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Bailey v. J&B Trucking Services

December 2, 2008

KEITH BAILEY, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
J&B TRUCKING SERVICES, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This tort case is before the Court on cross motions for summary judgment. Central to resolution of these motions is whether the applicable tort law is District of Columbia law or Maryland law. If Maryland tort law applies, then J&B Trucking Services, Inc. ("J&B Trucking") cannot be held liable as a matter of law. If District of Columbia tort law applies, then J&B Trucking can be held liable, but only if (i) its employee was negligent, (ii) that negligence was the proximate cause of Plaintiffs' injuries, and(iii) the employee was acting within the scope of his employment when he committed the negligent act. Under the District of Columbia's choice-of-law principles, which all parties agree apply here, the Court finds that District of Columbia law governs negligence and proximate cause and Maryland law governs scope of employment. Because there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether J&B Trucking's employee was negligent, whether his alleged negligence was the proximate cause of Plaintiffs' injuries, and whether he was acting within the scope of his employment when he committed the allegedly negligent act, no party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Accordingly, the Court will deny both motions for summary judgment.

I. FACTS

The facts of this case read like a law school exam question. Plaintiffs Keith Bailey and Jacqueline Bailey, husband and wife, allege in this personal injury action that Sergio Rolando Sanabria, a commercial truck driver employed by J&B Trucking, left his work truck unattended and running outside his home in Hyattsville, Maryland on the morning of January 7, 2006 while it warmed. During that time, Onorio T. Cifuentes stole the truck, drove it less than two miles and into the District of Columbia, and crashed it into Plaintiff Keith Bailey's vehicle, causing him serious injuries.*fn1 Mr. Bailey's injuries included skull and face fractures, lacerations to the face and eyes, bleeding in his ear canal, brain contusions, and hemorrhages. Compl. ¶ 21. Mr. Bailey experiences difficulty with long and short-term memory, problem solving, and basic motor skills, and suffers from weakness in verbal memory and conceptual fluency, headaches, dizziness, and disorientation. Id. ¶ 22.

Plaintiffs seek to hold J&B Trucking vicariously liable for motor vehicle negligence, id. ¶¶ 23-26, and loss of consortium, id. ¶¶ 27-29.*fn2 Plaintiffs contend that Defendants "owed a continuing duty to other motorists, and to Plaintiff Keith Bailey specifically, to exercise ordinary care in maintaining and operating the vehicle in their custody and control in a lawful and responsible manner such that it did not present an unreasonable risk to other vehicles and drivers on the road." Id. ¶ 24. Defendants allegedly breached this duty by, inter alia, "failing to foresee that the truck could be stolen under the circumstances." Id. ¶ 25. Plaintiffs seek a total of $4,000,000 in damages. Id. ¶¶ 26, 29.

The case was removed to this Court on April 14, 2008 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction.*fn3 See Notice of Removal [Dkt. # 1]. On July 18, 2008, Plaintiffs moved for interlocutory summary judgment on liability alone pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d)(2). See Pls.' Mot. for Summ. J. [Dkt. # 15]. J&B Trucking cross moved for summary judgment on August 8, 2008.*fn4 See Def.'s Resp. to Pls.' Mot. for Summ. J. & Cross Mot. for Summ. J. [Dkt. # 19]. A hearing on these motions was held on November 24, 2008.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment must be granted when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 (c); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Diamond v. Atwood, 43 F.3d 1538, 1540 (D.C. Cir. 1995). Moreover, summary judgment is properly granted against a party that "after adequate time for discovery and upon motion . . . fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. To determine which facts are "material," a court must look to the substantive law on which each claim rests. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. A "genuine issue" is one whose resolution could establish an element of a claim or defense and, therefore, affect the outcome of the action. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322; Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must draw all justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor and accept the nonmoving party's evidence as true. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. A nonmoving party, however, must establish more than "the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252. To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must show that the nonmoving party "fail[ed] to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. By pointing to the absence of evidence proffered by the nonmoving party, a moving party may succeed on summary judgment. Id. In addition, the nonmoving party may not rely solely on allegations or conclusory statements. Greene v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999). Rather, the nonmoving party must present specific facts that would enable a reasonable jury to find in its favor. Id. 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).

III. ANALYSIS

Under District of Columbia tort law, one who leaves the keys in an unattended and unlocked vehicle parked in a publicly accessible place may be held liable to a third party for injuries caused by a thief who steals the vehicle. See Ross v. Hartman, 139 F.2d 14, 15-16 (D.C. Cir. 1943).*fn5 Under Maryland tort law, no liability can lie because the theft constitutes an intervening and superseding act that breaks the chain of causation. See Liberto v. Holfeldt, 155 A.2d 698, 701 (Md. 1959). Thus, a threshold issue is which jurisdiction's substantive law applies.

A. Choice-of-Law

1. Negligence and Proximate Cause

Federal courts sitting in diversity must apply the choice-of-law principles of the state in which they sit. Klaxon v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496 (1941); YWCA v. Allstate Ins. Co., 275 F.3d 1145, 1150 (D.C. Cir. 2002). All parties agree that this Court must apply the District of Columbia's choice-of-law principles to determine which jurisdiction's substantive law applies. Under those principles, "the court must first determine if there is a conflict between the laws of the relevant jurisdictions." YWCA, 275 F.3d at 1150. "Only if such a conflict exists must the court then ...


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