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Byrd v. Ace American Insurance Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

March 30, 2018

JAN BYRD, as spouse and next friend of Raymond Byrd, deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
ACE AMERICAN INSURANCE COMPANY and TYSON FOODS, INC., Defendants. GROENDYKE TRANSPORT, INC., Intervenor.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          CLAIRE V. EAGAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Now before the Court are the following motions: Plaintiff's Motion in Limine (Dkt. # 37); Defendant Ace American Insurance Company and Tyson Foods, Inc's Motion in Limine and Brief in Support (Dkt. # 38); Plaintiff's Second Motion in Limine (Dkt. # 80); Defendant Ace American Insurance Company and Tyson Foods, Inc.'s First Supplemental Motion in Limine and Brief in Support (Dkt. # 81); and Defendant Ace American Insurance Company and Tyson Foods, Inc.'s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and Brief in Support (Dkt. # 85).

         I.

         On March 6, 2017, plaintiff Jan Byrd filed this case on behalf of her deceased husband, Raymond Byrd, alleging claims of negligence, negligent entrustment, and wrongful death against Ace American Insurance Company (Ace) and Tyson Foods, Inc. (Tyson).[1] Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $75, 000. This case arises out of a traffic accident that occurred on January 3, 2016. Byrd was operating a tractor-trailer owned by Groendyke Transport, Inc. (Groendyke), and he was involved in a collision with Kent Redd. Dkt. # 2, at 2. Redd was operating a tractor-trailer owned by Tyson. Id. The collision occurred on Highway 75 in Washington County, Oklahoma, and both Byrd and Redd were traveling northbound on Highway 75. Id. at 3. Byrd suffered serious personal injuries and died following the accident.

         Plaintiff claims Byrd was driving in the right lane of northbound Highway 75 and Redd was traveling northbound in the left lane of Highway 75.[2] Dkt. # 82, at 2. Plaintiff alleges that Redd attempted to make a right-hand turn from the left lane and the two tractor-trailers collided. Plaintiff's version of the events is supported by the testimony of three eyewitnesses who were in vehicles behind the two tractor-trailers. Mark Kane testified in his deposition that he observed Redd's tractor-trailer turn into Byrd's tractor-trailer, and the front of Byrd's vehicle was pushed underneath the other tractor-trailer. Dkt. # 82, at 3. Mark Marshall Kane also observed the accident, and he states that Tyson tractor-trailer driven by Redd crossed the center line to initiate the collision. Dkt. # 82-3, at 3. Katherine Anne Kane testified that the two tractor-trailers were side-by-side before the accident occurred and the Tyson vehicle was in the left lane, and she claims that she observed the collision. Dkt. # 82-4, at 3.

         Defendants offer a completely different version of the events leading up to the accident. Defendants rely on GPS tracking data from the two vehicles, and claim that Redd was driving in the right-hand lane just before the accident. Dkt. # 87, at 2. Redd had left a nearby Walmart Distribution Center (WDC), and he had slowed down to 12 miles per hour in order to make a right-hand turn. Id. Plaintiff's accident reconstruction expert, Larry Owen, states that Byrd's tractor-trailer was going at least 50 miles per hour when the accident occurred. Dkt. # 87-1, at 3. Defendants state that the Oklahoma Highway Patrol (OHP) troopers who investigated the accident determined that Byrd was at fault for the accident and that they found no credible evidence that Redd entered the left-hand lane at any time before the accident. Id. at 4.

         II.

         Defendants argue that plaintiff has no evidence to support her claim of negligent entrustment or her demand for punitive damages, and they ask the Court to enter summary judgment on these aspects of plaintiffs' claims.[3] Dkt. # 85. There is no evidence submitted in support of defendants' motion for partial summary judgment, and the motion is based solely on an alleged lack of evidence to support plaintiff's claim of negligent entrustment and her demand for punitive damages. Plaintiff responds that Tyson ignored evidence that Redd suffered from sleep apnea and that Redd had exceeded his hours of service at the time of the accident, and there is a genuine dispute as to whether driver fatigue caused or contributed to the accident. Dkt. # 90, at 10. Plaintiff claims that this evidence gives rise to a genuine dispute as to whether Tyson negligently entrusted a tractor-trailer to Redd and consequently acted with reckless disregard for the rights of others.

