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White v. Date Trucking, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 1, 2018

GARTH WHITE, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
DATE TRUCKING, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Ellen Lipton Hollander United States District Judge

         In this tort case, Garth White, Jr. has sued Date Trucking, LLC (“Date Trucking”), alleging that he suffered severe injuries as a result of Date Trucking's negligence. ECF 2 (Complaint).[1] In particular, plaintiff alleges that while he was working as a yard jockey in Perryville, Maryland, on December 19, 2013, an “unsecured load bar” fell out of a tractor-trailer and knocked him unconscious. Id. Plaintiff maintains that defendant was responsible for the tractor-trailer, and that defendant's negligence caused his injuries. Id. ¶¶ 5, 12.

         Now pending are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Plaintiff moves for partial summary judgment on the issue of whether the driver of the truck, Kevin Grantland, was an employee of Date Trucking at the relevant time, under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (“FMCSR”), 49 C.F.R. § 390.5. ECF 37 (“White Motion”). The White Motion is supported by four exhibits. Date Trucking opposes the White Motion, and has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. ECF 40. Date Trucking's combined opposition and cross-motion is supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 40-1) (collectively, “Date Trucking Motion”) and six exhibits. The Date Trucking Motion asserts that Date Trucking is not liable for the actions of Grantland, either under the doctrine of “logo liability” or the common law theory of respondeat superior. ECF 40-1. White opposes the Date Trucking Motion, and replied in support of the White Motion. ECF 43 (“White Reply”). Date Trucking replied in support of the Date Trucking Motion. ECF 44 (“Date Trucking Reply”).

         No hearing is necessary to resolve the motions. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, I shall grant the White Motion, and I shall deny the Date Trucking Motion.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The facts underlying the case are largely undisputed. Plaintiff worked as a yard jockey at Perryville Cold Storage. ECF 40-3 (Deposition of Garth White, Jr.) at 3. As a yard jockey, plaintiff's job was to “put trailers to the docks and take them away from the docks and put them in the yard.” Id. at 4. On December 19, 2013, at about 9:15 P.M., plaintiff “opened the swing doors” on a trailer and “a load lock fell from the trailer and struck him in the head.” ECF 37-2 (Personal Injury Statement) at 1. A “load lock, ” or “load bar, ” is “a 20-poud metal bar that secure[s] the load” inside a trailer. ECF 40-3 at 12. Plaintiff was knocked unconscious and, after he came to, he was taken by paramedics to a shock trauma center. ECF 37-2 at 1.

         The tractor trailer in question was leased to Date Trucking by Kevin F. Grantland, Inc. (“KFG”), pursuant to a “Motor Vehicle Lease And Agreement.” ECF 40-6 at 2-4 (“Lease Agreement”); see also ECF 37-2 at 1; ECF 37-3 (Bill of Lading). On the date in question, December 19, 2013, it had been driven by Kevin Grantland to Perryville Cold Storage in advance of being loaded with frozen vegetables for a delivery the next day. ECF 40-5 (Deposition of Dolores Long, principal of Date Trucking) at 10. Grantland was driving on behalf of KFG, which owned the trailer. ECF 37-1 (Deposition of Kevin Grantland) at 3, p.6; ECF 40-6. However, Grantland was not present at the time of the injury to plaintiff. ECF 40-3 at 13.

         The Lease Agreement between KFG and Date Trucking provides that KFG is an independent contractor to Date Trucking. Id. at 2. However, KFG operated under Date Trucking's Department of Transportation (“DOT”) authority, meaning that for all deliveries Date Trucking was the licensed motor carrier. See ECF 37-1 at 4, p.13. KFG received 85% of the net revenue from the transportation contracts fulfilled by Date Trucking and carried by KFG; Date Trucking received 15%. ECF 40-6; ECF 37-1 at 4, p.11.

         Just under three years after White was injured, White filed suit against Date Trucking in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. See ECF 2. Date Trucking removed the case to this Court. See ECF 1. Following some discovery, plaintiff (represented by new counsel, see ECF 22) sought to amend his Complaint to add Grantland and KFG as defendants. ECF 31. The Court denied the motion to amend as futile, on the ground that the claims against the new defendants were time-barred. ECF 35. One week later, plaintiff filed the White Motion. ECF 37.[2]

         Additional facts are included in the discussion.

         II. Legal Standard

         Both parties have moved for partial summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Under Rule 56(a), summary judgment is appropriate only “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-24 (1986); see also Iraq Middle Mkt. Dev. Found. v. Harmoosh, 848 F.3d 235, 238 (4th Cir. 2017) (“A court can grant summary judgment only if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the case presents no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party demonstrates entitlement to judgment as a matter of law.”). The non-moving party must demonstrate that there are disputes of material fact so as to preclude the award of summary judgment as a matter of law. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585-86 (1986).

         The Supreme Court has clarified that not every factual dispute will defeat the motion. “By its very terms, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported 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, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Id. at 248. There is a genuine issue as to material fact “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id; see Sharif v. United Airlines, Inc., 841 F.3d 199, 204 (4th Cir. 2016); Raynor v. Pugh, 817 F.3d 123, 130 (4th Cir. 2016).

