Harris v. Decker Truck Line Inc. et al
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER; IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the motion of defendant Decker Truck Line, Inc. to dismiss (Doc. 8 ) is denied. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the motion of defendant David Stephens to dismiss and to strike (Doc. 37 ) is denied. Signed by Magistrate Judge David D. Noce on 04/24/2013. (DJO)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
DECKER TRUCK LINE, INC. and
No. 4:12 CV 1598 DDN
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
This action is before the court on the motions of defendants Decker Truck Line,
Inc. and David Stephens to dismiss and strike. (Docs. 8, 37.) The parties have consented
to the exercise of plenary authority by the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 49.) The court heard oral argument on April 18,
On September 7, 2012, plaintiff Jason Harris commenced this action against
defendants Decker Truck Line, Inc. and David Stephens. (Doc. 1.) According to the
complaint, the following occurred. Defendant Decker Truck Line is a commercial motor
carrier that transports goods throughout the country. (Id. at ¶ 8.) At all times relevant,
defendant David Stephens operated a tractor-trailer in the scope of his employment with
defendant Decker Truck Line. (Id. at ¶ 9.)
On or about the evening of July 31, 2012, plaintiff Jason Harris drove his vehicle
west on Interstate 70 in St. Louis County. (Id. at ¶ 16.) During this time, defendant
Stephens suddenly drove his tractor-trailer into the rear of plaintiff’s vehicle. (Id. at ¶
17.) As a result of the collision, plaintiff suffers painful, permanent, and disabling
injuries to the back and shoulders and receives necessary medical treatment. (Id. at ¶¶
In Count I, plaintiff alleges that defendant Stephens negligently operated his
vehicle. (Id. at ¶¶ 28-38.) In Count II, plaintiff alleges that defendant Decker Truck Line
negligently failed to implement a safety program. (Id. at ¶¶ 39-55.) In Counts III-VI,
plaintiff alleges that defendant Decker Truck Line negligently hired, retained, trained,
supervised, and entrusted defendant Stephens. (Id. at ¶¶ 56-105.) In Count VII, plaintiff
alleges negligence per se against both defendants. In Count VIII, plaintiff seeks
compensation for property damage as a result of defendants’ negligence.1 (Id. at ¶¶ 10611.)
For all counts, plaintiff seeks more than $75,000 in compensatory damages. For
Counts I-VI, plaintiff seeks punitive damages.
II. MOTION TO DISMISS
Defendant Decker Truck Line moves for dismissal of Counts III-VI, arguing that
under Missouri law, claims of negligent hiring, entrustment, supervision, and training are
duplicitous and cannot be maintained if, under the doctrine of respondeat superior, the
principal admits the agency relationship and liability. Plaintiff responds that such claims
are not duplicitous because plaintiff could not otherwise obtain punitive damages from
defendant Decker Truck Line. Defendant Decker Truck Line argues that plaintiff did not
properly allege claims for punitive damages. Plaintiff responds that alleging violations of
federal safety regulations sufficiently supports his punitive damages claims. (Docs. 1, 13,
Plaintiff’s complaint also labels the property damage claim as Count VII. (Doc. 1 at
25.) For clarity, the court refers to this claim as Count VIII. In plaintiff’s response to
defendant Stephens’ motion, plaintiff indicates his intent to dismiss Count VIII, stating
that the property damage has been satisfied. (Doc. 40 at 2.)
Defendant Stephens’ motion to dismiss Counts III-VI mirrors the arguments
presented in Defendant Decker Truck Line’s memorandum. Defendant Stephens further
moves to strike punitive damages, arguing that punitive damages in this case are
III. MOTION TO DISMISS STANDARD
Defendants’ motions to dismiss invoke Fed. R. Civ. P. Rule 12(b)(6), because the
motions challenge the legal sufficiency of the complaint. See Carton v. General Motor
Acceptance Corp., 611 F.3d 451, 454 (8th Cir 2010); Young v. City of St. Charles, 244
F.3d 623, 627 (8th Cir. 2001). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the
complaint must include “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its
Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).
