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Hammonds v. Gray Transportation Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

February 22, 2019

MICHAEL EDWARD HAMMONDS, BILLY WAYNE NIPPER, and DEBBIE BLACK, individually, and MICHAEL EDWARD HAMMONDS and BILLY WAYNE NIPPER, AS CO-ADMINISTRATORS OF THE ESTATE OF BETTY JEAN NIPPER, DECEASED, Plaintiffs,
v.
GRAY TRANSPORTATION, INC.; MICHAEL G. ELIAS; RYDER TRUCK RENTAL; and HUDSON INSURANCE COMPANY; Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING MOTION TO STAY AND GRANTING MOTION TO DISMISS

          TILMAN E. SELF, III, JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendants Gray Transportation, Inc. and Michael G. Elias's Motion to Stay Proceedings Pending Resolution of Criminal Proceeding [Doc. 12] and Defendant Hudson Insurance Company's Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 16]. After reviewing the parties' submissions, the Court DENIES the Motion to Stay [Doc. 12] and GRANTS the Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 16]. As the Court has now ruled on all of the pending motions in this case, it LIFTS the stay it previously entered.

         BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of a catastrophic auto accident that resulted in the severe injury and ultimate death of Betty Jean Nipper. [Doc. 1, at ¶ 23]. Plaintiffs alleges that at the time of the accident Ms. Nipper was driving a 2014 Honda Accord on Georgia Highway 257 in Dooly County, Georgia. [Id. at ¶ 20]. Plaintiffs further allege that Defendant Elias, a commercial truck driver employed by Defendant Gray Transportation and allegedly acting within the course and scope of his employment, was driving a freightliner truck owned by Defendant Ryder Truck Rental, Inc. (“Ryder”) and allegedly following the Honda Accord “too closely” and “traveling at an excessive rate of speed.” [Id. at ¶¶ 21 & 24]. The accident allegedly occurred when Ms. Nipper, after signaling her intent to turn, attempted to make a left hand turn off of Highway 257 into a driveway. [Id. at ¶ 20]. Plaintiffs maintains that, as Ms. Nipper began to turn, Defendant Elias “attempted to improperly change lanes in the area of a double yellow line/no passing zone to make an improper and unsafe passing maneuver” resulting in a “violent collision.” [Id. at 22].

         Following the accident, Plaintiffs Michael Edward Hammond, Billy Wayne Nipper, and Debbie Black-Ms. Nipper's surviving children-brought this action under Georgia's wrongful death statute. [Id. at ¶ 41]. Plaintiffs Hammond and Nipper also bring this action as co-administrators of Ms. Nipper's estate to recover for the pain and suffering she experienced as a result of this accident prior to her death. [Doc. 1, at ¶ 39]. Plaintiffs assert claims against Defendant Elias under general theories of negligence and negligence per se and Defendant Gray Transportation under the doctrine of respondeat superior and for negligent hiring, retention, and entrustment; negligent training and supervision; violations “of the Federal Motor Carrier Regulations”; and “under principles of Georgia law applicable to joint ventures.” [Id. at ¶¶ 32 & 34]. Plaintiffs also asserts claims against Defendant Ryder based on its alleged breached of a voluntarily assumed duty to vet drivers, including Defendant Elias, and under the doctrine of respondeat superior and principles of Georgia law applicable to joint ventures. [Id. at ¶ 35]. Finally, Plaintiff asserts claims against Defendant Hudson Insurance based on an excess indemnity agreement it had with Defendant Gray Transportation, a surety bond it filed for Defendant Gray Transportation, and for its breach of a voluntarily assumed duty to vet potential drivers. [Id. at ¶ 33].

         In response to Plaintiffs' Complaint, Defendants filed the instant motions asking the Court to stay the proceedings and to dismiss the claims as to Defendant Hudson Insurance. See generally [Docs. 12 & 16].

         A motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of the allegations in a plaintiff's complaint. Acosta v. Campbell, 309 Fed.Appx. 315, 317 (11th Cir. 2009). A complaint survives a motion to dismiss if it pleads “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). But the Court need not accept as true “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action” or “conclusory statements.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Thus, to decide whether a complaint survives a motion to dismiss, district courts are instructed to use a two-step framework. See McCullough v. Finley, 907 F.3d 1324, 1333 (11th Cir. 2018). The first step is to identify the allegations that are “no more than mere conclusions.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). “Conclusory allegations are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Id. (citation omitted). After disregarding the conclusory allegations, the second step is to “assume any remaining factual allegations are true and determine whether those factual allegations ‘plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.'” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).

         DISCUSSION

         A. Motion to Stay Proceedings [Doc. 12]

         In their Motion to Stay Proceedings, Defendants Gray Transportation and Elias ask the Court to stay the proceedings until the state resolves its criminal charges against Defendant Elias. They argue that a stay is necessary to allow them full access to information essential to their defense. Specifically, Defendants Gray Transportation and Elias argue that Georgia Code Annotated § 50-18-72(4) prevents the disclosure of Georgia's investigative reports of the subject accident while the charges against Defendant Elias are pending.[1] [Doc. 12, at p. 3]. They further argue that allowing this case to proceed places Defendant Elias “in the untenable position of not being able to respond to Plaintiffs' written discovery or otherwise testify in his own defense without waiving his Fifth Amendment rights in the underlying criminal charges.” [Id.]. In response, Plaintiffs argue that Defendants should not be permitted to delay the proceedings when only a small portion of discovery will overlap with information protected by the Fifth Amendment. [Doc. 25, at p. 3].

