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Lee v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.

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

December 4, 2019

MATTHEW R. LEE, Plaintiff,
v.
STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE CO., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER I. INTRODUCTION

          STEPHEN M. DOYLE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The underlying facts of this case pertain to a collision between an automobile operated by William Craig Mann (“Mann”) and pedestrian Plaintiff Matthew Lee (“Lee”) that occurred on a rural road in Elmore County, Alabama, on July 16, 2015. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 5-7). On May 11, 2019, Lee filed a complaint against his insurer, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (“State Farm”), asserting a claim for uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. Id. at ¶¶ 15-23. Presently before the Court is State Farm's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 25); Lee's response in opposition (Doc. 28) thereto; and State Farm's reply (Doc. 29). For the reasons that follow, the undersigned finds that State Farm's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 25) is due to be DENIED.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is appropriate when “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). When the non-moving party bears the burden of proof at trial, summary judgment is warranted if the nonmovant fails to “make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to [its] case.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The legal elements of the plaintiff's claim dictate which facts are material and which are irrelevant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is not material if a dispute over that fact will not affect the outcome of the case under the governing law. Id. “If the nonmoving party cannot muster sufficient evidence to make out its claim, a trial would be useless and the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 331 (White, J., concurring).

         The court must view the proffered evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant and resolve all reasonable doubts about the facts in the nonmovant's favor. Johnson v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Ga., 263 F.3d 1234, 1243 (11th Cir. 2001). However, a mere scintilla of evidence in support of a claim is insufficient; the nonmovant must produce sufficient evidence to enable a jury to rule in his favor. Id. The Eleventh Circuit explains that “[s]imply put, the plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment 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. (internal quotes and citations omitted).

         III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On July 16, 2015, Lee was jogging alongside a two-lane rural road that did not have a sidewalk or a shoulder. He was wearing orange athletic shorts, a gray t-shirt, and a hat. He was not wearing any reflective material on his clothing or using any type of lighting device while on his jog. Lee recalls that he was jogging on the right side of the road, and that traffic was “coming from behind [him].” Mann, however, places Lee on the left side of the road, as he recalls that Lee was moving towards him prior to impact.

         Lee testified that, while walking on the grassy area beside the road, he encountered a spider in a web or a large insect which “landed in the middle of [his] head.” During his effort to remove the insect, he moved from the grassy area onto the road's paved surface, placing both of his heels on the right fog line. Lee estimated that he had his head facing down for approximately three seconds while he tried to remove the insect from his head. Lee looked up in time to see the headlights of Mann's vehicle prior to impact. He testified that, unlike the other passing vehicles that merged towards the middle of the road, he observed Mann's vehicle swerve towards him. Lee also testified that he believed Mann was speeding. Lee recalls that the passenger-side front headlight area of Mann's vehicle struck him.

         Mann testified that he first saw Lee on the grassy area beside the roadway, a couple of feet from the pavement to his right. Mann stated that, as he approached Lee, he steered his vehicle to the left to straddle the center line to give Lee more room. Mann then testified that “right as I got to [Lee], he threw up his hands and immediately broke and ran right out in the road in front of me.” Mann testified that he slammed on his brakes but was unable to stop in time to avoid hitting Lee.

         The collision occurred between 8:00 p.m. and 8:40 p.m. At that time, it was dark enough that most of the drivers, including Mann, were using their vehicle's headlights. Other than a garage spotlight from a house approximately 100 feet from the accident scene, there were no other sources of light at the scene.

         IV. DISCUSSION[1]

         Alabama's uninsured/underinsured motorist statute provides protection for parties “who are legally entitled to recover damages from owners or operators of uninsured [or underinsured] motor vehicles because of bodily injury, sickness or disease, including death, resulting therefrom.” Ala. Code § 32-7-23(a) (1975). For a party to demonstrate they are legally entitled to recover damages under their uninsured/underinsured motorist policy, they must be able to establish fault on the part of the uninsured/underinsured motorist, which gives rise to damages. LeFevre v. Westberry, 590 So.2d 154, 157 (Ala. 1991). Further, the party must be able to prove the extent of the alleged damages. Id. In a direct action against an insurer like State Farm for uninsured/underinsured motorist benefits, the insurer has available, in addition to any applicable policy defenses, the substantive defenses that would have been available to the uninsured/underinsured motorist. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co. v. Bennett, 974 So.2d 959, 962 (Ala. 2007).

         State Farm asks the Court to grant summary judgment against Lee with respect to any claim for underinsured motorist coverage based upon two arguments: (1) there is no evidence that any alleged negligence on the part of Mann caused or contributed to the accident at issue in this case, and (2) Lee was contributorily negligent as a matter of law. (Doc. 25).

         A. Whether evidence shows that Mann was negligent in causing or ...


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