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Steinberg v. Luedtke Trucking, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Winchester Division

May 31, 2018



          Leon Jordan, United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [doc. 63], Defendant's Brief [doc. 64], Defendant's Statement of Undisputed Facts [doc. 65], Plaintiff's Response [doc. 69], and Defendant's Reply [doc. 70]. For the reasons herein, the Court will reserve ruling on Defendant's motion in part and deny the remainder of the motion.

         I. Background

         After attending the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, Plaintiff Rivka C. Steinberg traveled with her friends to a truck plaza alongside the interstate. [Pl.'s Dep., doc. 69-1, at 17:2-13].[1] They decided to camp out in a field behind the truck plaza for the night. [Id. at 17:12-13]. Ms. Steinberg's friends offered a bottle of beer to her, and as she consumed it, she became dizzy, lost control over her body, and blacked out. [Id. at 17:13-16; 18:13-19, 22-24].

         During that same night, Mr. Randal Luedtke, a commercial truck driver, was en route to Tennessee from Florida, and when he arrived in Tennessee, he pulled his tractor-trailer into the truck plaza in Manchester-the same truck plaza where Ms. Steinberg was present for the night. [Luedtke Dep., doc. 65-1, at 46:15-25; 47:1-8]. He slept for several hours in his truck. [Id. at 48:24-25; 49:1-2]. When he woke at 3:00 a.m., he completed paperwork, and around 6:00 a.m., he placed his truck in gear. [Id. at 51:3-18]. According to his account, he backed up to reposition his truck into a “nice spot, ” [id. at 51:23], [2]planning to “go inside the truck stop and get some coffee, use the restroom, and do a pre-trip inspection before hitting the road, ” [Def.'s Undisputed Facts ¶ 2].

         The sound of the moving truck stirred Ms. Steinberg to consciousness-at which point she realized that she was not in the field anymore but, somehow, was now lying underneath the rear of Mr. Luedtke's truck. [Pl.'s Dep. at 17:17-18; 20:11-15]. As the truck's rear tire approached her, she was unable to avoid it, and it ran over and mangled her leg. [Id. at 17:17-21; 20:11-15, 17-18]. After hearing a noise, Mr. Luedtke looked in his side-view mirror and, for the first time, saw Ms. Steinberg “sitting on the roadway back there, which [he] didn't know was a roadway.” [Luedtke Dep. at 52:2-4].[3] He phoned 911, and she was airlifted to a hospital, where she had emergency surgery on her leg. [Id. at 52:19-24; 53:23; Pl.'s Dep. at 34:21-25; 35:1-9]. She was hospitalized for more than a month. [Pl.'s Dep. at 35:22-25].

         Ms. Steinberg now believes that the beer she drank that night might have been laced with a drug, possibly a “roofie.” [Id. at 18:1-5]. Between drinking the beer and regaining consciousness underneath Mr. Luedtke's truck, she has no memory of anything that happened. [Id. at 18:22-24]. She has “no idea” how she went from being in the field to lying under the truck. [Id. at 19:3-5]. And on the morning of the incident, she could not locate her friends, who had apparently vanished. [Id. at 19:6-18].

         Ms. Steinberg now brings suit in this Court against Defendant Luedtke Trucking, Inc., claiming that through Mr. Luedtke, its employee and agent, it had a duty to ensure that “there were no hazards presented to others” before he operated his truck on the morning of the incident. [Am. Compl, doc. 43, ¶ 8]. Her claims against Luedtke Trucking include one for negligence and one for negligence per se. [Id. at 3-4]. Luedtke Trucking now moves for summary judgment.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is proper when the moving party shows, or “point[s] out to the district court, ” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986), that the record-the admissions, affidavits, answers to interrogatories, declarations, depositions, or other materials-is without a genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The moving party has the initial burden of identifying the basis for summary judgment and the portions of the record that lack genuine issues of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The moving party discharges that burden by showing “an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's” claim or defense, id. at 325, at which point the nonmoving party, to survive summary judgment, must identify facts in the record that create a genuine issue of material fact, id. at 324.

         Not just any factual dispute will defeat a motion for summary judgment-the requirement is “that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is “material” if it may affect the outcome of the case under the applicable substantive law, id., and an issue is “genuine” if the evidence is “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. In short, the inquiry is whether the record contains evidence that “presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 251-52. When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the facts and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). “[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.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. A court may also resolve pure questions of law on a motion for summary judgment. See Hill v. Homeward Residential, Inc., 799 F.3d 544, 550 (6th Cir. 2015).

