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Thompson v. Austin

September 22, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Kosik


This matter is before the court on plaintiff's motion for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, claiming a jury verdict was against the weight of the evidence, and that the court committed various errors during the trial. For the reasons which follow, the motion will be denied.*fn1

Procedural History and Trial Evidence The case has had an extended procedural history which included a host of contentious in limine motions. It went to trial before a jury on June 12, 2006, and the jury returned a general verdict for the defense on June 14, 2006.

At trial, plaintiff Catherine Thompson testified that she got up at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of April 8, 2004. She worked a double shift as a licensed practical nurse. At 11:00 p.m., her shift ended and she proceeded to go home driving a 1994 Mazda Protege. As she drove onto the entrance ramp towards the southbound lanes of I-81 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, she saw two trucks, with the defendant's vehicle leading, put on their blinkers and turn into the left lane of travel. There was a yield sign on the ramp entrance and she accelerated to approximately 50 mph. She did not slow down as she got onto the right lane of I-81. As she got on I-81, the trucks were behind her. While waiting for the trucks to pass, she was suddenly pushed into the left lane sideways. In a spinning mode, she saw the truck of the defendant pass her in the right lane.

On cross-examination, plaintiff said she did not see the truck from the time she was merging on I-81 until after the accident. She could not recall seeing the defendant's truck or its lights blinking to indicate a return to the right lane. Plaintiff claims the right front bumper of the defendant's truck came in contact with the left corner of her vehicle. Plaintiff denies that she told a Donald Davis, who did not witness the accident, that she saw the blinkers on the defendant's truck indicating a lane change to the right, and that she could not get out of its way. Although she was interviewed about the accident by a Pennsylvania State Trooper, she could not recall telling him that after entering I-81 she found herself out of control. She could not tell him how the accident happened, "I guess not, I don't know." The time lapse between getting onto the ramp and I-81 to the accident was approximately three minutes.

Defendant driver Scott Austin lives in Johnson City, New York. For the last couple of years, he has lived with and cared for his mother full time, because of her needs. In 2004, he decided to become a truck driver. He applied for and was accepted at a trucking school in a course that took five weeks, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the weekends driving tractor-trailers much like the one he drove on the night of the accident. At school, he was taught about the use of various mirrors on the vehicles and the existence of blind spots. Upon graduation, he was tested by the State of New York and was licensed to drive tractor-trailers. While he had offers from several trucking firms, he selected defendant Werner Enterprises because of their trucking intern program over six to eight weeks with another driver.

On the evening of the accident, Austin started from a nearby location. His driver trainer was taking his turn sleeping. Austin claims he was traveling at 55 mph when he saw a car on the entry ramp to I-81. He and a truck behind him put on the turn signals to merge in the left or passing lane. He then saw the headlights of a merged vehicle on I-81. Two or three minutes passed and in his mirrors he still reflected the headlights behind him in the right lane. He put on his turn signals to return to the right lane as did the truck behind him. He again looked in his mirror and the headlights he observed were gone. He could not locate plaintiff so he stayed in the lane when suddenly her car showed up in front of him. He did not feel or hear anything, but when he saw plaintiff's vehicle, there was "a little crunching sound." Austin claims he did not move his vehicle into the right lane until after the accident occurred when he slowed and merged to the right to avoid her to his front. He believed that the front of his vehicle made contact with plaintiff's vehicle, although he looked into his mirrors four to six times while his turn signals were engaged and before the accident occurred. Austin testified that he had not moved into the right lane even though it was his intention to do so.

Austin was questioned by the investigating state police officer. The officer never told him he would be cited for any motor vehicle violations yet, he received a citation in the mail. It was not for an improper lane change. The ticket read "traveling for a lane marked for traffic." Austin did not understand the citation but paid it through the mail even though he did not feel at fault. He claims to have had no way to fight it. He had been fired, had no money for a lawyer and lacked reliable transportation or any vehicle at the time.

Trooper Darren Nicholas of the Pennsylvania State Police testified on behalf of the plaintiff. He spoke with both drivers. Austin told him he was traveling south in the left lane, preparing to move to the right lane when suddenly plaintiff appeared in front of him. He did not see her car in his side view mirror nor feel any impact. Plaintiff stated she was driving in the right lane when her car went out of control and hit a wall. "She could only recall seeing a lot of trucks on the road." The officer said he cited Austin for an unsafe lane change, but did not testify as to when he cited Austin.

Plaintiff called Donald Davis, the driver-trainer who accompanied Austin, but who was asleep at the time of the accident. He testified that Austin told him he had hit someone; that he lost sight of plaintiff's vehicle, and ". . .he turned his blinkers on to move back over to the right." Davis testified that there was no blind spot on this vehicle because of the mirrors utilized. After the accident, he noted scrape marks on the passenger side of the bumper on the truck. On cross-examination, he was confronted with his deposition testimony where he stated that in most cases, ". . . if a little car gets alongside of a tractor-trailer, there's virtually nothing that the truck can do." Davis spoke with the plaintiff where "she said that she saw the blinker and tried to move ahead but she couldn't get out of the way enough . . .". Finally, Davis opined that Austin was a very good driver, licensed in New York, and could have been driving by himself.

On the issue of liability, plaintiff called Martin Turcotte by deposition. He drove the tractor-trailer behind Austin. He went through the same maneuvers before the accident. He was asked, ". . . did you see the Werner truck move, at any time, from the left lane to make a lane change into the right lane?". He answered, "Yes." ". . . and the next thing I knew a car shot in front of his truck across the left side of the highway, bounced off the Jersey barrier, and then back across the highway to the right side of the road. . .". The witness did not see the vehicle up to the point of the accident. He was traveling three or four car lengths behind Austin. After the accident, he saw scrape marks on Thompson's vehicle as well as on the truck.

The testimony of Turcotte was a little conflicting as to how far Austin's truck had moved to the right lane. In all events, Austin's blinker lights indicated an intention to return to the right lane. On cross-examination, Turcotte indicated he had no idea of "who hit who." Turcotte stated that while Austin did not deny hitting the Thompson vehicle, he did not admit it either. Austin sought to leave it to the police. Turcotte acknowledged that for him to say how the accident occurred it would require speculation.

Plaintiff called Kerry Nelson, an accident reconstructionist, who reviewed the evidence acquired in discovery. He opined that the accident occurred because Austin moved from the left lane to the right lane and impacted the Thompson vehicle. He also opined that there were no blind spots with Austin's vehicle because of the configuration of the mirrors on the tractor. Austin should have been able to see plaintiff. We should note that there is no consistency in the trial evidence that Austin moved or the extent of his move into the right lane.

The court submitted the case to the jury on a general verdict because we denied the defense point for ...

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