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Littlejohn v. Werner Enterprises, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

June 2, 2015

GARY and PATRICIA LITTLEJOHN, as Co-Administrators of the ESTATE of CHRISTOPHER LITTLEJOHN, deceased, Plaintiffs,


SHARION AYCOCK, District Judge.

Plaintiffs Gary Littlejohn and Patricia Littlejohn, acting as co-administrators of the Estate of Christopher Littlejohn, commenced this personal injury action to recover compensatory and punitive damages from Defendants Clive Carvey and Werner Enterprises, Inc. ("Werner"). Werner has filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [51]. Upon consideration of the motion, responses, rules, and authorities, the Court finds as follows:

Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiffs allege that in January 2014, Defendant Clive Carvey was operating a Freightliner truck owned by Defendant Werner on U.S. Highway 72 in Tishomingo County, Mississippi. Plaintiffs contend that Carvey drove the truck past the weigh station for Iuka, Mississippi, and then stopped and reversed in regular lanes of traffic, "seemingly to go back to the weigh station." Plaintiffs further allege that, as Carvey was backing his vehicle up, Christopher Littlejohn's vehicle collided with the rear of Carvey's vehicle, fatally injuring Littlejohn.

Plaintiffs brought suit in this Court, pursuing theories of negligence, gross negligence, and wantonness against both Carvey and Werner, as well as negligent hiring, negligent training, and negligent supervision against Werner. Plaintiffs have also alleged that, "[a]s principal of Defendant Carvey, " Werner is responsible for Carvey's conduct arising "within the scope of his agency...."

Werner filed the pending Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [51], urging the Court to dismiss any of Plaintiffs' claims against Werner for punitive damages that may be predicated solely on its vicarious liability for Carvey's conduct.

Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is warranted under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when the evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The rule "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, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A party may seek summary judgment on an entire claim or part of a claim. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a).

The party moving for summary judgment "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The nonmoving party must then "go beyond the pleadings" and "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (citation omitted). In reviewing the evidence, factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the nonmovant, "but only when... both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts." Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc). However, conclusory allegations, speculation, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic arguments have never constituted an adequate substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James of Wash., 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2002); SEC v. Recile, 10 F.3d 1093, 1097 (5th Cir. 1997); Little, 37 F.3d at 1075.

Discussion and Analysis

The Mississippi punitive damages statute, effective July 1, 1993, provides in part:

Punitive damages may not be awarded if the claimant does not prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant against whom punitive damages are sought acted with actual malice, gross negligence which evidences a willful, wanton or reckless disregard for the safety of others, or committed actual fraud.

MISS. CODE. ANN. § 11-1-65(1)(a). The Mississippi Supreme Court has explained that the types of conduct giving rise to punitive damages "import insult, fraud, or oppression and not merely injuries, but injuries inflicted in the spirit of wanton disregard for the rights of others." Bradfield v. Schwartz, 936 So.2d 931, 936 (Miss. 2006) (quoting Summers ex rel. Dawson v. St. Andrew's Episcopal Sch., Inc., 759 So.2d 1203, 1215 (Miss. 2000)).

Importantly, the statute specifies that conduct warranting punitive damages must belong to the "defendant against whom punitive damages are sought...." MISS. CODE ANN. § 11-1-65(1)(a). Conversely, a vicarious liability claim under the doctrine of respondeat superior "is a derivative claim arising solely out of the... conduct of [the defendant's] employee within the scope of his or her employment." Crawford Logging, Inc. v. Estate of Irving, 41 So.3d 687, 690 (Miss. 2010) (quoting J & J Timber Co. v. Broome, 932 So.2d 1 (Miss. 2006)) (emphasis added). ...

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