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Bramblett v. Penske Truck Leasing Company, L.P.

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

March 8, 2019

ROBERT A. BRAMBLETT, Individually, as Administrator of the Estate of Casey Bramblett, And as Guardian for Jacob Bramblett, ROBERT BRAMBLETT II, and HUNTER BRAMBLETT APPELLANTS
v.
PENSKE TRUCK LEASING COMPANY, L.P. and SAFE STORAGE, INC. APPELLEES AND PENSKE TRUCK LEASING COMPANY, L.P. CROSS-APPELLANTS
v.
ROBERT A. BRAMBLETT, Individually, as Administrator of the Estate of Casey Bramblett, And as Guardian for Jacob Bramblett, ROBERT BRAMBLETT II, and HUNTER BRAMBLETT CROSS-APPELLEES AND PENSKE TRUCK LEASING COMPANY, L.P. APPELLANTS
v.
ROBERT A. BRAMBLETT, Individually, as Administrator of the Estate of Casey Bramblett, And as Guardian for Jacob Bramblett, ROBERT BRAMBLETT II, and HUNTER BRAMBLETT APPELLEES

          APPEAL FROM JESSAMINE CIRCUIT COURT HONORABLE C. HUNTER DAUGHERTY, JUDGE ACTION NO. 10-CI-00276

          CROSS-APPEAL FROM JESSAMINE CIRCUIT COURT HONORABLE C. HUNTER DAUGHERTY, JUDGE ACTION NO. 10-CI-00276

          APPEAL FROM JESSAMINE CIRCUIT COURT HONORABLE C. HUNTER DAUGHERTY, JUDGE ACTION NO. 10-CI-00276

          Briefs For Robert A. Bramblett: Johnathan P. Kieffer Kansas City, Missouri Michael W. Troutman Lexington, Kentucky

          Oral Argument For Robert A. Bramblett: Johnathan P. Kieffer Kansas City, Missouri

          Briefs And Oral Argument For Penske Truck Leasing Corporation L.P.: Palmer G. Vance II Lexington, Kentucky

          Briefs For Safe Storage, Inc.: R. Craig Reinhardt Katherine J. Hornback Lexington, Kentucky

          Oral Argument For Safe Storage, Inc.: Katherine J. Hornback Lexington, Kentucky

          BEFORE: COMBS, L. THOMPSON AND TAYLOR, JUDGES.

          OPINION

          COMBS, JUDGE.

         Robert A. Bramblett, individually, as administrator of the Estate of Casey Bramblett, and as guardian for Jacob Bramblett; Robert Bramblett II; and Hunter Bramblett appeal from the judgment of the Jessamine Circuit Court entered in favor of Safe Storage, Inc., and Penske Truck Leasing Co., L.P. Penske appeals from a post-judgment order of the circuit court that imposed sanctions for its discovery abuses. After our review, we affirm on all issues.

         The facts underlying this appeal are both gruesome and tragic. In anticipation of their upcoming move to Florida, the Brambletts reserved a Penske moving truck and car-carrier trailer to be towed behind. They made plans to pick up the truck and car-carrier trailer from Safe Storage in Nicholasville, Kentucky. Safe Storage is a rental agent for Penske.

         On March 9, 2009, at the prescribed pickup time, an agent of Penske delivered the truck and car-carrier trailer to Safe Storage. The trailer was coupled to the moving truck when it was delivered by Penske. Upon arrival, Paul Brooks, the site manager for Safe Storage, conducted a visual inspection of the moving truck and trailer. Brooks did not observe any conspicuous damage to either the truck or the trailer, and he ensured that the trailer had been properly coupled to the moving truck which would tow it. Approximately five minutes later, Casey Bramblett and her brother-in-law, Gary Cornett, arrived at Safe Storage to pick up the moving truck and car-carrier trailer.

         Brooks then performed a second visual inspection of Penske's equipment with Bramblett so that she could point out to him any existing damage to either the moving truck or the trailer. Satisfied with the condition of both the truck and the trailer hitched to it, Bramblett completed the necessary paperwork for the rental. Cornett drove the moving truck, towing the trailer behind, three to four miles to the Brambletts' home. Cornett did not notice any problem with the truck or the trailer. He parked the moving truck and the trailer on a grade, on the street, in front of the Brambletts' house.

