United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division
MYRON H. THOMPSON, District Judge.
In this case stemming from a traffic accident between a car and a large truck, plaintiffs Gwendolyn Craft, Brandy Craft, and Julie Butler sued defendants Triumph Logistics, Inc. and Reco Gerome Williams, asserting claims of not only negligence but also claims of wantonness against Triumph and Williams (hereinafter "wantonness claims"), as well as negligent- and wanton-training claims against Triumph only (hereinafter "training claims"). Jurisdiction is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (diversity).
The case is before the court on the defendants' motion for partial summary judgment on the plaintiffs' wantonness claims against both Triumph and Williams and on the plaintiffs' training claims against Triumph.[*] The motion will be granted.
I. SUMMARY-JUDGMENT STANDARD
"A party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense-or the part of each claim or defense-on which summary judgment is sought. The court shall 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). The court must view the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).
Gwendolyn Craft was driving a rented minivan from New Orleans, Louisiana to Atlanta, Georgia to watch a professional football game. She had three passengers in the car, including the two other plaintiffs in this suit. The weather conditions were clear, and the traffic was normal for a weekday afternoon.
On a northbound stretch of highway between Mobile and Montgomery, Alabama, the plaintiffs were involved in a car accident with Reco Williams, who was employed by Triumph and driving a commercial-freight truck. Craft was driving in the left lane, and Williams was adjacent in the right lane. Without looking into his driver-side mirror, Williams crossed over into Craft's lane. Craft swerved left off the highway to avoid a collision with Williams's truck, passing onto the shoulder and then driving into the grass. Without slowing down, Craft then swerved right, and her minivan began to spin. Craft reentered the roadway mid-spin, crashing twice into Williams's truck. Craft and her passengers sustained injuries.
Triumph and Williams move for partial summary judgment on the plaintiffs' wantonness claims based on Williams's operation and driving of the truck, and on the plaintiffs' negligent- or wanton-training claims.
A. Wantonness Claims Against Triumph and Williams
To hold a defendant liable for wanton conduct in Alabama, a plaintiff must establish a high degree of culpability. While negligent conduct is characterized by "inattention, thoughtlessness, or heedlessness" and "a lack of due care, " Monroe v. Brown, 307 F.Supp.2d 1268, 1271 (M.D. Ala. 2004) (Thompson, J.), wantonness is characterized by "a conscious act." Ex parte Essary, 992 So.2d 5, 9 (Ala. 2007) (internal citations omitted). Wantonness is willful misconduct undertaken with the knowledge that the likely or probable result will be injury, that is, with a conscious disregard for the rights or safety of others. See, e.g., Alfa Mut. Ins. Co. v. Roush, 723 So.2d 1250, 1256 (Ala. 1998); Bozeman v. Central Bank of the South, 646 So.2d 601 (Ala. 1994). Wantonness can also be established by reckless disregard for the rights or safety of others. See 1975 Ala. Code § 6-11-20(b)(3). Wantonness is, therefore, "[c]onduct which is carried on with a reckless or conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others." Id . Because negligence is the "inadvertent omission of duty, " and wantonness is about the "state of mind with which the act or omission is done, " Essary, 992 So.2d at 9, the Alabama Supreme Court has explained: "Wantonness is not merely a higher degree of culpability than negligence. Negligence and wantonness, plainly and simply, are qualitatively different tort concepts of actionable culpability." Tolbert v. Tolbert, 903 So.2d 103, 114 (Ala. 2004) (internal citations omitted); see also Jinright v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., 607 F.Supp.2d 1274, 1275-76 (M.D. Ala. 2009) (Thompson, J.).
Alabama courts will allow a jury to determine whether conduct was wanton if there is any evidence that would allow that determination. Cash v. Caldwell, 603 So.2d 1001, 1003 (Ala. 1992) ("Wantonness is a question of fact for the jury, unless there is a total lack of evidence from which the jury could reasonably infer wantonness."). This determination of consciousness or recklessness underlying the question of wantonness may rely on inferences drawn from the circumstances. Klaber v. Elliott, 533 So.2d 576, 579 (Ala. 1988).
The plaintiffs argue that Williams was wanton because he failed to look to his left or signal before he drove his vehicle into the left lane. However, this conduct, on its own, is not sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact concerning wantonness. To establish wantonness, the evidence must support a conclusion that the defendant engaged in conduct conscious, or in knowing disregard, that it was likely to cause injury. But the plaintiffs have not pointed to any evidence that would allow a jury to determine, consistent with Alabama law, that Williams had the requisite level of consciousness and awareness that his moving into the plaintiffs' lane would likely cause injury. Simply put, the fact that Craft saw Williams's truck move over into her lane does not prove that he knew that he was moving into their lane-for he could have been drifting without realizing he was doing so- and that by doing so he knew, or recklessly disregarded, that he likely would harm others on the road. See Essary, 992 So.2d at 9. (defining wantonness as "the conscious doing of some act... while knowing of the existing conditions and being conscious that, from doing... an ...