflect a "conscious indifference" or "I
don't care" attitude to be willful or wanton. Porter v. Turner, 954 A.2d 308, 312 (Del. 2008)
(internal quotations omitted). Mere inadvertence, mistake, or errors of judgment will not suffice.
Elliot v. Jewell, 1997 WL 364051, at *2 (Del. Super. Apr. 23, 1997). A decision must not only
be wrong, but must also result from a conscious indifference to the decision's foreseeable effect.
Id. (denying defendant's motion for summary judgment as to punitive damages for willful and
wanton conduct where defendant was traveling at a high rate of speed into a sharp, blind curve,
resulting in an accident).
At the pleadings stage, the Court need only consider whether the factual allegations in the
complaint state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. The allegations in the present case
establish that Law "observed Plaintiff's immobile vehicle" in the same lane but, "instead of
stopping, with reckless abandon he continued traveling in that lane, unsuccessfully gambling that
he could squeeze by Plaintiff's vehicle." (D.!. 1, Ex. 1 at ~ 8) The allegations of a tractor trailer
advancing toward a disabled vehicle in this manner, without stopping and without a means of
avoiding the vehicle, state a sufficient claim for punitive damages based on willful or wanton
conduct. Plaintiffs adequately plead conduct that shows indifference, with the realization of the
possibility of injury to others, and disregard of the probable consequences. See Elliott, 1997 WL
364051, at *3.
For the reasons discussed above, I recommend that the Court deny Defendants' motion to
This Report and Recommendation is filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), Fed. R.
Civ. P. 72(b)(I), and D. Del. LR 72.1. The parties may serve and file specific written objections
within fourteen (14) days after being served with a copy of this Report and Recommendation.
Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). The failure of a party to object to legal conclusions may result in the loss
of the right to de novo review in the district court. See Henderson v. Carlson, 812 F.2d 874, 878
79 (3d Cir. 1987); Sincavage v. Barnhart, 171 F. App'x 924,925 n.l (3d Cir. 2006).
The parties are directed to the Court's Standing Order In Non-Pro Se Matters For
Objections Filed Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 72, dated November 16,2009, a copy of which is
available at http://www.ded.uscourts.gov/court-info/local-rules-and-orders/general-orders.
Dated: June 29, 2012
ES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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