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Pennington v. King

February 19, 2009

QUENTIN PENNINGTON, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
NOBLE R. KING, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gene E. K. Pratter United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

GENE E.K. PRATTER, J.

Roadway accidents too often end in loss of life and limb, leaving litigation as a poor substitute to deal with the results of a tragedy. This is such a case. Here, the accident occurred between the driver of a Sport Utility Vehicle ("SUV") and the driver of a tractor-trailer, resulting in the death of the SUV driver and personal injuries to her front-seat passenger. Plaintiffs,*fn1 including the Estate of Ms. Kathy Walton, the deceased SUV driver, and her passenger, Mr. Quentin Pennington, sued the driver of the tractor-trailer, Mr. Noble R. King, and his business CH&T Express. Plaintiffs are advancing claims for wrongful death, personal injuries, and loss of vehicle. After the close of discovery, Defendants filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment as to the claim for punitive damages, and also requested that the Court exclude all evidence of, and references to, Mr. King's alleged use of marijuana some 36 hours prior to the accident and what Plaintiffs contend was his alleged resulting impairment. Plaintiffs oppose the motion.

For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants the Motion as to the exclusion of all evidence of, and references to, Mr. King's use of marijuana and his supposed resulting impairment, but denies the Motion as to the claims for punitive damages.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

A. Overview of Punitive Damages Claim

Plaintiffs allege that decedent, Ms. Kathy Walton, was killed when the SUV she was driving collided with the tractor-trailer that Mr. King was driving. Compl. at ¶¶ 6, 8. The front seat passenger of Ms. Walton's SUV, Mr. Quentin Pennington, was injured, causing him "to endure considerable pain and suffering and to lose earnings and future earning capacity." Compl. at ¶ 14; see also id. at ¶¶ 7-8. In addition, Ms. Walton's SUV was "so damaged as to be worthless other than for salvage." Compl. at ¶ 16.

Plaintiffs allege that on the morning of the accident, Mr. King "was operating his tractor trailer while under the influence of marijuana in violation of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code[,] which violation constitutes reckless, gross negligence and wantonness for which Plaintiffs seek exemplary damages." Compl. at ¶ 15. At oral argument, Plaintiffs' counsel explained further that their punitive damages claim was based on the alleged erratic and reckless driving of Mr. King, presumably without necessarily implicating the specific reference to marijuana. Oral Argument Tr. at 16. Defense counsel did not contend that the punitive damages claim is dependent exclusively on the marijuana predicate. (Indeed, defense counsel concentrates more on the defense contention that the decedent herself was negligent, an issue left for another day. Oral Argument Tr. at 28-29.)

B. The Collision

Prior to the accident, Ms. Walton's SUV and Mr. King's tractor-trailer were traveling on State Route 283 in proximity to each other for approximately ten minutes. Deposition of Quentin Pennington ("Pennington Dep."), Plfs.' Ex. A, at 95, 100. Mr. King was talking to his wife on a cellular phone. Deposition of Noble King ('King Dep."), Defs.' Ex. B at 22-23, 25; Deposition of Sergeant Jeffrey G. Mullin ("Mullin Dep."), Defs.' Ex. E, at 37.

There was time and opportunity for Mr. Pennington to observe the driving of Mr. King during this time. Pennington Dep., Plfs.' Ex. A, at 97-125. Mr. Pennington testified that when Ms. Walton's SUV first encountered the tractor-trailer, the tractor-trailer was 25 feet behind Ms. Walton's SUV in the left-hand lane. Id. at 98. According to Mr. Pennington, the tractor-trailer "[m]ade [an] attempt to overtake [Ms. Walton's SUV], but it seemed like [Mr. King] didn't fully -- like he wanted -- like he wanted to keep going past, but then he dropped, let off the gas." Id. Mr. Pennington described some back and forth movement that occurred between the two vehicles in the minutes before the accident, noting that the tractor-trailer did not pass Ms. Walton or get into the right lane at any time prior to the accident. Id. at 96-107. Mr. Pennington also said that, in the final moments before the accident, "there was a little back and forth [between the two vehicles], but it wasn't -- wasn't so much that it was very noticeable." Id. at 117.

Plaintiffs' accident reconstruction expert, Mr. James E. Baranowski, opined that as Ms. Walton's SUV and Mr. King's tractor-trailer were traveling west, Mr. King "was traveling beside the Walton vehicle for several miles, not allowing [Ms. Walton] to pass him." Report of James E. Baranowski ("Baranowski Rept."), Plfs.' Ex. B, at 3. Mr. Baranowski reconstructed the moments before the accident:

In an attempt to pass the King vehicle, Walton speed [sic] up her vehicle to approximately 75 MPH. As she pulled ahead of the King vehicle, she attempted to move into the left lane. King accelerated his vehicle to between 76 and 85 MPH. The right front of the King vehicle struck the left rear of the Walton vehicle, causing ...


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