Calabrese v. Graham et al
MEMORANDUM re dfts' MOTION to Dismiss 9 (Order to follow as separate docket entry) Signed by Honorable Christopher C. Conner on 6/4/21. (ma)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
JOSEPH EDWARD GRAHAM and
NEW ERA TRANSPORTATION, LLC, :
CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:20-CV-1331
Plaintiff Pamela Calabrese brings claims of negligence for damages due to a
motor vehicle accident against defendants Joseph Edward Graham and his
employer, New Era Transportation, LLC (“New Era”). Defendants move to dismiss
the punitive damages portion of Calabrese’s claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 12(b)(6), to strike certain allegations from the complaint under Rule 12(f),
and for a more definite statement under Rule 12(e). We will grant in part and deny
in part defendants’ motion.
Factual Background & Procedural History
According to the complaint, Calabrese and Graham were involved in a motor
vehicle accident in May 2019 in the southbound lanes of Route 222. (See Doc. 1 ¶ 6).
Calabrese was a passenger in a vehicle that needed to slow down as “traffic became
congested due to a constructive project.” (See id. ¶¶ 7-8). Graham, driving a tractor
trailer for New Era in the same direction, collided with the vehicle in which
Calabrese was travelling, hitting the vehicle from behind. (See id. ¶¶ 9-10). The
crash caused Calabrese’s vehicle to roll onto its roof and caused Graham’s tractor
trailer to “burst into flames.” (See id. ¶¶ 11-13). Calabrese “suffered serious injuries
to her head, neck, back[,] and shoulders.” (See id. ¶ 14). Calabrese alleges that
Graham’s driving amounts to “negligence, carelessness[,] and/or recklessness.”
(See id. ¶ 17). She claims Graham was “distracted” as he drove, “consciously
[chose]” to exceed the speed limit as he approached a construction zone, and
understood “he was creating an increased risk of crashing his tractor trailer.” (Id.
¶¶ 10, 17).
Calabrese filed the instant complaint in July 2020, alleging one count of
negligence against Graham individually, and one count of negligence against New
Era on a vicarious-liability theory. Calabrese also seeks punitive damages against
both parties due to Graham’s alleged recklessness.
Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the
dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.
FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the
court must “accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light
most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable
reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.” Phillips v. County
of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings,
Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)). In addition to reviewing the facts
contained in the complaint, the court may also consider “exhibits attached to the
complaint, matters of public record, [and] undisputedly authentic documents if the
complainant’s claims are based upon these documents.” Mayer v. Belichick, 605
F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol.
Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993)).
Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide “the
defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.”
Phillips, 515 F.3d at 232 (alteration in original) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly,
550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To test the sufficiency of the complaint, the court conducts
a three-step inquiry. See Santiago v. Warminster Township, 629 F.3d 121, 130-31
(3d Cir. 2010). In the first step, “the court must ‘tak[e] note of the elements a
plaintiff must plead to state a claim.’” Id. at 130 (alteration in original) (quoting
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 675 (2009)). Next, the factual and legal elements of a
claim must be separated; well-pleaded facts are accepted as true, while mere legal
conclusions may be disregarded. Id. at 131-32; see Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578
F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Once the court isolates the well-pleaded factual
allegations, it must determine whether they are sufficient to show a “plausible claim
for relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); Twombly, 550
U.S. at 556. A claim is facially plausible when the plaintiff pleads facts “that allow
the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the
misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.
Graham and New Era move to dismiss Calabrese’s request for punitive
damages under Rule 12(b)(6) and, relatedly, to strike references to “recklessness”
and “conscious disregard” under Rule 12(f) as immaterial. Defendants also move
for a more definite statement regarding certain allegations in the complaint under
At the outset, we will grant defendants’ motion to the extent it seeks a more
definite statement. (See Doc. 9 ¶ 3). Defendants take issue with the phrase “but is
not limited to” in paragraphs 17 and 27 of plaintiff’s complaint, and they claim
subparagraphs 17(i), 17(n), 17(o), 27(i), 27(n), and 27(o) are “vague and ambiguous.”
(See id.) Defendants seek to have this language pled with more specificity or
stricken from the complaint. (See id.; Doc. 10 at 14). In her opposition brief,
Calabrese “agrees to strike those averments” and declares this portion of the
motion “moot.” (See Doc. 12 at 3 n.1). We therefore will grant defendants’ motion
to the extent that we will strike the challenged aspects of paragraphs 17 and 27 from
Motion to Dismiss: Punitive Damages
Under Pennsylvania law, “punitive damages are an ‘extreme remedy’
available in only the most exceptional matters.” Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 883
A.2d 439, 445 (Pa. 2005) (quoting Martin v. Johns-Manville Corp., 494 A.2d 1088,
1098 n.14. (Pa. 1985), rev’d on other grounds sub nom., Kirkbride v. Lisbon
Contractors, Inc., 555 A.2d 800 (Pa. 1989)). Unlike compensatory damages, which
seek to make a plaintiff whole, punitive damages serve a “penal and deterrent
purpose.” See Brand Mktg. Grp. LLC v. Intertek Testing Servs., N.A., 801 F.3d 347,
358 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Hutchison v. Luddy, 870 A.2d 766, 772 (Pa. 2005)). In
Pennsylvania, “[p]unitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous,
because of the defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of
others.” See Feld v. Merriam, 485 A.2d 742, 747 (Pa. 1984) (quoting RESTATEMENT
(SECOND) OF TORTS § 908(2) (AM. L. INST. 1979)); In re Lemington Home for the
Aged, 777 F.3d 620, 633 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Feld, 485 A.2d at 747). The
Pennsylvania Supreme Court has adopted the Restatement definition for
The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety
of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an
act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or
having reason to know of facts which would lead a
reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct
creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another,
but also that such risk is substantially greater than that
which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.
