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Ortiz v. Ben Strong Trucking

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 14, 2019

CARLA ORTIZ, Individually, and on Behalf of her daughter, J.L., a minor


          Catherine C. Blake United States District Judge.

         On June 18, 2018, a tractor trailer carrying a large load of shingles northbound on Interstate 95 in Harford County, Maryland, careened into the back of a passenger car that had slowed to pilot through stop-and-go construction zone traffic. There were multiple casualties. Carla Ortiz was the driver of the first vehicle struck (two more vehicles would be hit), and she brings this tort action against the truck driver and various companies allegedly affiliated with the shipment on behalf of herself and her minor daughter, who sustained severe and permanently debilitating injuries. There are three pending motions in this case. The first is a partial motion to dismiss by Ben Strong Trucking Inc. ("Strong"), the company that operated the truck at issue and employed its driver, John Oliver Terry, Jr. (ECF No. 4). The second is a motion to dismiss by Cowan Systems, LLC ("CSL"), alleged to be the original carrier contracted to haul the shipment. (ECF No. 12). The final pending motion is brought by Cowan Systems Transportation, LLC ("CST") and Cowan Systems, Inc. ("CSI"), seeking dismissal of the claims against them or in the alternative for summary judgment. The pending motions will be addressed in turn.


         I. Standard of Review

         When ruling on a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must "accept the well-pled allegations of the complaint as true," and "construe the facts and reasonable inferences derived therefrom in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Ibarra v. United States, 120 F.3d 472, 474 (4th Cir. 1997). "Even though the requirements for pleading a proper complaint are substantially aimed at assuring that the defendant be given adequate notice of the nature of a claim being made against him, they also provide criteria for defining issues for trial and for early disposition of inappropriate complaints." Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009). "The mere recital of elements of a cause of action, supported only by conclusory statements, is not sufficient to survive a motion made pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6)." Walters v. McMahen, 684 F.3d 435, 439 (4th Cir. 2012) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). To survive a motion to dismiss, the factual allegations of a complaint "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Jwombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal citations omitted). "To satisfy this standard, a plaintiff need not 'forecast' evidence sufficient to prove the elements of the claim. However, the complaint must allege sufficient facts to establish those elements." Walters, 684 F.3d at 439 (citation omitted). "Thus, while a plaintiff does not need to demonstrate in a complaint that the right to relief is 'probable,' the complaint must advance the plaintiffs claim 'across the line from conceivable to plausible.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court does not always have to limit its review to the pleadings. It can also take judicial notice of public records, including statutes, and can "consider documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, as well as those attached to the motion to dismiss, so long as they are integral to the complaint and authentic." United States ex rel. Oberg v. Pennsylvania Higher Educ. Assistance Agency, 745 F.3d 131, 136 (4th Cir. 2014) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         II. Analysis

         1. Ben Strong Trucking's Partial Motion to Dismiss

         Strong asks this court to dismiss, as a matter of law, three of the counts brought against it in the complaint: (1) Count IV, negligent infliction of emotional distress; (2) Count V, intentional infliction of emotional distress; (3) Count VI, punitive damages.

         (1) NEED

         It is well-established that Maryland law does not recognize an independent claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. See Carson v. Giant Food, Inc., 187 F.Supp.2d 462, 482 (D. Md. 2002). The plaintiff argues that this rule does not apply in situations where the source of the alleged emotional distress also resulted in physical injuries to the plaintiff (See ECF No. 15-1 at pp. 10-12.) Additionally, she offers to "amend/convert" Count IV into a second negligence claim, should the court find the existing NIED not to be cognizable alone.

         A clear rule surfaces from the extensive Maryland case law on this precise question. While negligent infliction of emotional distress is not a viable standalone claim under Maryland case law, emotional distress can be recoverable as an element of damages in a personal injury action. See Alban v. Fiels, 210 Md.App. 1, 19 (2013). "[W]hen tortious conduct causes a physical injury, the injured person may recover damages for emotional distress attendant to the physical injury." Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Ford, 204 Md.App. 1, 101 (2012); Hamilton v. Ford Motor Credit Co., 66 Md.App. 46, 63 (1986) ("Recovery may be had in a tort action for emotional distress arising out of negligent conduct. In such case, the emotional distress is an element of damage, not an independent tort.") Accordingly, Count IV will be dismissed. The court notes that the plaintiff has included claims for emotional distress in her negligence count. Compl. ¶¶ 114-15. Nevertheless, she may seek leave to amend the complaint if counsel believes there is some need to replead the damages request.

         (2) ITED

         A plaintiff must satisfy four elements to sustain an IIED claim in Maryland: (1) intentional or reckless conduct, that is also (2) extreme and outrageous; (3) a causal connection between the wrongful conduct and the emotional distress; and (4) severe emotional distress. Harris v. Jones, 281 Md. 560, 566 (1977). The plaintiff argues that the shingles shipment at issue was illegally double-brokered in violation of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and that this act supplies the intentional or reckless extreme and outrageous action needed to satisfy the first two prongs of the IIED test. To sustain an IIED cause of action a plaintiff must show that the defendant intended to cause the plaintiff distress, knew that it was substantially certain that distress (of the requisite magnitude) would result from a given course of action, or acted recklessly in deliberate disregard of a strong likelihood that emotional distress would, result. Foor v. Juvenile Sews. Admin., 78 Md.App. 151, 175 (1989). In this case, any alleged unlawful agreement to broker the shipment to a new carrier is far too removed from the cause of the alleged emotional distress for this claim to survive. The fact that the defendants may have intended to do something improper unrelated (or insufficiently related) to the accident has little bearing on the plaintiffs IIED claim. There is no factual allegation that any of the defendants intended the accident, that the accident was substantially certain to occur, or that there existed any sufficiently causal nexus between the allegedly unlawful agreement to transfer carriers and the harm to the plaintiff or J.L. See Id. Nor is this kind of traffic accident, however tragic, the type of outrageous or extreme conduct required in Maryland for an IIED claim to proceed. See Alban, 210 Md.App. at 6. Even if all the facts in the complaint are assumed to be true, the plaintiff has failed to establish the first three elements of an IIED cause of action. This claim will be dismissed.

         (3) ...

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