United States District Court, Middle District of Georgia, Macon Division
JARRETT LITTLE and CINDY LITTLE, as guardians and natural parents of LINDSEY LITTLE, Plaintiffs,
ALONZO K. McCLURE, et al., Defendants.
MARC T. TREADWELL, JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
Before the Court is the Defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment. (Doc. 38). This case arises out of a motor vehicle accident that occurred at the intersection of I-16 West and I-75 North in Macon, Georgia. At oral argument on July 11, 2014, the Court denied the Defendants’ motion with regard to Plaintiff Lindsey Little’s negligence per se and the Plaintiffs’ claim for attorneys’ fees pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11. (Doc. 52). The Defendants have also moved for summary judgment on the Plaintiffs’ direct negligence claim against Defendant Merchants Distributors, Inc. (“MDI”) and on the Plaintiffs’ punitive damages claims. For the following reasons, the Defendants’ motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.
On February 20, 2012, Defendant Alonzo McClure was driving a tractor-trailer on I-16 West toward its convergence with I-75. (Doc. 59 at 95:1-23). When McClure moved his tractor-trailer from the center lane to the right lane to continue onto I-75 North, he collided with Plaintiff Lindsey Little’s Honda Civic. (Doc. 61 at 50:16-17, 75:6-10). According to McClure, he checked his mirrors before changing lanes and did not see Little’s vehicle. (Doc. 59 at 101:20-103:14). After McClure’s tractor-trailer made contact with her car, Little climbed to the passenger seat and leapt out of the vehicle through the passenger side door. (Doc. 67 at 47:14-24, 48:17-49:11). Little’s vehicle became trapped under the tractor-trailer, and McClure dragged it for some distance before stopping. (Doc. 61 at 52:14-53:14). When he came to a stop, the Civic was wedged between the truck and the guardrail. (Docs. 59 at 111:23-112:9; 61 at 110:3-7). McClure testified he thought he had been rear-ended and did not see Little’s vehicle until he was pulling over to stop on the right shoulder. (Doc. 59 at 107:18-108:16, 110:12-111:4). Little’s left ankle and right hand were injured in the collision. (Doc. 67 at 66:18-67:16).
The Plaintiffs’ punitive damages claim against McClure is based primarily on his cell phone use. The record shows McClure talked to other MDI drivers on his cell phone while they were driving their respective routes, including some lengthy calls on the day of the collision. (Docs. 59 at 66:1-68:25, 80:1-81:13, 83:23-86:4; 55-4). According to McClure, he uses a wireless hands-free device to talk on the phone while driving. (Doc. 59 at 64:24-65:3). McClure testified he hung up the phone on his hands-free device about a minute and a half prior to the wreck, though the Plaintiffs contend McClure’s cell phone records show he was talking on his phone during the time of the wreck. (Doc. 59 at 64:10-21, 65:19-21).
Defendant MDI is McClure’s employer, and Defendant Merchants Transport of Hickory, Inc. (“MTH”) is the owner of the tractor-trailer McClure was driving at the time of the collision. Defendant Alex Lee, Inc. is the parent corporation of both MDI and MTH and is insured by Defendant Travelers Indemnity Company of Connecticut. The Plaintiffs’ punitive damages claim against MDI, MTH, and Alex Lee is based on their policy regarding driver cell phone use and its enforcement. The cell phone policy states:
Drivers operating any vehicle that requires a CDL to operate, whether company owned or non-company owned, are prohibited from using cell phones without a hands-free device while driving the vehicle on company business. Cell phone use should be limited, but is permitted with the use of a headset if allowed by law.
(Doc. 55-3). MDI relies on its drivers to determine when cell phone use is permissible under the circumstances but does not specifically prohibit cell phone use as long as the driver uses a hands-free device. (Doc. 62 at 30:19-34:6).
A. Summary Judgment Standard
A court must grant summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A factual dispute is not genuine unless, based on the evidence presented, “a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Info. Sys. & Networks Corp. v. City of Atlanta, 281 F.3d 1220, 1224 (11th Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). See also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The movant must cite “to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A).
The burden then shifts to the non-moving party, who must rebut the movant’s showing “by producing … relevant and admissible evidence beyond the pleadings.” Josendis v. Wall to Wall Residence Repairs, Inc., 662 F.3d 1292, 1315 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986)). The non-moving party does not satisfy her burden “if the rebuttal evidence ‘is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative’ of a disputed fact.” Id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50). Further, where a party fails to address another party’s assertion of fact as required by Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), the Court may consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2). However, “[c]redibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge. … The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.
B. Plaintiffs’ Claim of Negligent Hiring, Retention, and Trainingagainst MDI
MDI argues it is entitled to summary judgment on the Plaintiffs’ negligent hiring, retention, and training claims because it has admitted that McClure was its employee and that he was acting within the course and scope of his employment at the time of the collision. (Doc. 8, ¶ 13). It is true that Georgia cases have repeatedly held an employer is entitled to summary judgment on its independent negligence in hiring and retaining an employee when it admits the applicability of respondeat superior. See, e.g., Kelley v. Blue Line Carriers, LLC, 300 Ga.App. 577, 580, 685 S.E.2d 479, 483 (2009); Durben v. Am. Materials, Inc., 232 Ga.App. 750, 751, 503 S.E.2d 618, 619 (1998); Bartja v. Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, Pa., 218 Ga.App. 815, 817, 463 S.E.2d 358, 361 (1995). The rationale is that the two claims are coextensive. Because the employer would already be liable for the employee’s negligence by virtue of the respondeat superior doctrine, a claim for the employer’s ...