See Hutchison, 870 A.2d at 772 (quoting RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS § 500
(AM. L. INST. 1965)); Rung v. Pittsburgh Assocs., LP, 515 F. App’x 136, 138 (3d Cir.
2013) (nonprecedential) (citing Archibald v. Kemble, 971 A.2d 513, 519 (Pa. Super.
Ct. 2009)); see also Moran v. G. & W.H. Corson, Inc., 586 A.2d 416, 423 (Pa. Super.
Ct. 1991) (noting that Pennsylvania uses variety of terms, including “malicious,”
“wanton,” “reckless,” and “willful” to allow recovery of punitive damages).
Punitive damages do not comprise a standalone claim—they are a
component of damages that must be proved as part of the plaintiff’s negligence
claim. See Kirkbride, 555 A.2d at 802; White v. Trybala, No. 3:19-CV-14, 2019 WL
2119982, at *2 (M.D. Pa. May 15, 2019). A negligence plaintiff may recover punitive
damages by proving “that (1) a defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk
of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that (2) he acted, or failed to act, as
the case may be, in conscious disregard of that risk.” See Hutchison, 870 A.2d at
772. When considering whether punitive damages are warranted, “the state of
mind of the actor is vital.” See Brand Mktg., 801 F.3d at 360 (quoting Feld, 485 A.2d
In the matter sub judice, Calabrese alleges that Graham (and vicariously,
New Era) behaved recklessly in the moments before the accident, warranting
punitive damages. (See Doc. 1 ¶¶ 17, 18). At the pleading stage, we accept as true
Calabrese’s allegations that Graham violated the law by speeding, drove while
distracted, and consciously chose to speed into an active construction zone. (See id.
¶¶ 10, 17). Whether these actions prove that Graham’s state of mind rose to the level
of “recklessness” is not a matter to be decided on a motion to dismiss. Cf. Brand
Mktg., 801 F.3d at 360. It is enough that Calabrese alleges Graham (1) understood
the risk to which he was exposing Calabrese and (2) acted in conscious disregard of
that risk. See Hutchison, 870 A.2d at 772.
Defendants attempt to minimize the accident, characterizing it as a
“standard, run-of-the-mill rear-end collision.” (See Doc. 10 at 13). But defendants’
characterization of the accident as standard does not make it so—a flipped vehicle
and a tractor trailer engulfed in flames hardly constitute a routine motor vehicle
accident. (See Doc. 1 ¶¶ 11-13). Furthermore, defendants cite no per se rule
precluding punitive damages in rear-end collision cases. In fact, the Hutchison
court’s pronouncement that nothing “in law or logic” prevents a negligence plaintiff
from proving outrageous conduct suggests that punitive damages may be available.
See Hutchison, 870 A.2d at 772. We also note that Pennsylvania codifies reckless
driving as a summary criminal offense. See 75 PA. CONS. STAT. § 3736(a) (“Any
person who drives any vehicle in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of
persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.”); see also Commonwealth v.
Bullick, 830 A.2d 998, 1000 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2003). This suggests the “penal and
deterrent purpose” of punitive damages through civil liability may be warranted
when reckless driving is involved. Cf. Brand Mktg., 801 F.3d at 358. We will deny
defendants’ motion to dismiss Calabrese’s punitive damages claims.
Motion to Strike: Recklessness & Conscious Disregard
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f), district courts have broad
discretion to strike “any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous
matter.” FED. R. CIV. P. 12(f); see also Krisa v. Equitable Life Assurance Soc’y, 109
F. Supp. 2d 316, 319 (M.D. Pa. 2000) (quoting N. Penn. Transfer, Inc. v. Victaulic Co.
of Am., 859 F. Supp. 154, 158 (E.D. Pa. 1994)). Rule 12(f) motions, however, are
customarily denied unless the challenged allegations are severely prejudicial to one
of the parties and unrelated to the plaintiff’s claims. Id.; see also 5C CHARLES ALAN
WRIGHT ET AL., FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE § 1382 (3d ed. 2021).
We will deny defendants’ request to strike certain allegations regarding
Graham’s recklessness and conscious disregard. Calabrese adequately pleads
claims for punitive damages against both defendants. Recklessness and conscious
disregard are relevant to punitive damages theories. See Hutchison, 870 A.2d at
772. These allegations are therefore material to her claims, and defendants do not
argue that the allegations “are severely prejudicial” or “unrelated” to Calabrese’s
claims. See Krisa, 109 F. Supp. 2d at 319. Accordingly, we decline to strike these
portions of the complaint.
We will grant defendants’ motion for a more definite statement to the extent
it is unopposed by Calabrese. (See Doc. 12 at 3 n.1). We will deny defendants’
motion (Doc. 9) to dismiss and to strike. An appropriate order shall issue.
/S/ CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER
Christopher C. Conner
United States District Judge
Middle District of Pennsylvania
June 4, 2021
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