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Neal v. Fort

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

February 9, 2017

WILL NEAL, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN FORT, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          ALETA A. TRAUGER United States District Judge.

         Pending before the court are two motions. The first is a Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 39) filed by the defendant, John Fort, to which the plaintiff has filed a Response (Docket No. 49), and Mr. Fort has filed a Reply (Docket No. 50). The second is a Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 43) filed by an unnamed defendant, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company ("State Farm"), to which the plaintiff has filed a Response (Docket No. 48), and State Farm has filed a Reply (Docket No. 52). For the following reasons, both motions for summary judgment will be denied.

         BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This case arises from a January 3, 2015 motor vehicle accident in which the plaintiff, Will Neal, Jr., was severely injured after he lost control of his vehicle and struck an earthen median on Interstate 65. According to Mr. Neal, he lost control of his van after it was struck from behind by another vehicle allegedly operated by the defendant, John Fort. (Docket No. 1 ¶¶ 3, 6-11.) On April 14, 2015, Mr. Neal filed the Complaint against Mr. Fort, bringing claims for negligence and negligence per se, premised on Mr. Fort's failure to "stop before the front of his vehicle came in contact with the back of [Mr. Neal's] vehicle." (Id. ¶¶ 8, 12-14.) On May 5, 2015, Mr. Fort filed an Answer, acknowledging that his vehicle had collided with Mr. Neal's van but denying that he had violated his duty to drive safely, carefully, and lawfully before the accident. (Docket No. 9 ¶¶ 7, 15.) Rather, Mr. Fort alleges that Mr. Neal's vehicle "suddenly and without warning" began "improperly traveling in generally a perpendicular fashion cutting across the northbound lanes of I[nterstate] 65 north" until it "came directly into the immediate path" of his vehicle. (Id. ¶ 11.) An unnamed party, State Farm, also filed an Answer on May 5, presumably as the plaintiffs uninsured motorist policy carrier. (Docket No. 10.) State Farm's Answer, which was filed by Mr. Fort's counsel, contained the same allegations and denials as those made by Mr. Fort, with an additional allegation that Mr. Fort was not "an uninsured motorist or an underinsured motorist." (Id. ¶ 27.)

         In August of 2015, the parties reached an agreement to amend these pleadings. (Docket No. 17.) Pursuant to a Stipulation filed with the court, Mr. Fort amended his Answer to allege that, if Mr. Neal was rear-ended, it was not he but, rather, a John Doe motorist who acted negligently in causing the accident. (Docket No. 18 ¶ 27.) Mr. Neal filed an Amended Complaint incorporating Mr. Fort's allegations regarding the unknown motorist and "demanding] strict proof of these allegations" from him. (Docket 19 ¶ 14.1.) Pursuant to Tennessee law, Mr. Neal then served process on State Farm, his uninsured motorist carrier, which has the right to file pleadings and take other actions on behalf of the unknown motorist. (Id. ¶ 14.2 (citing Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-1-119)); see Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1206 (providing procedures for personal injury suits against unknown motorists). In the Stipulation, the parties further anticipated that, in light of Mr. Fort's new defense, "additional counsel shall be required to represent" State Farm as Mr. Neal's uninsured motorist carrier. (Docket No. 17 ¶ 7.) On November 20, 2015, new counsel appeared on behalf of State Farm and filed an Answer to the Amended Complaint. (DocketNos. 22, 23.)

         I. Mr. Fort's Motion for Summary Judgment

         On July 14, 2016, Mr. Fort filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 39), accompanied by a Memorandum of Law (Docket No. 40), a Statement of Material Facts (Docket No. 41), his own responses to Mr. Neal's interrogatories (Docket No. 38-2), and a transcript of the deposition of Mr. Neal (Docket No. 38-1).[1] In the Motion, Mr. Fort argues that Mr. Neal "lacks sufficient evidence to demonstrate elements essential to a case of negligence" and, therefore, cannot survive summary judgment on his claims. (Docket No. 39, p. 1.) Specifically, Mr. Fort argues that Mr. Neal cannot produce evidence sufficient to establish that (1) Mr. Fort breached any duty owed to Mr. Neal, or (2) any of Mr. Fort's conduct was "a cause in fact" of the accident. (Docket No. 40, pp. 1-2.) As support for these arguments, Mr. Fort cites Mr. Neal's deposition testimony, in which Mr. Neal testified that, although he distinctly recalls something coming into contact with the rear of his van shortly before he lost control of the vehicle, he did not see who or what it was. (Id. at p. 2 (citing Docket No. 38-1 (Dep. W. Neal), 57:8-21).) Mr. Fort argues that there exists no evidence of his alleged negligence other than the fact of the accident itself, and "negligence is never presumed from the mere fact of an accident or injury." (Id. at p. 5 (citing Armes v. Hulett, 843 S.W.2d 427, 432 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1992).) On August 9, 2016, Mr. Neal filed a Response in Opposition to Mr. Fort's motion (Docket No. 49), accompanied by a Response to Mr. Fort's Statement of Material Facts (Docket No. 49-1). In his Response, Mr. Neal argues that a reasonable fact finder could apply the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which allows for an inference of negligence when "the events which resulted in the plaintiffs injury do not ordinarily occur unless someone was negligent, " to support a finding that Mr. Fort was, in fact, negligent. (Docket No. 49, pp. 5-6 (quoting Seavers v. Methodist Med. Ctr. of Oak Ridge, 9 S.W.3d 86, 91 (Tenn. 1999)).) According to Mr. Neal, it is within the common knowledge of a potential juror that the type of injuries he sustained do not ordinarily occur absent negligence. (Id.) Moreover, "ample circumstantial evidence" in the record supports the inference that Mr. Fort negligently allowed his vehicle to strike Mr. Neal's van, causing Mr. Neal to lose control of the van and resulting in his injuries. (Id. at p. 6.)

