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Miles v. Celadon Group Inc.

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

May 22, 2019

MARIA MILES, Plaintiff,
v.
CELADON GROUP, INC., and KEVIN SELLERS, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This action is before the court on the motion for summary judgment filed on March 14, 2019, by defendants Celadon Group, Inc., (“CGI”) and Kevin Sellers. (Doc. 42). The matter has been fully briefed, and the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 636(c).

         SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), summary judgment is proper only “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 party asking for summary judgment “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). The movant can meet this burden by presenting evidence showing there is no dispute of material fact, or by showing that the nonmoving party has failed to present evidence in support of some element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. There is no requirement, however, “that the moving party support its motion with affidavits or other similar materials negating the opponent's claim.” Id. at 323.

         Once the moving party has met his burden, Rule 56 “requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the ‘depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions of file,' designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 324 (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The nonmoving party need not present evidence in a form necessary for admission at trial; however, he may not merely rest on his pleadings. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. “[T]he plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Id. at 322.

         After the plaintiff has properly responded to a proper motion for summary judgment, the court must grant the motion if there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 248. “[T]he judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 249. His guide is the same standard necessary to direct a verdict: “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 251-52; see also Bill Johnson's Restaurants, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 461 U.S. 731, 745 n.11 (1983). However, the nonmoving party “must do more than show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249 (citations omitted); accord Spence v. Zimmerman, 873 F.2d 256 (11th Cir. 1989). Furthermore, the court must “view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden, ” so there must be sufficient evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 254; Cottle v. Storer Communication, Inc., 849 F.2d 570, 575 (11th Cir. 1988). Nevertheless, credibility determinations, the weighing of evidence, and the drawing of inferences from the facts are the function of the jury, and therefore the evidence of the non-movant is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. The non-movant need not be given the benefit of every inference but only of every reasonable inference. Brown v. City of Clewiston, 848 F.2d 1534, 1540 n.12 (11th Cir. 1988).

         UNDISPUTED FACTS

         Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, as this court must for purposes of summary judgment, the facts pertinent to the defendants' motion for summary judgment are as follows.

         The plaintiff, Maria Miles, was injured in a traffic accident when the bus in which she was a passenger collided with a tractor-trailer driven by defendant Kevin Sellers. At about 10:20 a.m. on May 7, 2015, Miles was riding in a bus driven by Yolanda McKinney. Miles, who had driven the bus route in the past, was showing McKinney the route. Miles and McKinney were both employed by the City of Birmingham Department of Public Works. Miles worked as a “crew leader.” Defendant Sellers was a commercial truck driver, operating a tractor-trailer for A&S Services Group, LLC, which is not a party to this action.[1] Sellers was driving westbound on U.S. Highway 78. McKinney entered Highway 78 from Daniel Payne Drive, turning right onto the highway and heading in the same direction as Sellers.[2] Highway 78 is a four-lane highway, with two lanes traveling in the same direction on each side of a median separating the northbound and southbound traffic. Sellers was in the left lane of the two southbound lanes when McKinney entered the highway ahead of him, turning from Daniel Payne Drive into the right southbound lane. McKinney, intending eventually to turn left, moved into the left southbound lane, ahead of Sellers. The front of Seller's truck struck the driver's side of the bus. The bus overturned and skidded on its side. Plaintiff Miles alleges that Sellers was driving in excess of the 50-mile-per-hour speed limit. Sellers has testified that he was driving 50 to 55 miles per hour. McKinney has testified that she saw the truck coming in the left lane, but she thought the truck was a safe distance behind her. The plaintiff has testified that after McKinney turned the bus off Daniel Payne Drive onto Highway 78, she (McKinney) pulled over to the right shoulder of the highway to look for something. The bus remained there several minutes and then was struck by Sellers' truck. (Doc. 44-14, Trial Transcript, pp. 18-25).

         A lawsuit was filed in the Jefferson County Circuit Court by Sellers and the passenger in Sellers' truck, Christina Gordon, against defendants McKinney and the City of Birmingham. Plaintiff Miles as not a party in that action. Sellers settled his action against the City and McKinney before trial. Gordon's negligence claim proceeded to trial, and a jury found McKinney negligent. Plaintiff Maria Miles filed the instant action against Sellers and CGI in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, alleging negligence, wantonness, respondeat superior, negligent entrustment, and negligent hiring, supervision, and training. The case was removed to this court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction.

         In responding to the instant motion for summary judgment, plaintiff conceded that defendant CGI is entitled to summary judgment on all claims, and that Sellers is entitled to summary adjudication of the wantonness claim against him. Consequently, the motion for summary judgment in favor of CGI on all claims against it is due to be granted, and the motion is also due to be granted on the claim that Sellers acted wantonly. The court is left to evaluate plaintiff's sole remaining claim of negligence against Sellers.

         DISCUSSION

         Defendant Sellers asserts that the negligence claim against him is due to be dismissed because: (1) the plaintiff is barred from recovery because she was contributorily negligent, and (2) the plaintiff is barred from recovery by the doctrine of res judicata because a jury determined that the driver of the bus, McKinney, was negligent and that finding is binding on the plaintiff in this action. In response, the plaintiff asserts that no negligence on the part of the bus driver can be imputed to the plaintiff, and that the elements of res judicata under Alabama law are not met where the other lawsuit involved different parties.

         Contributory Negligence

         Defendant Sellers seeks summary adjudication of plaintiff's negligence claim on the ground that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent. Defendant bases his assertion on the Alabama Supreme Court's holding in Serio v. Merrell, 941 So.2d 960 (Ala. 2006). As the court in Serio explained:

“Contributory negligence is an affirmative and complete defense to a claim based on negligence. In order to establish contributory negligence, the defendant bears the burden of proving that the plaintiff 1) had knowledge of the dangerous condition; 2) had an appreciation of the danger under the surrounding circumstances; and 3) failed to exercise reasonable care, by placing ...

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