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Riggio v. Pruneda

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

November 15, 2019

DUSTIN RIGGIO, individually, and in his representative capacity as Administrator of the Estate of Kim Mills, deceased, and on behalf of all wrongful death beneficiaries of Kim Mills, deceased PLAINTIFF



         BEFORE THE COURT are four fully briefed summary judgment motions in this vehicle accident wrongful death case: the [165] Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant Werner Enterprises, Inc.; the [177] Motion for Partial Summary Judgment filed by Defendants Israel Pruneda and SMC Transport, LLC; the [179] Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on punitive damages filed by Israel Pruneda and SMC Transport, LLC; and the [184] Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Plaintiff Dustin Riggio. Because these motions involve common issues of law and fact, they are resolved together. After due consideration, the Court concludes that Werner's Motion should be granted and Riggio's claims against Werner dismissed; Pruneda and SMC's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment should be granted; Pruneda and SMC's Motion regarding punitive damages should be granted; and Riggio's Motion for Summary Judgment should be granted in part and denied in part.


         Kim Wells tragically died from injuries she received when the Toyota Prius she was driving rear-ended a tractor-trailer being driven by Israel Pruneda on I-59 in Pearl River County, Mississippi. The accident occurred at 5 p.m. on October 3, 2017, a day when the road was dry, and the weather was clear. Pruneda, an employee of Defendant SMC Transport, LLC, allegedly “either slowed dramatically or stopped” his tractor-trailer in the right lane of I-59, “creating a road hazard and a danger immediately prior to” the impact. (Am. Compl. 8, ECF No. 5.) Plaintiff Riggio alleges that the trailer Pruneda was hauling “did not have adequate safeguards to prevent vehicle-underrun, ” and the rear impact guard failed on impact, resulting in Wells' death. (Id.) Riggio alleges that Defendant Werner Enterprises, Inc. owned the trailer, but that Werner, SMC Transport, and Pruneda all “exercised control over, outfitted and repaired” the trailer. (Id.) Riggio brings claims of negligence against each defendant, seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

         Riggio moves for summary judgment as to certain of the defendants' affirmative defenses. The defendants have confessed portions of this motion but oppose it in part. Werner moves for summary judgment on the basis that Riggio has failed to show evidence that 1) the trailer was inadequately maintained, 2) the alleged inadequate maintenance was the proximate cause of the rear impact guard's failure, or 3) the failure of the rear impact guard was the proximate cause of Mills' death. Pruneda and SMC Transport move for summary judgment on the issues of negligent entrustment, negligent hiring, negligent retention, negligent training, and negligent supervision because SMC has confessed its employer/employee relationship with Pruneda. Additionally, Pruneda and SMC request summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages.


         1. The Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is granted when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Kemp v. Holder, 610 F.3d 231, 234 (5th Cir. 2010) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). The burden of production at trial ultimately rests on the nonmovant and the movant must merely show an absence of evidentiary support in the record for the nonmovant's case. Cuadra v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 626 F.3d 808, 812 (5th Cir. 2010). The nonmoving party must then come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. The Court must draw justifiable inferences in favor of the nonmovant, provided there is sufficient evidence to draw the inference. State Farm Life Ins. Co. v. Gutterman, 896 F.2d 116, 118 (5th Cir. 1990). There is no issue for trial unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

         2. Pruneda and SMC's Motion on Punitive Damages

         Pruneda and SMC move for summary judgment as to Riggio's claim for punitive damages, contending that this simply is not a punitive damages case; the facts support no more than ordinary negligence claims. In response, Riggio argues that by 1) stopping his truck on the interstate, and 2) failing to inspect and repair the trailer, Pruneda was reckless and grossly negligent.

         Under Mississippi law, the recovery of punitive damages is disfavored and permitted only in extreme cases. See Life & Cas. Ins. Co. of Tenn. v. Bristow, 529 So.2d 620, 622 (Miss. 1988) (Mississippi law does not favor punitive damages; they are considered an extraordinary remedy and allowed with caution and within narrow limits. “[S]imple negligence is not of itself evidence sufficient to support punitive damages but accompanying facts and circumstances may be used to show that portion of defendant's conduct which constituted proximate cause of the accident was willful and wanton or grossly negligent. Choctaw Maid Farms, Inc. v. Hailey, 822 So.2d 911, 924 (Miss. 2002) (citations omitted).