         On August 22, 2016, Mr. Fort filed a Reply, in which he argues that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is inapplicable to this case, because it does not apply (1) when "specific acts of negligence are alleged and evidence in support those theories [is] presented and accepted, " or (2) if the plaintiffs injury could reasonably have occurred even without the defendant's alleged negligence. (Docket No. 50, p. 3 (citing Brown v. Univ. Nursing Home, Inc., 496 S.W.2d 503, 509 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1972)).) Mr. Fort then reiterates his argument that, because Mr. Neal "has testified he has no knowledge of who or what caused his accident, " he has insufficient proof of Mr. Fort's alleged negligence and cannot survive summary judgment. (Id. at pp. 4-5.)

         Mr. Fort also filed an Objection to Mr. Neal's Response to his Statement of Material Facts, arguing that certain of Mr. Neal's responses assert "argumentative" additional contentions that are not supported by specific citations to the record, in violation of Local Rule 56.01(c). (Docket No. 51.) It appears to the court that a portion of the challenged response is merely an attempt to correct Mr. Fort's characterization of Mr. Neal's deposition testimony, and the court does not find that Mr. Neal's failure to provide specific citations to support these arguments violates local rules. To the extent, however, that Mr. Neal has attempted to inject facts into his responses that are not adequately supported by citations to the record, the court will sustain Mr. Fort's objection and exclude those facts from its consideration of the pending motions.

         II. State Farm's Motion for Summary Judgment

         On July 15, 2016, State Farm filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 43), accompanied by a Memorandum of Law (Docket No. 44), a Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (Docket No. 45), and transcripts of the deposition testimony of Mr. Neal and two witnesses to the accident (Docket Nos. 46-2-46-4). In the Motion, State Farm argues that Mr. Neal cannot prevail on a negligence claim against any unknown motorist - which would implicate his uninsured motorist policy with State Farm - because he cannot meet the requirements of Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1201(e). (Docket No. 43.) According to State Farm, Mr. Neal has failed to meet the requirements of this statutory provision because he has insufficient proof of any actual physical contact between Mr. Neal's van and another vehicle or of the existence of an unknown motorist. (Docket No. 44, pp. 6-7.)

         On August 9, 2016, Mr. Neal filed a Response in Opposition to State Farm's Motion (Docket No. 48), accompanied by a Response to State Farm's Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (Docket No. 48-1) and a copy of Mr. Fort's responses to interrogatories (Docket No. 48-2). In his Response, Mr. Neal first notes that it is not he but, rather, Mr. Fort who should be opposing State Farm's motion. (Docket No. 48, pp. 1-2.) Citing Banks v. Elks Club Pride of Tenn. 1102, 301 S.W.3d 214, 220 (Tenn. 2010), Mr. Neal argues that, when a defendant adds a negligent third party as a defense to a plaintiffs claims, it is not the plaintiff but, rather, the defendant who is responsible for proving that the third party's negligence limits his liability. (Docket No. 48, pp. 3-4.) Mr. Fort first asserted the existence of an unknown, negligent motorist as an affirmative defense to Mr. Neal's claims, and it is, therefore, Mr. Fort who is responsible for proving the existence of this unknown motorist. (Id.) Mr. Neal further argues that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether it was Mr. Fort or an unknown motorist who struck the back of his van, which precludes any grant of summary judgment to State Farm. (Id. at pp. 6-7.)

         On August 24, 2016, State Farm filed a Reply, arguing that Mr. Neal amended his Complaint "to assert an uninsured motorist claim against State Farm, as his uninsured motorist carrier, " and its Motion for Summary Judgment against Mr. Neal, therefore, is directed at the appropriate party. (Docket No. 52, p. 1.) State Farm then reiterates its argument that Mr. Neal has insufficient evidence to meet Tennessee statutory requirements for claims against unknown motorists, because no one has testified as to the existence of an unknown motorist who acted negligently on January 3, 2015 or to any physical contact between an unknown motorist's vehicle and Mr. Neal's van. (Id. at pp. 2-4.)

         FACTS ...


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