To meet the
plausibility standard, the complaint must contain “more than labels and conclusions.” Id.
at 555. Rather, the complaint must contain “factual content that allows the court to draw
the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009).
Defendants’ first argument turns on the interpretation of McHaffie By & Through
McHaffie v. Bunch, 891 S.W.2d 822 (Mo. 1995). In McHaffie, the court recognized
three theories for the imputed liability of employers for the conduct of employees,
including respondeat superior liability, negligent entrustment, and negligent hiring. Id. at
825-26. The court then adopted the position that, generally, “once an employer has
admitted respondeat superior liability for a driver's negligence, it is improper to allow a
plaintiff to proceed against the employer on any other theory of imputed liability.” Id. at
826. The court reasoned that, because the admission of respondeat superior liability
establishes employers’ strict liability for employee conduct, additional efforts to establish
theories of imputed liability are purposeless, inefficient, and serve only to introduce
However, the court expressly reserved the question
regarding the use of theories of imputed liability in cases where punitive damages are
also alleged against the employer. Id.
Defendant Decker Trucker Line has admitted respondeat superior liability for
defendant Stephens’ actions and, accordingly, moves for dismissal of plaintiff’s theories
of imputed liability. (Doc. 7 at ¶ 11.) However, plaintiff argues that, because he seeks
punitive damages for his imputed liability claims, dismissal under McHaffie is
inappropriate. The Supreme Court of Missouri has not revisited the punitive damages
issue. See Kwiatkowski v. Teton Transp., Inc., 2012 WL 1413154, *4 (W.D. Mo. 2012);
Jackson v. Myhre, 2007 WL 2302527, *2 (E.D. Mo. 2007). “Decisions from Missouri's
intermediate appellate court (the Missouri Court of Appeals) are ‘particularly relevant,’
and must be followed when they are the best evidence of Missouri law.” Bockelman v.
MCI Worldcom, Inc., 403 F.3d 528, 531 (8th Cir. 2005).
The Missouri Court of Appeals recently considered the punitive damages issue
and determined that “the rule announced in McHaffie does not apply where punitive
damages are claimed against the employer.” Wilson v. Image Flooring, LLC, 2013 WL
1110878, *5 (Mo. Ct. App. 2013). The court reasoned that:
The rationale for the Court's holding in McHaffie was that, where vicarious
liability was admitted and none of the direct liability theories could prevail
in the absence of proof of the employee's negligence, the employer's
liability was necessarily fixed by the negligence of the employee. Thus,
any additional evidence supporting direct liability claims could serve only
to waste time and possibly prejudice the defendants.
The same cannot be said, however, when a claim for punitive damages
based upon the direct liability theories is raised. If an employer's hiring,
training, supervision, or entrustment practices can be characterized as
demonstrating complete indifference or a conscious disregard for the safety
of others, then the plaintiff would be required to present additional
evidence, above and beyond demonstrating the employee's negligence, to
support a claim for punitive damages. Unlike in the McHaffie scenario,
this evidence would have a relevant, non-prejudicial purpose.
Additionally, defendants argue that, even assuming the truth of plaintiff’s
allegations, plaintiff fails to allege conduct supporting an award of punitive damages.
Defendants further argue that plaintiff’s punitive damages claim is premature, because no
evidence supports the allegations regarding defendant Decker Trucker Line’s egregious
Under Missouri law, punitive damages are available in negligence actions.
Hoover's Dairy, Inc. v. Mid–America Dairymen, Inc., 700 S.W.2d 426, 436 (Mo. banc
1985). For an award of punitive damages in a negligence action, “plaintiff must show (1)
defendant knew or should have known, based on the surrounding circumstances that its
conduct created a high degree of probability of injury, and (2) defendant showed
complete indifference to, or conscious or reckless disregard for, the safety of others.”
Litchfield By & Through Litchfield v. May Dep't Stores Co., 845 S.W.2d 596, 599 (Mo.
