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Woodruff v. Sullivan County Rural Electric Cooperative

April 25, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo


Presently before the Court are two (2) Motions to Dismiss Plaintiff Debra Ann Woodruff's Complaint (Doc. 1) or in the Alternative, to Dismiss Claims for Punitive Damages, filed by Defendant Henkels & McCoy, Inc. (Doc. 12) and by Defendants Commonwealth Communications, Commonwealth Telephone Company, Commonwealth Telephone Enterprises, Inc., and Epix Internet Services (Doc. 20). Because Plaintiff's Complaint states a claim of negligence upon which relief can be granted against moving Defendants, but because she does not state a claim to punitive damages, Defendants' motions will be granted in part and denied in part. The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332.


Plaintiff Debra Ann Woodruff ("Woodruff") is a resident of New York, as was her decedent, Jonathan Alan Woodruff. (Compl., Doc. 1 ¶¶ 1-2.) Plaintiff alleges that all Defendants have principal places of business in Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶¶ 4-13.) Plaintiff also alleges the following: Commonwealth Telephone Enterprises ("CTE") is a telecommunications company; Commonwealth Telephone Company ("CT") is one of CTE's primary operating segments and is a local exchange carrier in rural Pensylvania; Epix Internet Services ("Epix") is a support business under CTE providing rural dial-up internet services; and Commonwealth Communications ("CC") is a subsidiary of CTE and a provider of telecommunications equipment and facilities management services. (Id. ¶¶ 8-11.) Defendants CTE, CT, Epix, and CC, which provide telecommunications services to residential and commercial entities within Pennsylvania, were in the process of running communications wires, using the electric distribution poles owned by Defendant Sullivan County Rural Electric Cooperative ("REC"). (Id. ¶¶ 12, 14.) In this work, they hired Defendant Henkels & McCoy as the subcontractor. (Id. ¶ 13.)

Plaintiff's decedent, Jonathan Woodruff, was an employee of Whittaker Communications, a subcontractor hired to perform work on certain telephone lines located between six (6) and nine (9) feet below the electric distribution lines, and Splice On Communications is the successor in interest to Whittaker Communications. (Id. ¶¶ 15-16.) Pursuant to certain joint use pole agreements, Jonathan Woodruff, as a Whittaker employee, had permission to run telephone wires on the electric distribution poles owned by REC. (Id. ¶ 17.)

On September 26, 2005, at approximately 2:45 p.m., Plaintiff's decedent was in the bucket of a utility truck working on telephone communication wires between the poles, six (6) to nine (9) feet below the energized power line owned by REC, when "facilities and equipment and wires on the power pole suddenly and without warning arced, electrocuting Decedent," and causing him fatal injuries. (Id. ¶¶ 18-19.)

Plaintiff brought this suit against all the moving Defendants for common law negligence (Count II) and wrongful death pursuant to 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8301 and Pa. R. Civ. P. No. 2202(a) (Count IV), and against all moving Defendants except Defendant CC, a Survival Action pursuant to 20 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3373 and 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8302 for damages suffered by decedent, Plaintiff, and decedent's children as a result of the Defendants' alleged negligence (Count III). (Id. ¶¶ 34-60.) Defendants CTE, CT, Epix, CC, and Henkels & McCoy filed motions to dismiss these claims, or in the alternative, to dismiss the claims against them for punitive damages. (Docs. 12 & 20.) These motions are fully briefed and ripe for disposition.


Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting as true all the facts alleged in the complaint, Plaintiff has not plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face," Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. ----, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1960, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007), meaning, enough factual allegations "to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of" each necessary element. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008); see also Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993) (requiring complaint to set forth information from which each element of a claim may be inferred). In light of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), the statement need only "give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Erickson v. Pardus, --- U.S. ----, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007) (per curiam). "[T]he factual detail in a complaint [must not be] so undeveloped that it does not provide a defendant the type of notice of claim which is contemplated by Rule 8." Phillips, 515 F.3d at 232; see also Airborne Beepers & Video, Inc. v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 499 F.3d 663, 667 (7th Cir. 2007).

In deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court should consider the allegations in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint and matters of public record. See Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1042 (1994). The Court may also consider "undisputedly authentic" documents where the plaintiff's claims are based on the documents and the defendant has attached a copy of the document to the motion to dismiss. Id. The Court need not assume that the plaintiff can prove facts that were not alleged in the complaint, see City of Pittsburgh v. West Penn Power Co., 147 F.3d 256, 263 (3d Cir. 1998), nor credit a complaint's "bald assertions" or "legal conclusions." Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997).

When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court's role is limited to determining whether the plaintiff is entitled to offer evidence in support of the claims. See Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). The Court does not consider whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail. See id. The defendant bears the burden of establishing that the plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See Gould Elecs. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 178 (3d Cir. 2000).


I. Plaintiff's Allegations of Negligence

All of Plaintiff's claims against the moving Defendants sound in negligence. To state a claim of negligence, Plaintiff must allege (1) a duty owed by the Defendants to decedent, (2) a breach of that duty by Defendants, (3) that the breach was the proximate cause of the harm suffered, and (4) that the damages suffered were a direct result of the harm. See Quinby v. Plumsteadville Family Practice, Inc., 907 ...

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