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Vogel v. Morpas

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 9, 2017

BERNARD VOGEL, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
WENDY MORPAS, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RICHARD D. BENNETT, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs Bernard Vogel, individually and as a personal representative of the estate of Jean Vogel, Thomas Vogel, Meredith Vogel, and Audrey Vogel (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) bring this diversity action against Defendants Wendy Morpas (“Morpas”), Navigation, Inc., Navigation Group, Inc. (collectively “Navigation”), and Midlink Logistics, LLC (“Midlink”) (collectively, “Defendants”), stemming from a motor vehicle accident involving Defendant Morpas and Jean Vogel. Currently pending before this Court is Defendant Midlink's Motion to Dismiss Counts IV, V and VII of the Complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim for relief. (ECF No. 14.) The parties' submissions have been reviewed and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2014). For the reasons that follow, Defendant Midlink's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 14) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Specifically, it is GRANTED as to the wrongful death action under Michigan law (Count VII) and DENIED as to the survival and wrongful death actions under Maryland law (Counts IV and V).

         BACKGROUND

         This Court accepts as true the facts alleged in Plaintiffs' complaint. See Aziz v. Alcolac, Inc., 658 F.3d 388, 390 (4th Cir. 2011). Defendant Midlink, a Michigan corporation, brokers shipping contracts for the interstate transportation of goods. (Compl., ECF No. 2 at ¶¶ 7-8.) On or around February 16, 2016, Midlink entered into a “Load Confirmation and Payment Agreement” (the “Agreement”) for Defendant Navigation to provide transportation and/or trucking services for Peterson Farms, a client of Midlink. (Id. at ¶ 29; ECF No. 20-2.) The Agreement provided that Defendant Navigation would transport produce from Hart, Michigan to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Id. at ¶ 29; ECF No. 20-2.) In addition, the Agreement stated that Defendant Navigation would make six intermediate stops between Michigan and Pennsylvania, including two stops in Maryland. (Id. at ¶ 29; ECF No. 20-2.) To execute the job, Defendant Navigation hired Defendant Morpas to drive a large, loaded eighteen-wheeler tractor trailer. (ECF No. 2 at ¶¶ 17, 27.) While Defendant Morpas was driving on Kate Wagner Road in Carroll County, Maryland, he went through a flashing red light at a high rate of speed without stopping or slowing down. (Id. at ¶ 18.) The tractor trailer struck Jean Vogel's vehicle which had been approaching the intersection with Kate Wagner Road, ultimately causing the vehicle to catch on fire and Jean Vogel's death.[1] (Id. at ¶¶ 17-19.)

         On July 31, 2017, Plaintiffs filed the instant action in the Circuit Court for Carroll County, Maryland, bringing the following causes of action: survival action under Maryland law against all Defendants for negligence (Counts I, III, IV); survival action under Maryland law against Defendant Navigation for respondent superior liability for the actions of Defendant Morpas (Count II); wrongful death action under Maryland law against all Defendants (Count V); wrongful death action under Illinois law against Defendant Navigation (Count VI); and wrongful death against under Michigan law against Defendant Midlink (Count VII). Defendants removed the case to this Court based on diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1441. (ECF No. 1.) Currently pending before this Court is Defendant Midlink's Motion to Dismiss those Counts in which it is named, specifically, Counts IV, V, and VII, for lack of personal jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. (ECF No. 14.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         I. Motion to Dismiss Under Rule 12(b)(2)

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for lack of personal jurisdiction challenges a court's authority to exercise its jurisdiction over the moving party. Combs v. Bakker, 886 F.2d 673, 676 (4th Cir. 1989). The jurisdictional question is “one for the judge, with the burden on the plaintiff ultimately to prove the existence of a ground for jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence.” Id.; Sigala v. ABR of VA, Inc., 145 F.Supp.3d 486, 489 (D. Md. 2014). While a court may hold an evidentiary hearing or permit discovery as to the jurisdictional issue, it also may resolve the issue on the basis of the complaint, motion papers, affidavits, and other supporting legal memoranda. Consulting Eng'rs Corp. v. Geometric Ltd., 561 F.3d 273, 276 (4th Cir. 2009); see also Sigala, 145 F.Supp.3d at 489.

         If a court does not hold an evidentiary hearing or permit discovery, a plaintiff need only make “a prima facie showing of a sufficient jurisdictional basis to survive the jurisdictional challenge.” Consulting Eng'rs Corp., 561 F.3d at 276. When considering whether the plaintiff has made the requisite showing, “the court must take all disputed facts and reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.” Carefirst of Maryland, Inc. v. Carefirst Pregnancy Ctrs., Inc., 334 F.3d 390, 396 (4th Cir. 2003). Notably, “‘a threshold prima facie finding that personal jurisdiction is proper does not finally settle the issue; plaintiff must eventually prove the existence of personal jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence, either at trial or at a pretrial evidentiary hearing.'” New Wellington Fin. Corp. v. Flagship Resort Dev. Corp., 416 F.3d 290, 294 n. 5 (4th Cir. 2005) (emphasis in original) (citation omitted).