Ct. App. 1992).
Plaintiff seeks punitive damages in Counts I-VI of his complaint, and the language
of each of these counts substantially mirrors the elements plaintiff must prove for an
award and further describes the relevant conduct. (Doc. 1.) Specifically, plaintiff alleges
that defendant Decker Truck Line violated numerous Federal Motor Carrier Safety
(1) Regarding Count II – Defendant Decker Truck Line Negligence
(a) the duty to require drivers to observe federal regulations, 49
C.F.R. § 390.11;
(b) the duty to not require or permit drivers with impaired ability to
operate commercial motor vehicles, 49 C.F.R. § 392.3;
(c) the duty not to require or permit a driver to drive a commercial
motor vehicle unless that person is qualified to drive a commercial
motor vehicle in accordance with 49 C.F.R. § 391.11;
(d) the duty not to “aid, abet, encourage, or require” its employees to
violate federal regulations, 49 C.F.R. § 390.13;
(e) the duty to require its employees to submit an application in
accordance with 49 C.F.R. § 391.21(b);
(f) the duty to make investigations and inquiries regarding its drivers
in accordance with 49 C.F.R. § 391.23;
(g) the duty to obtain the motor vehicle records of its drivers at least
once every twelve months, 49 C.F.R. § 391.25;
(h) the duty to require its drivers to provide a list of motor vehicle
traffic law and ordinance convictions occurring during the preceding
twelve months, 49 C.F.R. § 391.27;
(i) the duty to not allow its employees to drive until successful
completion of a road test and issuance of a certificate, 49 C.F.R. §
(j) the duty to ensure that its drivers were physically qualified and
received examinations in accordance with 49 C.F.R. § 391, Subpart
(k) the duty to inspect, repair, and maintain all motor vehicles under
its control and to ensure that the motor vehicles and its parts are in
proper operating condition, 49 C.F.R. § 396.3;
(2) Regarding Count III – Negligent Hiring or Retention
(a) the duty to obtain a complete employment application before
allowing a person to operate its commercial motor vehicle, 49 C.F.R.
(b) the duty to investigate its drivers’ safety performance history
with previous employers during the preceding three years, 49 C.F.R.
§ 391.23(a)(2), (c);
(c) the duty to inquire into its employees’ driving record within
thirty days of employment, 49 C.F.R. § 391.23(b);
(d) the duty to ensure that its drivers are physically qualified and
have valid and current medical examiner’s certificates, 49 C.F.R. §
(e) the duty to ensure that its drivers have no current diagnosis of
high blood pressure likely to interfere with the ability to operate, 49
C.F.R. § 391.41(b)(6);
(3) Regarding Count IV – Negligent Training
(a) the duty to require and verify that its drivers pass a knowledge
and skills test in accordance with 49 C.F.R. §§ 380.109, 380.509;
(b) the duty to train its drivers regarding driver qualification
requirements, including “medical certification, medical examination
disqualifications based on various offenses, orders, and loss of
driving privileges,” 49 C.F.R. § 380.503(a); and
(c) the duty to ensure that its drivers receive a training certificate, 49
C.F.R. § 380.505;
(4) Regarding Count V – Negligent Supervision
(a) the duty to not require or permit drivers with impaired ability to
operate commercial motor vehicles, 49 C.F.R. § 392.3;
(b) the duty to inquire into the motor vehicle record of its drivers and
properly consider speeding and reckless driving violations, 49
C.F.R. § 391.25;
(c) the duty to ensure that its drivers were physically qualified, 49
C.F.R. §§ 391.41; 391.43;
(d) the duty to maintain a driver qualification file for each of its
drivers, 49 C.F.R. 391.51;
(e) the duty to not require or permit its drivers to possess the
substances set forth in 49 C.F.R. § 392.4(a); and
(f) the duty to not schedule a run or require or permit scheduled
times that would require operation of commercial motor vehicles at
speeds greater than those prescribed by law, 49 C.F.R. § 392.6.
