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Crowe v. Johnson

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division

March 22, 2019

JANET CROWE, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
IAN A. JOHNSON, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Joseph M. Hood Senior U.S. District Judge

         On December 14, 2017, the Plaintiffs, Janet Crowe, Phillip Crowe, and Faye Crowe (the “Crowes” or the “Plaintiffs”) were involved in an automobile collision with Defendant, Ian A. Johnson (“Johnson or the “Defendant”), a Michigan resident, in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Johnson rear-ended the Crowes vehicle when, while accelerating forward in moderate to heavy traffic, a water bottle fell onto the floor of his vehicle, prompting him to reach down, take his eyes off the road, and attempt to secure the bottle.

         The parties have each moved for partial summary judgment. [DE 27, 28]. The Crowes move for summary judgment on the issue of liability. [DE 27]. Johnson moves for summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages. [DE 28]. The parties have responded in opposition to the applicable motions. [DE 29-30]. Additionally, the parties have replied in support of their motions or the time to reply has expired. [DE 32]. As a result, this matter is ripe for review and consideration and all pending motions for summary judgment will be consolidated in this memorandum opinion and order.

         For the reasons that follow, the Crowes motion for partial summary judgment [DE 27] as to liability is GRANTED and Johnson's motion for partial summary judgment [DE 28] as to punitive damages is GRANTED.

         I. Procedural and Factual Background

         In the evening of December 14, 2017, the Plaintiffs, Janet Crowe, Phillip Crowe, and Faye Crowe set out from their home in Perryville, Kentucky, intent on visiting the home of Janet's daughter, Elizabeth Waters, in Alabama to celebrate the Christmas holiday. [DE 29-5 at 9, 35-37, PageID #718, 744-46]. The Crowes loaded up their 2015 Buick Regal with their dog, Christmas presents for the children, and even packed a twenty-five-pound turkey for the occassion. [Id. at 35-37, PageID #35-7].

         After an hour and a half of driving, the Crowes decided to stop for supper at a Steak ‘n Shake restaurant in Bowling Green, Kentucky. [Id. at 37-8, PageID #746-47]. Upon finishing their meal, the Crowes piled back into the car to complete the remaining three and a half hours of their journey. [Id.]. Janet Crowe was driving, with her husband, Phillip, seated in the front passenger seat, and her mother, Faye sitting directly behind Phillip in the right-rear passenger seat. [Id. at 35, PageID # 744]. All dutifully fastened their seatbelts and the Crowes pulled out of the Steak ‘n Shake, headed eastbound on Scottsville Road toward the I-65 intersection. [Id. at 39-40, PageID #748-49]. At the time, the weather was fair and the road conditions were good. [DE 27-1 at 16, PageID #364; DE 29-5 at 35-36, PageID #744-45].

         Unfortunately, on their way to I-65 southbound interchange, the Crowes encountered moderate to heavy traffic. [DE 29-5 at 38-39, PagedID #747-48]. After making it a little way down Scottsville Road toward I-65 South, the Crowes encountered a stoplight at an intersection. [Id. at 49-50, PageID #758-59]. Ms. Crowe's vehicle was in the right hand-lane, as she was preparing to take the ramp onto I-65 south. [Id. at 50, PageID #759]. The Crowes' vehicle was stopped at the light approximately one car length behind a 2015 white Nissan, occupied by Jackson and Rachel Daugherty. [DE 27-3 at 5, 22, PageID #472, 489; DE 29-5 at 51, PageID #760].

         The Defendant, Ian Johnson, who was staying at a nearby Microtel, was returning from his own supper that night in his 2018 Chevrolet Camaro. [DE 27-1 at 15, PageID #363]. Johnson proceeded towards intersection on Scottsville Road and came up behind the Crowes' Buick. [Id. at 14-15, PageID #362-363].

         The stop-light at the intersection turned green and the Daughertys, who were in the lead vehicle of the three, accelerated forward through the intersection. [DE 27-3 at 5, PageID #472; DE 32-1 at 2, PageID #823]. Janet Crowe also began accelerating forward into the intersection and proceeded beyond the stoplight. [DE 29-5 at 49-450, PageID #758, 759].

         Johnson began to accelerate as well. [DE 27-1 at 21, PageID #372]. As the cars proceeded to move, Johnson's water bottle, which had been sitting near his shifter, fell on the floor of his car. [Id. at 14, PageID #362]. He went to reach for the water bottle while continuing to accelerate forward. [Id.] In doing so, Johnson admits that he made a mistake by taking his eyes off the road, reducing his ability to slow down. [Id. at 14, 22-29, 44, 57-58, PageID #362, 370-77, 392, 405-06].