         “A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment ‘may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [its] pleadings, ' but rather must ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (alteration in Bouchat) (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)), cert. denied, 541 U.S. 1042 (2004); see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-24. Moreover, in resolving a summary judgment motion, a court must view all of the facts, including reasonable inferences to be drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. Ltd., 475 U.S. at 587; accord Roland v. United States Citizenship & Immigration Servs., 850 F.3d 625, 628 (4th Cir. 2017); FDIC v. Cashion, 720 F.3d 169, 173 (4th Cir. 2013). However, summary judgment is appropriate if the evidence “is so one- sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. And, “the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Id.

         The judge's “function” in reviewing a motion for summary judgment is not “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; accord Guessous v. Fairview Prop. Inv., LLC, 828 F.3d 208, 216 (4th Cir 2016). Thus, in considering a summary judgment motion, the court may not make credibility determinations. Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 569 (4th Cir. 2015); Mercantile Peninsula Bank v. French, 499 F.3d 345, 352 (4th Cir. 2007). Moreover, in the face of conflicting evidence, such as competing affidavits, summary judgment ordinarily is not appropriate because it is the function of the fact-finder to resolve factual disputes, including matters of witness credibility. See Black & Decker Corp. v. United States, 436 F.3d 431, 442 (4th Cir. 2006); Dennis v. Columbia Colleton Med. Ctr., Inc., 290 F.3d 639, 644-45 (4th Cir. 2002).

         When, as here, the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment, the court must consider “each motion separately on its own merits ‘to determine whether either of the parties deserves judgment as a matter of law.'” Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted); see Mellen v. Bunting, 327 F.3d 355, 363 (4th Cir. 2003). Simply because both parties have filed for summary judgment does not mean that summary judgment to one party or another is necessarily appropriate. “Both motions must be denied if the court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact. But if there is no genuine issue and one or the other party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law, the court will render judgment.” 10A Wright, Miller & Kane, Federal Practice & Procedure § 2720, at 336-37 (3d ed. 1998, 2012 Supp.).

         III. White Motion

         A.

         Plaintiff seeks to establish that Grantland was Date Trucking's employee. See ECF 37 at 1. However, rather than relying on common law to argue that Grantland is properly classified as an employee, plaintiff asserts that Grantland was a statutory employee under 49 C.F.R. § 390.5, part of the FMCSR. ECF 37 at 3-4. That regulation sets out the definitions of various terms for purposes of the FMCSR.

         Of relevance here, 49 C.F.R. § 390.5 defines “employee” as follows:

[A]ny individual, other than an employer, who is employed by an employer and who in the course of his or her employment directly affects commercial motor vehicle safety. Such term includes a driver of a commercial motor vehicle (including an independent contractor while in the course of operating a commercial motor vehicle) . . . .

         Further, “employer” is defined as “any person engaged in a business affecting interstate commerce who owns or leases a commercial motor vehicle in connection with that business, or assigns employees to operate it . . . .” Id.

         Plaintiff maintains that Grantland should be considered an employee of Date Trucking under 49 C.F.R. § 390.5, because KFG leased the tractor trailer to Date Trucking; KFG was operating under Date Trucking's DOT authority; and Grantland had been driving the truck. ECF 37 at 4.

         Of import here, plaintiff apparently expects that such a conclusion will result in the liability of Date Trucking for Grantland's alleged negligence. However, the White Motion offers no case citations relevant to that contention, nor does it explain how or why the definitions section of a particular federal regulation is dispositive of that issue.

         Date Trucking marshals three arguments for why 49 C.F.R. § 390.5 does not control as to the issue of Grantland's employment status. First, it suggests that § 390.5 was not “‘intended to express any view regarding the issue of one motor carrier's vicarious liability for the negligence of another motor carrier.'” ECF 40-1 at 10 (quoting Beavers v. Victorian, 38 F.Supp.3d 1260, 1271 (W.D. Okla. 2014)). In other words, Date Trucking asserts that § 390.5 has no bearing on the question of tort liability. Second, defendant asserts that because KFG, the owner/lessor of the trailer, is not an individual, the driver, Grantland, should not be considered an employee of Date Trucking under § 390.5. ECF 40-1 at 11. Third, defendant asserts that Grantland should not be considered an employee under the regulation because he was not “operating” the vehicle at the time of the injury, as specified in the regulation. Id. at 12.

         In the White Reply, plaintiff offers a few more details on his understanding of 49 C.F.R. § 390.5. He asserts that “Section 390.5 was enacted to discourage trucking companies from using the independent contractor argument to manipulate their liability exposure with respect to the public.” ECF 43 at 2 (citing Consumers Cty. Mut. Ins. Co. v. P.W. & Sons Trucking, Inc., 307 F.3d 362, 366 (5th Cir. 2002)). In response to defendant's second argument, plaintiff contends: “Courts have found that § 390.5 is applicable to both individuals and sole proprietorships.” ECF 43 at 2 (citing Ooida Risk Retention Group, Inc. v. Williams, 579 F.3d 469, 475 (5th Cir. 2009)). And, plaintiff points out that “courts have held that an individual does not have to be driving, or even ...


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