         Robert Bramblett noticed that the truck and trailer were parked on a grade. Robert chocked the wheels of the trailer with two, ten-pound free weights and uncoupled the trailer from the truck so it could be loaded with the family's belongings.

         Two days later, after the moving truck had been loaded, Robert drove the truck down the street and aligned its hitch to the trailer's coupling device. Robert lowered the tongue of the trailer's coupler onto the ball of the truck's hitch but could not get the coupler to seat fully over the ball. He felt that the ball of the hitch was too large for the coupling device. Nevertheless, Robert believed that he might get the coupler to drop into place and fully seat over the hitch if he could rock the trailer back and forth. Robert told his wife, Casey, and their three sons to stay away from the road because he was going to try to "move the trailer a little bit." Casey Bramblett told her son Hunter to remove the weights chocking the trailer's wheels. Without attaching the trailer's safety cables to the moving truck and disregarding the other instructions for connecting the two, Robert accelerated the truck slightly forward, pressed the brake, then immediately reversed and pressed the brake again. With the coupler still resting upon the hitch, Robert repeated this process. When he reversed the truck a second time, Robert acknowledged that he "hit the brakes kind of hard thinking that it [the coupling device] would engage." Instead, the jolt caused the un-coupled trailer to separate from the ball of the truck hitch. The trailer began to roll toward the family car parked behind it on the street.

         When Casey Bramblett saw the trailer begin to roll down the street, she ran to the parked car. Hunter Bramblett grabbed the tongue of the trailer to stop it from rolling, but it pulled him, and he lost his footing. An instant later, Casey was caught between the car and the trailer. She was crushed and killed. Officers of the Nicholasville Police Department responded to the scene and investigated. After the truck and trailer were transported to a tow lot, the officers coupled the trailer to the truck.

         In March 2010, the Brambletts filed a wrongful death action against Penske, Safe Storage, and Dethmers Manufacturing Company. Discovery and a rigorous pre-trial practice ensued. Eventually, Penske was awarded summary judgment with respect to the products liability claim asserted against it by the Brambletts. That ruling is not being appealed. Penske resisted many of the Brambletts' discovery requests by interjecting its objections and ultimately applying for a protective order. There were ongoing, rolling discovery disputes between the parties, and the trial court held several hearings to resolve the issues.

         The action finally came on for trial on October 24, 2016. The proceedings lasted eight days. The Brambletts' theory of the case as to Safe Storage was that there was damage to the coupler that pre-existed the accident at their house; that the damage caused it to be more difficult to couple the trailer to the truck; and that Safe Storage should have discovered the damage. The theory of the case as to Penske was that it was negligent in providing the trailer to the Brambletts because it knew that its trailers were defective by design and, as a result, were prone to de-coupling and other coupling issues.

         At trial, the Brambletts' engineering expert explained the basis for the plaintiffs' claims. He opined that the combination of the coupler and the pivoting jack attached to the trailer rented by the Brambletts was defective and unreasonably dangerous. He indicated that there were reasonable alternatives to the design of the mechanism. He testified that he had reviewed events that were substantially similar to the Brambletts' experience and that he had concluded that there were a substantial number of Penske trailers that had become disconnected from vehicles towing them. Additionally, he testified that there was scarring on the bolt, hitch ball damage, and cracked welds on this particular trailer. He stated that the tongue on the trailer was out of square by 0.8 inch and was twisted to the right side 3% higher than the left. He testified that this damage to the coupler made it more difficult to hitch the trailer to the truck. He explained that this damage was a substantial factor in causing the accident.

         The jury was instructed on negligence theories against Penske, Safe Storage, and Dethmers Manufacturing Company. It was also instructed with respect to comparative fault and punitive damages. After several hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict for the defense on November 7, 2016.

         Following a pre-trial hearing on the Brambletts' motion (conducted on September 22, 2016), the trial court ruled that Penske's conduct during the discovery period warranted the imposition of sanctions. The entirety of the court's order entered on February 27, 2017, provides as follows:

Plaintiff moves this Court for relief under CR[1] 37.02 for Defendant, Penske's, willful concealment of relevant evidence. The motion is granted and the parties are instructed as follows:
1. Plaintiff's counsel shall submit an order containing the chronology set forth in his motion outlining the full extent of Penske's willful ...

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