         Summary judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 is appropriate where there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Kendall v. Watkins, 998 F.2d 848, 850 (10th Cir. 1993). The plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 317. “Summary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole, which are designed ‘to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action.'” Id. at 327.

         “When the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. . . . Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986) (citations omitted). “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 [trier of fact] could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. In essence, the inquiry for the Court is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 250. In its review, the Court construes the record in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Garratt v. Walker, 164 F.3d 1249, 1251 (10th Cir. 1998).

         When Redd was hired by Tyson, he underwent a physical examination and he notified the examining physician that a physician had previously told him that he had sleep apnea. Dkt. # 90-1, at 2. Redd passed his physical and he received a two year certificate to drive a tractor-trailer. Id. at 4. Redd testified in his deposition that he had been fired by a previous employer, because his neck was “too thick” and the employer believed that he had sleep apnea. Dkt. # 90-2, at 9. Redd admits that he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and he did have a sleep apnea machine at one time. Id. at 19-20. However, Tyson did not require any additional sleep apnea testing or that he use a sleep apnea machine. Id. at 22. At the time of the accident, Redd had exceeded the number of hours that he was permitted to operate a tractor-trailer without rest, and he was operating his vehicle under a “convenience rule, ” under which Tyson authorized him to drive up to 20 miles to find a location to rest. Id. at 3-5. Redd could have rested while his truck was being unloaded at the WDC, but he claims that he was not tired and he did not rest during that time. Id. at 14-15. He states that he was fully alert at the time of the accident. Id. at 16.

         “Negligent entrustment of an automobile occurs when the automobile is supplied, directly or through a third person, for the use of another whom the supplier knows, or should know, because of youth, inexperience, or otherwise, is likely to use it in a manner involving unreasonable risk of bodily harm to others . . . .” Sheffer v. Carolina Forge Co., LLC, 306 P.3d 544, 548 (Okla. 2013). To establish a claim of negligent entrustment, the plaintiff must show that a reasonable person knew or should have known that the person entrusted with the vehicle would be likely to operate it in a careless, reckless, or incompetent manner. Green v. Harris, 70 P.3d 866, 869 (Okla. 2003). A necessary element of a negligent entrustment claim is that injury result from the driver's careless or reckless operation of the vehicle. Clark v. Turner, 99 P.3d 736, 743 (Okla.Civ.App. 2004).

         Defendants argue that plaintiff has no evidence that Redd's negligence caused any injury to Byrd or that Tyson should have known that Redd was likely to operate the tractor in a reckless or incompetent manner. Dkt. # 85, at 2. However, plaintiff has come forward with evidence that Redd suffered from sleep apnea and that he notified Tyson that he had previously been told that he suffered from sleep apnea. When combined with evidence that Redd exceeded his legal hours of service, this could support a finding that Tyson negligently entrusted a tractor-trailer to a sleep-deprived driver. The circumstances giving rise to the accident are disputed, and plaintiff has eyewitness testimony that supports a viable theory that Redd's driving caused the accident. It is undisputed that Byrd suffered personal injuries in the accident, and plaintiff has produced evidence to support each element of a negligent entrustment claim. Defendants' motion for summary judgment should be denied as to plaintiff's negligent entrustment claim.

         The Court also finds that the same evidence supporting plaintiff's claim of negligent entrustment could support a finding that Tyson acted with reckless disregard for the rights of others. Punitive damages may be awarded only if the plaintiff shows by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been “guilty of reckless disregard for the rights of others.” Okla. Stat. tit. 23, § 9.1. A person acts in reckless disregard for the rights of others if he “was either aware, or did not care, that there was a substantial and unnecessary risk that [his] conduct would cause serious injury to others.” Gowens v. Barstow, 364 P.3d 644, 652 (Okla. 2015). The trial court must determine as a matter of law whether the plaintiff has produced sufficient evidence that a reasonable jury could find that a defendant acted with reckless disregard before instructing the jury as to punitive damages. Badillo v. Mic Century Ins. Co., 121 P.3d 1080, 1106 (Okla. 2005). Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiff, there is eyewitness testimony supporting plaintiff's argument that Redd crossed into the other lane and initiated contacted between the two tractor-trailers. Plaintiff has also produced evidence that at the time of the accident that Redd had exceeded the number of hours he could remain in service, and there is evidence that Redd suffers from sleep ...


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