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Hagen v. Pelletier

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

October 2, 2019




         Mary Abigail Hagen sustained severe injuries after being partially ejected and pinned under the Ford 150 truck in which she was a passenger. The driver of the truck, Cameron Pelletier, lost control of the vehicle, causing it to veer off the road and hit a bank of bushes before flipping multiple times. Hagen filed this lawsuit, alleging one count for negligence, recklessness, and wantonness, and a second for negligence and wantonness per se. Doc. 1. Pelletier filed a motion for summary judgment, doc. 27, on all of Hagen's claims, and Hagen filed a cross motion for partial summary judgment, doc. 29, on Pelletier's sixth, fourteenth, and fifteenth affirmative defenses. Both motions are fully briefed, docs. 30; 33, and ripe for consideration. After carefully reviewing the briefs, evidence, and relevant law, Pelletier's motion, doc. 27, is due to be denied as to Hagen's negligence and wantonness claims pleaded in Count I, and granted as to the negligence per se and wantonness per se claims in Count II. Hagen's motion, doc. 29, is due to be granted fully as to Pelletier's sixth defense and on the wantonness claim as to the fourteenth and fifteenth defenses. The matter of Hagen's claims pleaded in Count I is SET for a pretrial conference at 2:15 p.m. on October 9, 2019 and for a trial at 9:00 a.m. on November 25, 2019, both at the Hugo L. Black U.S. Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama. The court directs the parties to the Standard Pretrial Procedures governing all pretrial deadlines, which is attached as Exhibit A.


         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper “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. “Rule 56[] 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.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (alteration in original). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who is required to “go beyond the pleadings” to establish that there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (citation and quotation marks omitted). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         On summary judgment motions, the court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Any factual disputes will be resolved in the non-moving party's favor when sufficient competent evidence supports the non-moving party's version of the disputed facts. See Pace v. Capobianco, 283 F.3d 1275, 1276, 1278 (11th Cir. 2002) (a court is not required to resolve disputes in the non-moving party's favor when that party's version of events is supported by insufficient evidence). However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Moreover, “[a] mere ‘scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the jury could reasonably find for that party.” Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252)).


         This case arises out of an automobile crash that occurred in the early morning of May 20, 2017. Doc. 30-1 at 14. Hagen and Pelletier both attended Birmingham Southern College at the time of the incident, and had started dating sometime before the accident. Docs. 30-1 at 4-5, 13; 30-2 at 4-5. During an earlier trip before the accident to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Pelletier engaged in dangerous driving maneuvers including “peeling out, ” “burning out, ” and “drifting” over Hagen's objections, prompting Hagen to tell him “to not do that with [her] in the car ever again.”[1] Doc. 30-1 at 6-12. Pelletier admits to engaging in similar maneuvers when he was sixteen, including “doing donuts in a field, ” while driving off-road, leading to his passengers sustaining minor injuries. Doc. 30-2 at 7-8. Pelletier further admits he is aware that injuries could result from “speeding and spinning around, ” id. at 8, and “gunning a vehicle and fishtailing or spinning out, ” id. at 9, and that intentionally fishtailing[2] a vehicle is reckless driving, id. at 10.

         On the night at issue here, Hagen finished an exam that ended at 9 p.m. and went to her friends' apartment to get ready for a party at Pelletier's fraternity. Doc. 30-1 at 14. Hagen drank “a beer or two” before arriving at the party and drank two vodka and Sprite mixed drinks at the party. Doc. 33-1 at 11-12. At around 2:30 a.m., a friend asked Hagen to come to her campus apartment. Doc. 30-1 at 15. When Hagen told her friend she did not want to walk to the apartment, Pelletier offered to drive her there and Hagen accepted. Doc. 30-1 at 15. Hagen did not compensate Pelletier for the ride. Doc. 27-1 at 11. The two walked to Pelletier's Ford 150 truck. Docs. 30-1 at 16; 30-3 at 3. Neither party used a seatbelt, and by Pelletier's estimation, neither Hagen's mental or physical state merited concern when she entered his truck. Docs. 30-2 at 18; 27-1 at 12.

         Pelletier drove the truck around the fraternity house, gaining speeds of approximately 30 miles per hour (twice the campus limit) before “peel[ing] out” as he took a sharp right across the parking lot, causing his truck to skid to the right and fishtail before continuing straight. Docs. 30-1 at 17-28; 30-7 at 2-3; 30-2 at 12-15. Pelletier then accelerated to a faster speed before taking a sharp left turn, running a stop sign and ignoring Hagen's appeals for him to stop. Doc. 30-1 at 17-28. With Pelletier unable to correct the left-hand turn, the truck jumped the curb onto the grass alongside the road, hit several bushes, and flipped multiple times before coming to rest on its side near a tree on the far side of the bushes from the road. Id. Hagen was partially ejected from the truck and pinned underneath it when it came to rest. Doc. 33-4 at 3. Hagen sustained several injuries from the crash, fracturing her back, sacrum, and pelvis. Docs. 30-1 at 31; 30-8 at 4. Despite surgery and physical therapy, Hagen has not fully recovered. Doc. 30-1 at 31.

         Pelletier claims he lost control of the truck after suddenly applying the brakes to avoid an animal that had purportedly run into the road. Doc. 30-2 at 20. Hagen did not see an animal, and she claims Pelletier later agreed with her that there was no animal when he visited her in the hospital. Doc. 30-1 at 29-30. One of Pelletier's fraternity brothers who had a full view of the scene from his vantage point on the side deck of the fraternity house heard Pelletier's tires screeching in the parking lot and described Pelletier's maneuvers as peeling out before losing control of the truck and hitting the bushes. Doc. 30-5 at 3-7. The eyewitness did not see an animal, doc. 30-5 at 7, and he does not believe the peeling out he witnessed was prompted by an animal, doc. 30-5 at 8-9. A video of the crash scene taken a few days after the incident by Hagen's grandfather shows continuous tire marks from the fraternity parking lot onto the street where the truck left the roadway. Doc. 30-6.

         Hagen engaged an expert witness, Gary Johnson, who is qualified to perform accident reconstruction. Doc. 30-7 at 2. Johnson surmises the tire marks in the parking lot indicated Pelletier heavily applied the brakes while turning right and the marks onto Ninth Alley South were the result of heavy acceleration while turning left. Id. at 3. Johnson believes that the truck was traveling between 23 and 35 miles per hour when it left the roadway, and that Pelletier lost control of the truck because he entered the left turn at too high a rate of speed and accelerated when he should have braked. Id. at 2-3. Johnson concludes that if the truck had followed the posted 15 miles per hour traffic limit, Pelletier should have been able to stop before hitting the bushes. Id. at 3.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Hagen alleges Pelletier was negligent, wanton, and reckless in his operation of the truck, resulting in her severe and permanent injuries, and that his behavior rose to the level of negligence and wantonness per se. Doc. 1-1 at 3-6. Presently before the court are Pelletier's motion for summary judgment on all claims, doc. 27, and Hagen's partial motion for summary judgment, doc. 29, on Pelletier's affirmative defenses that Hagen did not fasten her seatbelt, was contributorily negligent, and assumed the risk for her injuries, doc. 3. The court considers each claim in turn, and, because this action is based on diversity jurisdiction, the court applies Alabama's substantive law in doing so. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938).

         A. Plaintiff's Count I: Recklessness, ...

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