         In regard to his inspection of the trailer, Pruneda testified that he was required to conduct a multipoint inspection before hauling a trailer and each day of hauling the trailer. The inspection included the rear impact guard, to make sure it was “not dented or anything within and has the reflector tapes on it.” (Pruneda Dep. 66, ECF No. 179-2.) He would usually use the rear impact guard as a ladder, “so, if it could hold me it's pretty steady on there. . .. So, I make sure it's secured on there right . . ..” (Id. at 67.) When he inspected the rear impact guard of the trailer he was hauling on the day of the accident, he noticed “mild” rust, but “it wasn't too bad. It wasn't to the point where it would get out of service.” (Id. at 122.) When he stepped on the rear impact guard “it would feel good. Feel strong.” (Id. at 123.)

         In regard to events leading up to the accident, Pruneda testified that as he approached a weigh station shortly after entering Mississippi, he was speaking to his wife through a Bluetooth headset. He noticed a couple of cars, an emergency vehicle with flashing lights and people standing at the side of the interstate close to the weigh station entrance. (Pruneda Dep. 50, 56, ECF No. 179-2.) He “was under no circumstances going to go into the weight station having that emergency there.” (Id. at 51.) He instead disengaged his cruise control by tapping on the brake, let the truck slow by letting off on the gas, and put on his emergency flashers. (Id. at 51, 58.) Pruneda wanted to move to the left lane to give the emergency vehicles “that right of way, the respect they deserve, ” but there was swiftly moving traffic preventing him from doing so. (Id.) When Pruneda put his emergency flashers on he checked his mirrors and noticed a small red SUV behind him also slow down. (Id. at 52.) He estimated his speed as he passed the weigh station entrance was about thirty to fifty miles per hour. (Id. at 55.) Pruneda “pressed on the gas pedal as soon as I was about to pass them already, so as soon as I put the - to accelerate, I - that's when I had to [sic] hit.” (Id. at 52).

         The Picayune Police Department traffic officer who was working the first accident at the weigh station entrance - “a simple fender bender” - also testified. (Wagner Dep. 17, ECF No. 179-3.) When Officer Wagner first arrived, he pulled his police car as far to the right as possible because traffic was so heavy that many drivers in the right lane could not move to the left lane to yield the right of way to his vehicle.[1] (Id. at 12.) But drivers were “slowing down as best as they could to yield for my police car.” (Id.) Officer Wagner's diagram of the scene shows his police car and another vehicle in the triangle created where the weigh station entrance lane leaves the interstate. (Id. at 13-14; Def. Mot. Ex. A, at 2, ECF No. 179-1.) He had been there about fifteen minutes when Mills' car hit Pruneda's tractor trailer. (Id. at 10.) Officer Wagner was standing on the driver's side of the fender bender vehicle, leaning over the hood and reading off the VIN into his microphone. (Id. at 23, 24.) He heard tires squealing and “immediately turned and looked toward the highway thinking I might be struck by a vehicle to try to determine where the sound was coming from. I looked at the highway in enough time to see the car hit the back of the trailer.” Officer Wagner was so close to the accident that glass hit him in the face. (Id. at 23.) He estimated that Pruneda was traveling at thirty to forty miles per hour, while Mills was traveling “closer to the speed limit, 70.” (Id. at 34-35, 45.)

         Three of the people involved in the fender bender accident also testified. Becky Lampp stated that while she and the other people involved in the accident were standing nearby talking, she noticed that

[a] semi approached right near where we were and came to a complete stop, and I commented to my husband and the man in the pickup truck, “Why is there a semi completely stopped on the interstate?” And I said “He's not even stopped. He's in park, ” because his brake lights were off and that just - that's not something you see everyday and I noticed it, because it was very close to where we were. After I made that comment my husband started to turn around, and the officer as well, and then we watched the Prius hit the semi.

(Becky Lampp Dep. 25, ECF No. 200-5.) She did not recall hearing any noise, such as tires squealing, prior to the impact. (Id. at 26, 27.)

         Thomas Lampp testified that he heard his wife say,

“Well, why is that 18-wheeler coming to a stop?” and right as I turned the woman had already hit the vehicle, had hit the 18-wheeler, and as I had turned the windows were blowing out she had hit it so hard . . . . The truck was at a dead stop in the right-hand lane.

(Thomas Lampp Dep. 15-16, ECF No. 200-7.) He did not hear Pruneda's truck go by or “air brakes or anything like that from the 18-wheeler.” (Id. at 21.) He also did not hear any squealing tires or any other sound that indicated braking had occurred prior to the impact. (Id. at 52.)

         Caleb Colletti, the driver who rear-ended the Lampp vehicle, described “kind of bumper to bumper” traffic passing by them at somewhere between ten and twenty miles an hour as Officer Wagner investigated their accident at the side of the ...

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