         III. Analysis

         In requesting summary judgment, Luedtke Trucking argues that it did not owe a legal duty of care to Ms. Steinberg as a matter of law and that the record shows it was not the proximate cause of her injury. [Def.'s Br. at 9-21]. Luedtke Trucking also contends that under the doctrine of comparative fault, no reasonable jury could conclude that it was more than fifty percent at fault for Ms. Steinberg's injury. [Id. at 21-24].

         Before the Court begins its analysis, it will address a fervently contested issue between the parties: whether the record shows, beyond a genuine issue of material fact, that Mr. Luedtke inspected his truck or the area surrounding it before reversing it. The parties' dispute on this issue centers mostly around whether Mr. Luedtke performed a pre-trip inspection, [Def.'s Br. at 20-21; Pl.'s Resp. at 6; Def.'s Reply at 4]-a type of inspection he conducts before retaking the road, [Luedtke Dep. at 5:10-15, 29:2-5]. This inspection includes, among other things, a walk-around of the truck, a checkup of the tires to ensure they are free from obstructions, and an examination of the area underneath the truck for leaks. [Id. at 6:25; 7:1-3; 30:10-22].

         But Ms. Steinberg also appears to contend that Mr. Luedtke breached a legal duty because he performed no inspection at all-pre-trip or otherwise-before moving the truck: “Mr. Luedtke violated accepted industry standard . . . by failing to conduct any inspection prior to moving the truck. [B]acking a 64 foot tractor trailer without visually inspecting the area is a violation of due care.” [Pl.'s Resp. at 10 n.53 (emphasis added) (quoting Philbrick Decl., doc. 69-6, ¶ 21)]. In this vein, Ms. Steinberg contends that the record shows Mr. Luedtke did not exit the cab of his truck for any reason in the hours leading up to the incident. [Def.'s Resp. at 6]. Mr. Luedtke, however, argues that “[t]here is simply no evidence that the Defendant ever left the truck stop without doing a pre-trip inspection.” [Def.'s Reply at 4].

         Although the record is unclear as to whether Mr. Luedtke performed a pre-trip inspection before leaving the truck plaza for good, it is clear that he performed no inspection of any kind before reversing his truck onto Ms. Steinberg's leg. Mr. Luedtke testified that, except maybe to use the restroom, he did not recall exiting his cab between the time he parked his truck in the evening and the time he repositioned it the following morning. [Luedtke Dep. at 23:11-17]. He also admits that he did not perform a pre-trip inspection between this timeframe and instead planned to do it after he repositioned his truck. [Def.'s Undisputed Facts ¶ 2]. The record therefore establishes, beyond a genuine issue of material fact, that Mr. Luedtke did not inspect his truck or the area around it before reversing it and injuring Ms. Steinberg.

         A. Negligence: Legal Duty of Care

         As a general rule, people have a duty to refrain from acts that would create an unreasonable risk of harm to others. Satterfield v. Breeding Insulation, Co., 266 S.W.3d 347, 355 (Tenn. 2008).[4] Negligence is conduct that violates a person's duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid acts that create an unreasonable risk of harm to others. Banks v. Elks Club Pride of Tenn. 1102, 301 S.W.3d 214, 226 (Tenn. 2010). To establish a negligence claim, a plaintiff has to show that (1) the defendant owed a legal duty of care to him; (2) the defendant breached that duty of care by engaging in behavior that fell below the applicable standard of care; (3) an injury or loss; (4) cause in fact; and (5) proximate cause. Giggers v. Memphis Hous. Auth., 277 S.W.3d 359, 364 (Tenn. 2009).

         Luedtke Trucking argues it is entitled to summary judgment on Ms. Steinberg's negligence claim because Ms. Steinberg cannot establish the first element-that it owed her a duty of care. [Def.'s Br. at 12]. According to Luedtke Trucking, Ms. Steinberg is trying to establish a legal duty “that would require a person operating a vehicle to look underneath it to see if there are any sleeping human beings, ” and “no precedent could be located under Tennessee law . . . establishing that such a duty exists.” [Id. at 15-16]. To buttress this argument, Luedtke Trucking also points out that in Tennessee “[n]o law prohibits a truck driver from repositioning his truck to properly conduct a pre-trip inspection.” [Def.'s Reply at 4-5]. Ms. Steinberg responds by entreating the Court to reject Luedtke Trucking's argument, faulting Luedtke ...

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