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Quarles v. Tennessee Steel Haulers, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

February 20, 2019

LAURA QUARLES, as the Administratrix of the Estate of Gregory Quarles, Plaintiff,
v.
TENNESSEE STEEL HAULERS, INC.; JOSHUA L. FAIRCLOTH; PEDRO H. FERNANDEZ; and TRANS TEXAS EXPRESS, INC., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          W. Keith Watkins UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         One night in 2017, there were two car accidents near Exit 11 on Interstate 85 in Montgomery. The first accident was at 5:50 p.m. in a southbound lane; the second was at 8:31 p.m. in a northbound lane. This case is about whether the first accident proximately caused the second. It did not. Defendants Pedro Fernandez and Trans Texas Express, Inc. are thus entitled to summary judgment.

         I. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

         The court has subject-matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. (Doc. # 32.) The parties do not dispute personal jurisdiction or venue.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To succeed on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must show 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 views the evidence, and all reasonable inferences drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Jean-Baptiste v. Gutierrez, 627 F.3d 816, 820 (11th Cir. 2010).

         A party seeking summary judgment “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for the motion.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). This responsibility includes identifying the parts of the record that show there is no genuine dispute of material fact. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1). A movant who does not bear a trial burden of production may also assert, without citing the record, that the nonmoving party “cannot produce admissible evidence to support” a material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(B).

         If the moving party meets its burden, then the nonmoving party must present evidence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. A genuine dispute of material fact exists when the nonmoving party produces evidence allowing a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict in its favor. Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Assocs., 276 F.3d 1275, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001); see Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (noting “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion”).

         III. FACTS

         Interstate 85 is a main thoroughfare in Montgomery, Alabama. I-85 South takes drivers past downtown Montgomery to an interchange with Interstate 65. I-85 North goes toward Atlanta. Around Exit 11 (also called the Chantilly Exit or the Mitylene Exit) in Montgomery, there are two lanes in each direction. A wide, grassy median separates northbound from southbound traffic.[1] On January 31, 2017, there were two major accidents near Exit 11. The first resulted in an overturned tractor-trailer. The second resulted in the tragic death of Gregory Quarles.

         A. The 5:50 p.m. Southbound Accident

         On January 31, Pedro Fernandez was hauling lumber on behalf of his employer, Trans Texas Express, Inc. He was headed south on I-85. Walter Griffin was driving a pickup truck in the same direction. At 5:50 p.m., the passenger side of Fernandez's trailer collided with the driver's side of Griffin's pickup. The court assumes (without deciding) that Fernandez and Trans Texas are legally responsible for that collision. (Doc. # 1-8, at 2; Doc. # 70, at 7-32.)

         The collision caused Fernandez's tractor-trailer to overturn into the median, which in turn caused the lumber on Fernandez's truck to spill into the median. Police officers and the fire department responded to the accident. The city also sent workers to pick up the lumber in the median. (Doc. # 73, at 42, 50; Doc. # 75-6, at 2.)

         B. The 8:31 p.m. Northbound Accident

         Two hours and forty-one minutes after Fernandez overturned, city workers were still picking up lumber in the median. Police cars were still on the scene. Flashing lights - yellow ones on the cleanup crew's trucks, blue ones on the police cars - illuminated the area. (Doc. # 1-5, at 2; Doc. # 75-6, at 2.)

         Traffic had backed up in both directions. Plaintiff concedes that “there were no obstructions” in either northbound lane. (Doc. # 75, at 10.) There is, after all, no evidence of any debris on I-85 North. Nor is there evidence that, at 8:31 p.m., the cleanup crew or emergency vehicles blocked either northbound lane. Nor is there evidence anyone told northbound drivers to avoid the left lane. Instead, one driver testified that he did not see anything blocking northbound traffic. (Doc. # 73, at 48- 50.) But for some reason - maybe a blend of caution and gawking - northbound traffic was consolidated into the right lane. It was crawling along at just ten to fifteen miles an hour. (Doc. # 73, at 43-45, 50-52; Doc. # 75, at 7; Doc. # 75-6, at 2.)

         George Randall was driving a tractor-trailer on I-85 North when he got stuck in this traffic jam. Gregory Quarles was driving a Jeep immediately behind Randall. Joshua Faircloth, who was driving a tractor-trailer for Tennessee Steel Haulers, Inc., was right behind Quarles. Randall and Quarles slowed down for traffic. Tragically, Faircloth did not. He instead plowed into Quarles at high speed - possibly at sixty-five miles an hour. The collision hurled Quarles's Jeep into the back of Randall's tractor-trailer. Quarles died instantly from blunt-force trauma, and his car burst into flames. (Doc. # 73, at 44-46, 55, 59-60.)

         There does not appear to be a reason Faircloth did not slow down or stop. The weather was clear. The road was dry. His brakes worked. Nothing blocked his view. He was not distracted by the cleanup crew. He somehow did not react to the flashing lights even though other drivers clearly did. (Doc. # 73, at 59-60.)

         C. Procedural History

         In April 2017, Plaintiff Laura Quarles (the administrator of Gregory Quarles's estate) filed this wrongful death action against Fernandez, Trans Texas, Griffin, Faircloth, and Tennessee Steel Haulers in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, Alabama. (Doc. # 1-1.) Plaintiff claims ...


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