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Locke v. Swift Transportation Co. of Arizona, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah Division

November 14, 2019




         This matter comes before the Court upon Defendants Tevin Davis (“Davis”) and Swift Transportation Co. of Arizona, LLC's (“Swift”) (collectively “Defendants”) Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff Tiffany Locke's (“Locke”) Claim for Punitive Damages. [DN 39.] Plaintiff has responded [DN 44] and Defendants have replied. [DN 49.] As such, this matter is ripe for adjudication. For the reasons that follow, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendants Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.

         I. Background

         This action arises from an automobile accident on April 26, 2016 in Trigg County, Kentucky. Locke was driving eastbound in the right lane of the interstate. Davis was driving an eighteen-wheeler truck. Davis then merged into the right lane of the highway and Locke subsequently crashed into the rear of the truck causing injury.

         Locke filed this action alleging negligent, reckless conduct by Defendants. Locke seeks to recover punitive damages from Defendants. Defendants filed this present motion for summary on Locke's claim of punitive damages.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate where “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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party. See Matshushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

         “[N]ot every issue of fact or conflicting inference presents a genuine issue of material fact.” Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1477 (6th Cir. 1989). The test is whether the party bearing the burden of proof has presented a jury question as to each element in the case. Hartsel v. Keys, 87 F.3d 795, 799 (6th Cir. 1996). The plaintiff must present more than a mere scintilla of evidence in support of his position; the plaintiff must present evidence on which the trier of fact could reasonable find for the plaintiff. See Id. (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)). The plaintiff may accomplish this by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence…of a genuine dispute…” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). Mere speculation will not suffice to defeat a motion for summary judgment, “the mere existence of a colorable factual dispute will not defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. A genuine dispute between the parties on an issue of material fact must exist to render summary judgment inappropriate.” Monette v. Electronic Data Sys. Corp., 90 F.3d 1173, 1177 (6th Cir. 1996).

         III. Discussion

         A. Punitive Damages

         Locke alleges Defendants' conduct was “negligent, reckless, grossly negligent, malicious, careless, willful and wanton.” [DN 1-1 at 7.] In Kentucky, a plaintiff may be entitled to punitive damages if the defendant has acted grossly negligent. Gibson v. Fuel Transp., Inc., 410 S.W.3d 56, 59 (Ky. 2013). For punitive damages to be appropriate, there must be a “finding of failure to exercise reasonable care, and then an additional finding that this negligence was accompanied by wanton or reckless disregard for the lives, safety or property of others.” Horton v. Union Light, Heat & Power Co., 690 S.W.2d 382, 389-390 (Ky. 1985) (internal quotations omitted). “KRS § 411.184(2) requires that this reckless or wanton behavior be proven by the elevated standard of clear and convincing evidence.” Gibson, 410 S.W.3d 56, 59 (Ky. 2013) (internal quotations omitted).

         Here, the facts are disputed. It is disputed whether Davis was merging from the shoulder after being stopped on the side of the road to read a message from Swift or if he had recently merged onto the highway. Davis, in his deposition, stated he believed he went down the on-ramp and was already in the right lane going 30 miles per hour. He stated he has no recollection of pulling over on the side of the road. On the other side, Locke alleges Swift's internal notes and vehicle data show that Davis was pulled over to read a Qualcomm message shortly before the accident. William Peyton-a representative of Swift-stated in his deposition that the Qualcomm message was read at 3:05 p.m. Central time. Peyton also acknowledges that according to the police report, the accident occurred nine minutes later-3:14 p.m. It is Locke's contention that the timing of the accident relative to the time the message was read, and relevant vehicle data proves Davis was pulled over on the side of the interstate.

         Viewing the facts in light most favorable to Locke, Davis pulled to the shoulder of the interstate to read a message from Swift on the Qualcomm system. It is expressly prohibited to park trucks on the shoulder in non-emergency situations by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, KRS § 189.450, and Swift's policy. Locke argues that Davis' alleged violation of policy and law is grossly negligent and entitles her to punitive damages. Defendants cite a string of cases that clarify what type of conduct in automobile accidents generally equals gross negligence. There must be a “causal connection” between Davis pulling over to the side of the road and the accident. See Horn v. Hancock, 700 S.W.2d 418, 421 (Ky. App. 1985).

         Courts in Kentucky have routinely held that slightly speeding, intentional violations of statutory requirements, and falling asleep at the wheel do not meet the standard of gross negligence. See Kinney v. Butcher,131 S.W.3d 357 (Ky. App. 2004); Horn v. Hancock, 700 S.W.2d (Ky. App. 1985); Turner v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., 442 ...

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