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Penn Tank Lines, Inc. v. Jackson

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

January 18, 2018

PENN TANK LINES, INC., and, GREAT WEST CAS. CO., Plaintiffs,
v.
PATRICK SHAWN JACKSON, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs Penn Tank Lines, Inc., and Great West Casualty Company seek a declaratory judgment holding that non-party decedent Valerie Allen would be immune from a negligence lawsuit contemplated by Defendant Patrick Jackson. Plaintiffs indicate they will have to indemnify Ms. Allen's estate under various contractual agreements with her.

         Plaintiffs allege that, while training Mr. Jackson as a truck driver, Ms. Allen may have negligently caused an accident that injured Mr. Jackson. Plaintiffs allege that Mr. Jackson, a Penn employee, applied for and received workers' compensation benefits from them. But now, Plaintiffs allege, Mr. Jackson might bring a lawsuit against Ms. Allen's estate in which he might allege that Ms. Allen negligently caused his injuries while training him. Plaintiffs want to know whether Ms. Allen would be immune from suit under a defense provided by the Alabama Workers' Compensation Act.

         The court finds that Plaintiffs lack standing because, under these circumstances, the mere threatened or potential filing of a lawsuit against Ms. Allen's estate does not harm Plaintiffs' legally protected interests. Rather, Plaintiffs seek an advisory opinion about the viability of the claimed affirmative defense in a suit that has yet to be filed.

         A court always has a duty to inquire into its own jurisdiction, and a court must do so at the earliest possible stage of litigation before taking action on a case. Having made such an inquiry, on its own motion, the court will DISMISS WITHOUT PREJUDICE the complaint for LACK OF JURISDICTION because Plaintiffs' request for a declaratory judgment in truth requests an advisory opinion on the viability of an affirmative defense in advance of a threatened lawsuit; i.e., Plaintiffs' assertion of their affirmative defense in this declaratory judgment action is premature.

         Mr. Jackson's “Motion to Dismiss, ” (doc. 5) which does not raise any jurisdictional issue, is MOOT. Plaintiffs' “Motion for Leave to Amend Their Complaint For Declaratory Judgment By Interlineation” (doc. 8) is likewise MOOT because it would not correct the jurisdictional defects.

         Alternatively, if the court had jurisdiction, the court, exercising its discretion under the Declaratory Judgment Act, would decline to hear this case.

         FACTS

         The court takes the allegations in the complaint as true for purposes of examining its jurisdiction. See Lawrence v. Dunbar, 919 F.2d 1525, 1528-29 (11th Cir. 1990).

         Valerie Allen was a truck driver. In 2011, Ms. Allen and Penn entered into a contractual relationship. Essentially, the contracts contemplated that Ms. Allen would lease her truck to Penn and then drive it “in furtherance of [Penn's] primary business.” (Doc. 1 ¶ 8).

         The contracts included an insurance provision in which Penn would, at its own expense, provide public liability insurance to protect Ms. Allen and Penn from potential suits “arising out of the operation of equipment covered” by the agreements. To comply with this provision, Penn acquired a policy with Great West. That policy insured Penn and Ms. Allen for injuries “to a member of the general motoring public that resulted” from Ms. Allen's use of the truck “in furtherance of” Penn's shipping business. (Doc. 1 ¶ 11).

         Defendant Patrick Jackson wanted to be a truck driver. In 2016, Penn hired Mr. Jackson as a driver-in-training. Penn paid Mr. Jackson hourly wages and covered Mr. Jackson pursuant to Alabama's workers' compensation plan.

         Penn contracted with Ms. Allen to train Mr. Jackson. Ms. Allen trained Mr. Jackson for “approximately three weeks” until March 30, 2016. On that afternoon, Ms. Allen using her truck, with Mr. Jackson observing as a passenger, was to deliver a “commercial bulk petroleum tanker containing more than 8, 000 gallons of motor fuel” to a gas station serviced by Penn.

         On the way, they had a wreck. Ms. Allen died. Mr. Jackson survived, but suffered several injuries in the crash, including road rash, “a possible rotator cuff injury, ...


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