         II. Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes the dismissal of a complaint if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The purpose of Rule 12(b)(6) is “to test the sufficiency of a complaint and not to resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006); see also Goines v. Valley Cmty. Servs. Bd., 822 F.3d 159, 165-66 (4th Cir. 2016). The sufficiency of a complaint is assessed by reference to the pleading requirements of Rule 8(a)(2), which provides that a complaint must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must contain facts sufficient to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 684, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). Under the plausibility standard, a complaint must contain “more than labels and conclusions” or a “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; Painter's Mill Grille, LLC v. Brown, 716 F.3d 342, 350 (4th Cir. 2013). In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court “‘must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint'” and must “‘draw all reasonable inferences [from those facts] in favor of the plaintiff.'” E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435, 440 (4th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted); see Houck v. Substitute Tr. Servs., Inc., 791 F.3d 473, 484 (4th Cir. 2015); Semenova v. Maryland Transit Admin., 845 F.3d 564, 567 (4th Cir. 2017).

         ANALYSIS

         I. Maryland has personal jurisdiction over Defendant Midlink

         Before a court can exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant, a court must determine that (1) the exercise of jurisdiction is authorized under the state's long-arm statute pursuant to Rule 4(k)(1)(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; and (2) the exercise of jurisdiction conforms to the Fourteenth Amendment's due process requirements. Carefirst, 334 F.3d at 396; Sigala, 145 F.Supp. at 489. Defendant Midlink argues that Plaintiff has not met either prong of the personal jurisdiction analysis.

         When interpreting the reach of Maryland's long-arm statute, Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc., § 6-103(b), a federal district court must adhere to the interpretations of the Maryland Court of Appeals. See Tulkoff Food Prod., Inc. v. Martin, No. ELH-17-350, 2017 WL 2909250, at *4 (D. Md. July 7, 2017) (citing Carbone v. Deutsche Bank Nat'l Trust Co., No. RDB-15-1963, 2016 WL 4158534, at *5 (D. Md. Aug. 5, 2016); Snyder v. Hampton Indus., Inc., 521 F.Supp. 130 (D. Md. 1981), aff'd, 758 F.2d 649 (4th Cir. 1985)). To satisfy the long-arm prong of a personal jurisdiction analysis, a plaintiff must specifically identify a provision in the Maryland statute that authorizes jurisdiction. Ottenheimer Publishers, Inc. v. Playmore, Inc., 158 F.Supp.2d 649, 652 (D. Md. 2001). While it is preferable that a plaintiff identify the statute authorizing jurisdiction in its complaint, the plaintiff alternatively may reference the applicable statute in its response to a defendant's motion to dismiss. Johansson Corp. v. Bowness Constr. Co., 304 F.Supp.2d 701, 704 n.1 (D. Md. 2004).

         Although Maryland courts “have consistently held that the state's long-arm statute is coextensive with the limits of personal jurisdiction set out by the Due Process Clause of the Constitution, ” Carefirst, 334 F.3d at 396, courts must address both prongs of the personal jurisdiction analysis. Metro. Reg'l Info. Sys., Inc. v. American Home Realty Network, Inc., 888 F.Supp.2d 691, 699 (D. Md. 2012); CSR, Ltd. V. Taylor, 411 Md. 457, 475-76 (2009) (explaining that if exercising “jurisdiction in a given case would violate Due Process, [Maryland courts] construe our long-arm statute as not authorizing the exercise of personal jurisdiction over the defendant” (internal citations omitted)). Under the second prong, courts must determine whether the exercise of personal jurisdiction would comport with the due process requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment. For a non-resident defendant, “due process requires only that . . . a defendant . . . have certain minimum contacts . . . such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” Int'l Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945) (quoting Milliken v. Meyer, 311 U.S. 457, 463 (1940)). A “minimum contacts” determination rests on the number and relationship of a defendant's contacts to the forum state, as well as whether the present cause of action stems from the defendant's alleged acts or omissions in the forum state. Id.

         Thus, a court may exercise two types of personal jurisdiction: “‘general' (sometimes called ‘all-purpose') jurisdiction and ‘specific' (sometimes called ‘case-linked') jurisdiction.” Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, San Francisco Cty., 137 S.Ct. 1773 (2017). General jurisdiction arises when a defendant has continuous and systematic contacts in the forum state. Id. at 1780. On the other hand, specific jurisdiction arises when there is an “affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy.” Id.; Carefirst, 334 F.3d at 397. Regardless of which jurisdiction is asserted, the general rule is that “the exercise of judicial power is not lawful unless the defendant ‘purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws.'” J. McIntyre Mach., Ltd. V. Nicastro, 564 U.S. 873, 877, 131 S.Ct. 2780, 2785 (2011) (quoting Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 253, 78 S.Ct. 1288 (1958)).

         A. Maryland's long-arm statute authorizes the exercise of personal jurisdiction

         Beginning with the first prong of the personal jurisdiction analysis, Plaintiff relies on two provisions of the ...


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