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Bonds v. Hyundai Motor Co.

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

March 18, 2019

HYUNDAI MOTOR CO., et al., Defendants.



         This wrongful death and products liability case comes before the court on Defendants Hyundai Motor Company and Hyundai Motor America's “Motion for Partial Summary Judgment Regarding Set-Off.” (Doc. 89).

         Marvin Culver died nearly a year after he suffered catastrophic injuries as a passenger in a car that wrecked with a United States Postal truck. Before he died, Mr. Culver filed a lawsuit against the United States for his personal injuries resulting from the accident. After Mr. Culver died, Plaintiff Willie Earl Bonds, as administrator of Mr. Culver's estate, brought this separate wrongful-death claim against Hyundai. The Estate and the United States eventually settled the claims for personal injuries for $2, 600, 000.

         In its motion for partial summary judgment, Hyundai argues that the court should set off any judgment entered against it in this action by that amount recovered for personal injuries because it and the United States are joint tortfeasors.

         The court finds that Hyundai and the United States acted together as “joint tortfeasors” to cause a single set of injuries-personal injuries that led to Mr. Culver's death-such that they are jointly liable for the injuries arising from the wreck.[1] But here is the kicker: the Estate's settlement with the United States for Mr. Culver's personal injuries before he died did not and could not include any amount as damages for Mr. Culver's death; in this case, the Estate seeks recovery against Hyundai only for-and only could recover-punitive damages for Mr. Culver's death.

         Under Alabama law, only punitive damages may be recovered for wrongful death. See King v. National Spa and Pool Institute, Inc., 607 So.2d 1241, 1248 (Ala. 1992). And the Federal Tort Claims Act precludes the United States from paying punitive damages. Because a recovery for punitive damages does not diminish a recovery for compensatory damages, no set-off is required to prevent a double recovery by the Estate. The court will, therefore, DENY Hyundai's motion for partial summary judgment. (Doc. 89).


         Summary judgment plays an integral part in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. A court may enter partial summary judgment to address critical, but not dispositive, parts of a case. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The same standard that applies to full motions for summary judgment applies to motions for partial summary judgment.

         So, when a district court reviews a motion for partial summary judgment, it must determine two things: (1) whether any genuine issues of material fact exist; and if not, (2) whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the particular issues raised. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 254 (1986); Cottle v. Storer Commc'n, Inc., 849 F.2d 570, 575 (11th Cir. 1988). The parties have stipulated to a set of facts for the purpose of this motion for partial summary judgment. (Doc. 88). So, the question before the court is simply whether Hyundai is entitled to a set-off as a matter of law.

         II. FACTS

         On May 18, 2011, Joseph Gillette ran a red light while driving a United States Postal truck and collided with a Hyundai Accent. Mr. Culver, who occupied the Hyundai's backseat at the time, suffered catastrophic injuries in the wreck. He died from those injuries nearly a year later, on May 8, 2012.

         While alive, Mr. Culver sued the United States, alleging negligence and negligent entrustment under Alabama law and the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346, 2672. After Mr. Culver's passing, Alice Culver became administrator of his estate.

         While administrator, Ms. Culver added a wrongful death claim against the United States, but, later, Ms. Culver voluntarily dismissed the wrongful death claim without prejudice while maintaining her late husband's claims for negligence and negligent entrustment. On October 15, 2013, a probate judge appointed Mr. Bonds to administer the Estate.

         On March 10, 2014, Ms. Culver (apparently still acting as administrator of the Estate) entered into a pro tanto settlement agreement with the United States for her husband's personal injuries. In exchange for $2, 600, 000 in unspecified damages, the Estate agreed to release the United States from all of the Estate's claims against it, but reserved the Estate's claims against any ...

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