         The Court finds that a stay is not appropriate in this case and therefore denies Defendants Gray Transportation and Elias's motion. The decision to grant a stay of this type is squarely within the Court's discretion. See [[Doc. 12, at p. 2]; [Doc. 25, at p. 4]; Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(d)Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(d). Other courts confronted with similar situations have identified several useful factors in guiding the Court's exercise of its discretion but none of these factors are binding or dispositive. See Golden Quality Ice Cream Co. v. Deerfield Specialty Papers, 87 F.R.D. 53, 56 (E.D. Pa. 1980); Trs. of the Plumbers & Pipefitters Nat'l Pension Fund v. Transworld Mech., 886 F.Supp. 1134 (S.D.N.Y. 1995). But see Louis Vuitton Malletier S.A. v. LY USA, Inc., 676 F.3d 83, 99 (2d Cir. 2012) (“These tests, however, no matter how carefully refined, can do no more than act as a rough guide for the district court as it exercises its discretion.”). Of these cases, the Court finds the factors outlined in Golden Quality Ice Cream Co. particularly helpful in deciding this motion. In Golden Quality Ice Cream Co., the court considered the following factors in deciding whether to stay a civil case during the pendency of a parallel criminal case:

(1) the interest of the plaintiffs in proceeding expeditiously with this litigation or any particular aspect of it, and the potential prejudice to plaintiffs of a delay; (2) the burden which any particular aspect of the proceedings may impose on defendants; (3) the convenience of the court in the management of its cases, and the efficient use of judicial resources; (4) the interests of persons not parties to the civil litigation; and (5) the interest of the public in the pending civil and criminal litigation.

87 F.R.D. 53, 56 (E.D. Pa. 1980).

         Applying these factors to this case, the Court is persuaded that a stay is not warranted. The Court is sympathetic to the emotional and financial toll that protracted litigation would have on Plaintiffs and gives great weight to their desire to resolve this dispute expeditiously. [Doc. 25, at p. 6]. The Court is, of course, aware of the difficulties that allowing this case to proceed may impose on Defendants. That said, Defendants were short on specifics as to how the lack of access to certain investigative reports would uniquely prejudice them. Defendants' arguments on this point are little more than speculation. After all, it may well be the case that the reports are of no value to them whatsoever or that the reports actually damage their legal position-a fact Plaintiffs aptly note. See [Id. at p. 7] (“[Defendant Elias] has the same equal access to law enforcement reports regarding the wreck report as Plaintiffs.”). The Court will not allow this case to linger to avoid such speculative harms.[2]

         Defendants' arguments with regard to Defendant Elias's Fifth Amendment rights are less speculative, but ultimately unconvincing. It seems plausible that Defendant Elias will have to contend with the adverse inferences that are permitted in a civil case when a party invokes his Fifth Amendment rights for purposes of a parallel criminal proceeding. See United States v. Two Parcels of Real Prop. Located in Russell Cty., 92 F.3d 1123, 1129 (11th Cir. 1996) (authorizing negative inference in civil proceeding where a plaintiff invokes Fifth Amendment rights to avoid self-incrimination in parallel criminal proceeding). However, such adverse inferences are only permitted “when independent evidence exists of the fact to which the party refuses to answer.” Joe Hand Promotions, Inc. v. Chios, Inc., 544 Fed.Appx. 444, 446 (5th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doe ex rel. Rudy-Glanzer v. Glanzer, 232 F.3d 1258, 1264 (9th Cir. 2000)). This requirement substantially mitigates the risk of undue prejudice that Defendants complain of so that any such prejudice is outweighed by Plaintiffs' interest in expeditiously resolving this case.

         The Court's interest in resolving this case quickly and efficiently also weighs against the risk of prejudice about which Defendants Gray Transportation and Elias complain. Defendants offered no evidence (or even conjecture) as to when Defendant Elias's criminal charges will be resolved. In light of the lack of information on this issue, the Court fears that granting this stay will be the first chapter in a multi-year saga in what should be a relatively straightforward auto accident case. The Court acknowledges that by granting the stay, it would essentially place this case on the shelf to gather dust thereby drawing little from the Court's scant resources. Nevertheless, even cases on the shelf require periodic maintenance like regular communication with the parties for status updates.

         The case does not implicate the final two factors -the interests of parties not involved in litigation and the interests of the public-identified in Golden Quality Ice Cream Cos. Having weighed the equities of the situation, and exercising its considerable discretion, the Court concludes that granting a stay is unwarranted. Plaintiffs' interest in quickly resolving their dispute and the Court's interest in judicial efficiency outweigh the ...


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