         Due to the off-ramp, traffic was backed-up and moving slowly. [DE 29-5 at 40, PageID #759]. As a result, Ms. Crowe slowed her car to a stop just after she passed through the intersection. [Id. at 40, PageID # 749]. Ms. Crowe then glanced at her rear-view mirror. [Id. at 40, 50, PageID #749, 759]. As she did, she saw a flash of light and the rear of the Crowes' car was impacted by Johnson's vehicle. [Id. at 40, PageID #749]. Other than the lights she saw behind her, Ms. Crowe never saw the Defendant, Ian Johnson, in his vehicle prior to the collision nor was she aware of what he was doing in his vehicle. [Id. at 52, PageID #761]. Ms. Crowe estimates that Johnson was “going pretty fast.” [DE 29-5 at 40, 52, PageID #749, 761].

         Around this same time, Jackson Daugherty, who was planning on merging into the left lane, checked his rearview mirror. [DE 27-3 at 6, 18 PageID #473, 485]. At that time, his vehicle had already moved through the intersection at approximately 10 to 15 miles per hour. [DE 27-3 at 27, PageID #494]. Daugherty looked at his rear-view mirror and believes he saw either lights from Johnson's vehicle or glare off the Crowes' vehicle. [Id. at 10, 23, and 31, PageID #477, 490, and 498]. Then, his car was, in turn, impacted from the rear by the Crowes' vehicle. [Id. at 31, PageID #498].

         Daugherty had not previously noticed Johnson's vehicle. [Id. at 22-23, PageID #488-89]. Nor had he heard a horn prior to the impact. [Id. at 21-22, PageID #488-89]. In his testimony Daugherty estimated that Johnson's vehicle was moving at the speed limit, which he estimated to be “[m]aybe 40, 45[, ]” miles per hour. [DE 29-3 at 10, PageID #676]. However, though he claims to have seen Johnson's vehicle, Daugherty admits he could only guess as to its speed at prior to the collision. [Id. 25-26, PageID #691-92].

         In March 2018, the Crowes filed this lawsuit. [DE 1]. The Crowes' Complaint generally alleges that Johnson's negligent operation of his motor vehicle was a breach of duty owed to the Crowes and a direct and proximate cause of the collision and any resulting injuries and economic losses suffered by the Crowes. [Id. at 1-2, PageID #1-2, ¶¶ 5, 7].

         The Crowes seek compensatory damages for their personal injuries, emotional distress, medical expenses, rehabilitation, physical therapy expenses and medical devices, living and transportation accommodations, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, the cost of implementing a reasonably adequate life care plan, and any other compensatory damages. [Id. at 2, PageID #2]. The Crowes further seek punitive damages against Johnson, stemming from their claim that his alleged behavior was willful and wanton. [Id. at 1 and 3, PageID #1 and 3].

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate only when no genuine dispute exists as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A material fact is one “that might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The moving party has the burden to show that “there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). “A dispute about a material fact is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Smith v. Perkins Bd. of Educ., 708 F.3d 821, 825 (6th Cir. 2013) (internal quotations omitted). The Court construes the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draws all reasonable inferences in the non-moving party's favor. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Hamilton Cty. Educ. Ass'n v. Hamilton Cty. Bd. of Educ., 822 F.3d 831, 835 (6th Cir. 2016).

         In a diversity action like this one, the Court must apply the substantive law of the forum state and federal procedural law. Gasperini v. Ctr. for Humanities, Inc., 518 U.S. 415, 427-28 (1996); Hanna v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460, 465-66 (1965); Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78-80 (1938); Hoven v. Walgreen Co., 751 F.3d 778, 783 (6th Cir. 2014). Thus, “where a federal court is exercising jurisdiction solely because of the diversity of citizenship of the parties, the outcome of the litigation in the federal court should be substantially the same . . . as it would be if tried in a State court.” Guaranty Trust Co. v. York, 326 U.S. 99, 109 (1945). Ultimately, to determine whether summary judgment should be granted here, the Court must look to state law and court decisions, as well as other relevant materials. Meridian Mut. Ins. Co. v. Kellman, 197 F.3d 1178, 1181 (6th Cir. 1999).

         III. Analysis

         A. The Crowes' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

         The Crowes ask the Court to grant summary judgment for them on the issue of Johnson's alleged negligence. [DE 27 and 30]. The Crowes argue that summary judgment is appropriate because Johnson has “repeatedly and consistently admitted that he was the sole cause of the collision” with the Crowes. [DE 27 at 5, PageID #346]. In particular, the Crowes cite to Johnson's testimony that he was not watching the road and was reaching for a water ...


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