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Lanham v. Gnewuch

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

June 30, 2015

BRIAN SCOTT LANHAM and CYNTHIA LANHAM, Plaintiffs,
v.
JOHN CAREY GNEWUCH and PRIME, INC., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiffs Brian Scott Lanham ("Mr. Lanham") and Cynthia Lanham ("Ms. Lanham") initiated this personal injury lawsuit against Defendants John Carey Gnewuch ("Mr. Gnewuch") and Prime, Inc. ("Prime") on July 22, 2013. (Doc. 1). In this case, Mr. Lanham alleges that he was injured when he fell from the back of a tractor trailer owned by Prime and driven by Mr. Gnewuch when Mr. Gnewuch drove the trailer away from a loading dock while Mr. Lanham was inside the trailer unloading a delivery. (Doc. 1 ΒΆΒΆ 10, 12).

Pending before the court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 32) (the "Motion") filed on December 1, 2014. On December 22, 2014, the Lanhams filed their response in opposition to the Motion. (Doc. 42). Prime and Mr. Gnewuch followed with their reply (Doc. 43) on January 5, 2015, and now the Motion is under submission. For the reasons explained below, the Motion is GRANTED IN PART and otherwise is DENIED.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

A. Mr. Gnewuch's Employment with Prime Inc.

Mr. Gnewuch became a professional truck driver in 2010 after attending a three week truck driving course at Houston Community College. (Doc. 33-1 at 5, 9). He began his employment with Prime in December 2012, after working as a truck driver for two years, AF No. 24.[2] Upon joining Prime, Mr. Gnewuch participated in a four or five day training program that consisted of classroom and simulator training, but did not include any actual behind-the-wheel training. (Doc. 33-1 at 18-19).

In January 2013, Mr. Gnewuch was involved in two separate preventable accidents. On January 4, 2013, he was backing or pulling through a parking spot and scraped the trailer next to him. (Doc. 33-4 at 9). On January 20, 2013, he backed into the passenger front of the other vehicle. (Doc. 33-4 at 10). There is no evidence that any adverse employment action was taken against Mr. Gnewuch as a result of these incidents. (Doc. 33-4 at 9-10).

B. The Accident

The accident that is the basis of this lawsuit occurred on March 22, 2013, at the Wal-Mart in Oneonta, Alabama. The Oneonta Wal-Mart has two loading bays, one at each back corner of the building. AF No. 9; (Doc. 33-12). The loading bay where the accident occurred contained four lanes, such that four trailers could be parked for loading or unloading at any given time. (Doc. 33-12). There are two pedestrian doors adjacent to the loading area. ( Id. ) The DSD Grocery door is located on the side of the building near the end of the loading bay (this door is labeled "DSD GRO" on the exhibit) and the DSD door is located on the back of the building near the front of the loading bay (this door is labeled "D" on the exhibit). ( Id. ) (Doc. 33-7 at 33).

The day of the accident, as part of his employment with Prime, Mr. Gnewuch was making deliveries from the Wal-Mart distribution center in Tennessee to several Wal-Mart stores in Alabama. AF No. 4. After making his first delivery, he drove to the Oneonta Wal-Mart to make his next delivery. AF No. 3. Mr. Gnewuch did not place a padlock on the trailer after making his first delivery. (Doc. 33-3 at 3). Upon his arrival at the Onenota Wal-Mart, Mr. Gnewuch drove to a loading bay at the rear of the store. AF No. 5. He backed his trailer into a loading bay, exited the vehicle, and walked to a pedestrian door. AF No. 6.

The door Mr. Gnewuch went to is the DSD Grocery door. (Doc. 33-7 at 25). He rang the doorbell and waited for "several minutes" before Terry Tucker opened the door. (Doc. 33-3 at 6); (Doc. 33-7 at 25). Ms. Tucker asked him if she could help him and he responded that he was there to drop off a delivery. (Doc. 33-7 at 26). Ms. Tucker told him "you're at the wrong door." ( Id. ) He asked which door did he need to go to and Ms. Tucker walked out of the door into the parking lot and pointed in the direction of the DSD door, which is located on the other side of that loading bay. ( Id. at 26-27, 30-33). She also explained to him that he needed to walk past the fence and then he would see the door. ( Id. at 32-33).

While Mr. Gnewuch was at the pedestrian door, Wal-Mart personnel, including Mr. Lanham, began unloading the unlocked trailer. AF Nos. 1-2, 12. Specifically, Wal-Mart employee Chris Thompson arrived at the unloading dock where Mr. Gnewuch's trailer was parked. He testified that the truck appeared ready to be unloaded, so he began the unloading process. (Doc. 33-9 at 24). He further testified that if there is not a padlock on a trailer, "it's [his] job to break the seal and go in and unload the truck." (33-10 at 23).

After his interaction with Ms. Tucker, Mr. Gnewuch returned to his tractor trailer and began to pull away from the loading dock with the intent to move his trailer to the other loading bay at the Oneonta Wal-Mart. AF Nos. 8-9. He did not check to see if anyone was unloading the truck and did not issue any type of warning before moving. (Doc. 33-3 at 7; Doc. 33-9 at 41). As Mr. Gnewuch pulled his vehicle away from the loading bay, Mr. Lanham fell from the trailer and was injured as a result. AF No. 13.

C. Wal-Mart and Prime Inc.'s Policies

The parties point to several policies as being relevant to this case. First, both Prime and Wal-Mart required the trailer to remain padlocked. (Doc. 41-6 at 5; Doc. 41-7 at 5). The purpose of the policy was load security. (Doc. 41-6). Mr. Gnewuch was aware he was supposed to keep his trailer locked. However, he did not place a padlock on the trailer after he made his first delivery on the morning of the accident. (Doc. 33-3 at 3). It was Mr. Gnewuch's practice not to replace the padlock on the trailer after making the first delivery of the day. (Doc. 33-2 at 16).

Second, pursuant to Wal-Mart's delivery guidelines for third party drivers, when a driver is making a delivery, he is to "[r]emove the padlock, open the trailer door, ... and oversee the unloading of the store's product." (Doc. 33-13 at 5).[3] As the truck is unloaded, the driver is to verify that the appropriate pallets are taken off. ( Id. ) Neither Terry Tucker nor Chris Thompson was aware that it was Wal-Mart's policy that third party truck drivers be present during delivery. (Doc. 33-8 at 12; Doc. 33-9 at 36). Mr. Gnewuch understood that he was to be present at the back door of the trailer to oversee the unloading process. AF No. 14. That being said, a Wal-Mart employee noted that Prime truck drivers were not always present during the delivery and unloading process. (Doc. 33-10 at 36).

D. Procedural History

On July 22, 2013, Mr. and Mrs. Lanham filed suit against Mr. Gnewuch and Prime. (Doc. 1). Their Complaint contains four causes of action:[4] (1) negligence, recklessness, and/or wantonness by John Gnewuch; (2) respondeat superior; (3) negligent, reckless, and wanton actions on the part of Prime in its hiring, training, retention, and supervision of Mr. Gnewuch and when it entrusted Mr. Gnewuch with the tractor trailer; and (4) loss of consortium claim. In short, the Complaint alleges: that Mr. Gnewuch's negligence and/or wantonness caused Mr. Lanham's injuries; that both Mr. Gnewuch and Prime, as employer of Mr. Gnewuch, are liable for those injuries; and that Prime was independently negligent and/or wanton in its hiring, training, retention, and supervision of Mr. Gnewuch and in ...


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