Missouri courts allow evidence of failures to follow motor carrier regulations and
industry standards to support awards of punitive damages against commercial motor
carriers. Coon v. Am. Compressed Steel, Inc., 207 S.W.3d 629, 637-39 (Mo. Ct. App.
2006); see Lopez v. Three Rivers Elec. Co-op., Inc., 26 S.W.3d 151, 160 (Mo. 2000);
Garrett v. Albright, 2008 WL 795613, *6 (W.D. Mo. 2008). The court concludes that,
assuming the truth of these allegations, plaintiff might be entitled to punitive damages.
To support the argument that plaintiff’s claim is premature due to a lack of
evidence, defendant relies on Litchfield, which states that insufficient evidence bars an
award of punitive damages. Litchfield, 845 S.W.2d at 599. However, the Litchfield
court applied this rule in the context of a case submitted to the jury, presenting a
markedly distinct procedural posture than the instant case. Id. at 598. Although the
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure govern diversity cases, Roberts v. Francis, 128 F.3d
647, 650 (8th Cir. 1997), even under Missouri law, plaintiff’s allegations are sufficient to
allow the claim of punitive damages to proceed at this stage of the proceedings. See
Wilson, 2013 WL 1110878 at *6 (“Thus, to invoke the punitive damages exception to the
rule in McHaffie, a plaintiff must plead sufficient facts to support a claim for punitive
Defendant Stephens also asserts that any law allowing punitive damages in this
case is unconstitutional. Specifically, he asserts that the applicable law:
(1) lacks constitutionally sufficient standards to guide and restrain a jury’s
discretion in determining whether to award punitive damages and in
determining the amount of any punitive award;
(2) unconstitutionally may permit jury consideration of Defendants’ net
(3) is void for vagueness in that it fails to afford constitutionally sufficient
advance notice as to what conduct will result in punitive sanctions;
(4) lacks constitutionally sufficient standards to be applied by the court in
post-verdict review of a punitive award;
(5) lacks constitutionally sufficient standards for appellate review of a
punitive award; and
(6) otherwise fails to satisfy the constitutional requirements set forth in,
among others, State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408
(2003); Pacific Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Haslip, 499 U.S. 1 (1991); TXO
Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources, Inc., 509 U.S. 443 (1993); and
BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, [517 U.S. 559] (1996).
Defendant’s arguments concerning the applicable constitutional standards are
premature. Such standards are better applied to jury instructions if the case for punitive
damages survives a motion for judgment as a matter of law at the close of plaintiff’s case,
or applied to fact-finding by the jury. See Pac. Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Haslip, 499 U.S. 1,
7, 19 (1991).
Additionally, defendant argues that the standard of conduct necessary for a
punitive damages award is unconstitutionally void for vagueness.
A law is not
unconstitutionally void for vagueness if it provides “adequate notice of the proscribed
conduct” and does not “lend itself to arbitrary enforcement.” United States v. Washam,
312 F.3d 926, 929 (8th Cir. 2002). However, defendant does not elaborate on his
argument regarding the failure of the applicable standard of conduct to provide adequate
notice. Further, Missouri courts frequently apply this standard, and Missouri case law is
replete with discussion regarding the requisite nature of conduct. See e.g., Smith v.
Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 275 S.W.3d 748, 812-14 (Mo. Ct. App. 2008)
Haynam v. Laclede Elec. Co-op., Inc., 889 S.W.2d 148, 150 (Mo. Ct. App. 1994); May v.
AOG Holding Corp., 810 S.W.2d 655, 660-63 (Mo. Ct. App. 1991).
Accordingly, defendants’ motions are denied.
For the reasons stated above,
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the motion of defendant Decker Truck Line,
Inc. to dismiss (Doc. 8.) is denied.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the motion of defendant David Stephens to
dismiss and to strike (Doc. 37) is denied.
/S/ David D. Noce______________
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Signed on April 24, 2013.
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