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Hensley v. Bulk Transportation

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Eastern Division

June 4, 2014



KEITH STARRETT, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on three (3) Motions in Limine filed by the Defendants Bulk Transportation and Tracy Marbles: 1 - Motion in Limine (Evidence Related to the Death of the Canine Officer) [114]; 2 - Motion in Limine (Evidence or testimony regarding log books or alleged violations of FMCSR) [115]; and 3 - Motion in Limine (Comprehensive) [116]. Having considered the submissions of the parties, the record, and the applicable law, the Court finds as follows:

Relevant Background

On June 20, 2012, Plaintiff Christopher Hensley was injured in an automobile accident on Interstate 59 near Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Hensley, a criminal interdiction officer with the Hattiesburg Police Department, was driving a 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe in a southern direction along the right shoulder of the northbound lanes of the interstate when it collided with a northbound tractor-trailer operated by Defendant Tracy Marbles. Hensley was approaching a stranded vehicle located on the shoulder of the interstate at the time of the accident. Marbles was employed by Defendant Bulk Transportation at the time of the collision and was operating the tractor-trailer in the course and scope of his employment.

On January 10, 2013, Hensley and his wife, Laurin Hensley, filed suit against Bulk Transportation and Marbles in this Court. ( See Compl. [1].) Subject matter jurisdiction is asserted on the basis of diversity of citizenship under Title 28 U.S.C. § 1332. The Complaint alleges the following state law claims: negligence, negligent entrustment, outrage, and loss of consortium. On March 18, 2014, Plaintiffs' claim for negligent entrustment and request for punitive damages were dismissed with prejudice via an Agreed Order Granting Defendants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [113].

Standard of Review

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has provided the following guidance:

A motion in limine is a motion made prior to trial for the purpose of prohibiting opposing counsel from mentioning the existence of, alluding to, or offering evidence on matters so highly prejudicial to the moving party that a timely motion to strike or an instruction by the court to the jury to disregard the offending matter cannot overcome its prejudicial influence on the jurors' minds.

O'Rear v. Fruehauf Corp., 554 F.2d 1304, 1306 n.1 (5th Cir. 1977) (citation omitted). Further, numerous federal courts have found "that motions in limine may be used to secure a pretrial ruling that certain evidence is admissible." Bond Pharmacy, Inc. v. AnazaoHealth Corp., No. 3:11cv58, 2012 WL 3052902, at *2 (S.D.Miss. July 25, 2012) (citing cases).

Motion in Limine (Evidence Related to the Death of the Canine Officer) [114]

Nero, a Hattiesburg Police Department canine officer, was present in Hensley's vehicle at the time of the subject accident and died as a result of the accident. Defendants request an order from the Court "prohibiting Plaintiffs, their attorneys, and witnesses from making any mention of, reference to, comment on, or in any other way placing before the jury by reference, innuendo, comment, testing or other means, evidence of any kind which relates to the death of the canine officer...." (Mot. in Limine [114] at p. 1.) Defendants argue that the death of Nero is irrelevant to any issue remaining for trial, and that the probative value of the evidence, if any, is substantially outweighed by the dangers of unfair prejudice and confusion of the issues.

Plaintiffs chiefly argue that Nero's death is relevant to their claims for damages for emotional distress and mental anguish. "The evidence of Nero's death is directly correlated to the damages suffered by this young family and makes those damages more probable based on the loss of Christopher's work partner, best friend, pet and beloved family member, especially since the Hensleys do not yet have any children of their own." (Resp. to Mot. in Limine [117] at p. 4.) This relevance argument is not well taken.

Plaintiffs fail to cite any court opinion supporting their recovery of emotional distress damages based on the death of their pet, Nero. Further, the Court has not identified any Mississippi authority[1] providing that a claimant may recover damages for emotional distress/mental anguish arising from an injury to his or her pet.[2] The majority of courts outside of Mississippi that have considered the issue have held that plaintiffs are not entitled to such damages. See Strickland v. Medlen, 397 S.W.3d 184, 191-92 (Tex. 2013) (citing the Restatement of the Law of Torts and court opinions from the majority of states in holding that "we reject emotion-based liability and prohibit recovery for loss of the human-animal bond").[3] The rationale behind several opinions applying the majority rule is that pets are considered personal property, and sentimental or emotional loss is not a legally cognizable component of a property damage award. See, e.g., Scheele v. Dustin, 188 Vt. 36, 998 A.2d 697, 700 (¶ 9) (Vt. 2010) ("[O]ur case law is clear that noneconomic damages-as distinct from alternate means of valuing a pet's monetary worth-are not available in property actions."); Carbasho v. Musulin, 217 W.Va. 359, 618 S.E.2d 368, 371 (W.Va. 2005) (holding that dogs are personal property, and damages for sentimental value, emotional distress, and mental suffering are unavailable for the negligently inflicted death of a pet).

Damages for emotional distress arising from the negligent destruction of property are generally unavailable in Mississippi. See Miss. Tank Co. v. Roan, 254 Miss. 671, 182 So.2d 582, 584 (Miss. 1966) (finding the plaintiff's testimony concerning mental anguish due to the loss of his house to be incompetent). "In the early case of Greenwald v. Yazoo & M. V. R. Co., 115 Miss. 598, 76 So. 557, the court held that the market value of personal property destroyed [a blue-blooded hunting dog] was the proper measure of damage." Miss. Power Co. v. Harrison, 247 Miss. 400, 152 So.2d 892, 903 (Miss. 1963). This Court has failed to identify any subsequent Mississippi appellate decision classifying a dog in a different manner for purposes of calculating damages. This Court has also recognized that emotional distress damages are unavailable under Mississippi's wrongful death statute, [4] which obviously applies to humans. See Riley v. Ford Motor Co., No. 2:09cv148, 2011 WL 2516595, at *2 (S.D.Miss. June 23, 2011) (citing McGowan v. Estate of Wright, 524 So.2d 308, 311 (Miss. 1988); Bridges v. Enter. Prods. Co., 551 F.Supp.2d 549, 557 (S.D.Miss. 2008)). The Court thus ventures an Erie guess and finds that Mississippi courts would follow the majority rule and not authorize the recovery of emotional distress damages in connection with the death of a pet, i.e., an animal. Cf. William A. Reppy, Jr., Punitive Damage Awards in Pet-Death Cases: How Do the Ratio Rules of State Farm v. Campbell Apply?, ...

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