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Lamaze v. Vidov Trucking

March 12, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stengel, J.


In this wrongful death and survival action, the defendants have moved to dismiss the claim for punitive damages. They argue that the plaintiff, Joseph LaMaze, failed to allege all necessary material elements for an award of punitive damages. (Defs.' Mem. at 1 (Document #4).) After reviewing the parties' memoranda, I will deny the motion.

I. Background

On or about November 11, 2008, Robert Kostadinov, an employee of Vidov Truckin, Inc., was operating a flat bed tractor trailer carrying a cargo container in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. (Compl. ¶ 11.) He was driving the truck on State Route 22. (Id.)

In Lehigh County, State Route 22 is crossed by various bridges. One of these is the Fullerton Avenue Bridge. (Id. ¶ 13.) As Mr. Kostadinov drove the vehicle beneath the Fullerton Avenue Bridge, the cargo container struck the bottom of the bridge, was dislodged from its moorings, and slipped off of the truck bed onto the roadway. (Id. ¶ 14.)

Michele LaMaze was driving her car behind the tractor trailer. (Id. ¶ 15.) When the cargo container was ejected from the truck bed, it struck the driver's side of her vehicle. (Id.) Ms. LaMaze suffered numerous internal and external injuries and died. (Id. ¶¶ 35--36.)

A sign on the Fullerton Avenue Bridge that was fully visible to all motor vehicle operators traveling in the same direction as Mr. Kostadinov and Ms. LaMaze read as follows: "Clearance, 13 ft. 10 in." with two down arrows. (Id. ¶ 16.) This presumably warned all drivers of the maximum vehicle height. Mr. LaMaze has further alleged that the sign actually understates the maximum possible clearance, and has stated that "at its lowest point, [the bottom of the bridge is] at least 14 feet, 2 inches above the road surface." (Id. ¶ 19.) Based on these facts, he believes that the vehicle's total height exceeded 14 feet, 2 inches. (Id. ¶ 28.)

Pennsylvania law provides, "No vehicle, including any load, shall exceed a height of 13 feet 6 inches." 75 PENN. STAT. ANN. § 4922 (West 2008). Those wishing to operate a vehicle exceeding the statutorily prescribed height must apply for special permits. Id. § 4961(a)(3). Mr. LaMaze alleges that the defendants knew (or had reason to know) of these state regulations and still did not secure the necessary permit. (Compl. ¶ 22.) They knew, or had reason to know, their conduct created a serious risk of harm to the general public. (Id. ¶¶ 23, 27.) They failed to determine the height of the vehicle so as to allow for proper operation and route planning. (Id. ¶ 34(b).) They failed to observe the bridge clearance sign, which would have warned Mr. Kostadinov that the vehicle was too high. (Id. ¶ 34(e).) Finally, they improperly loaded the cargo container onto a vehicle that did not provide for proper securing and did not meet the state's height requirements. (Id. ¶¶ 31--32.) The culmination of these allegedly reckless actions led to Ms. LaMaze's death.

Mr. LaMaze's complaint lists three counts: (1) a survival action against Mr. Kostadinov for the pain, suffering, mental anguish, and economic loss Ms. LaMaze endured and for the medical, funeral, and administrative expenses Mr. LaMaze has paid (Id. ¶¶ 33--39); (2) a similar survival action against Vidov Trucking (Id. ¶¶ 40--44); and (3) a wrongful death action brought on behalf of Ms. LaMaze's thirteen-year-old son, Tyler LaMaze-Bridgwood (Id. ¶¶ 45--50.)

II. Standard of review

A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted examines the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). The factual allegations must be sufficient to make the claim for relief more than just speculative. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 US 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007). In determining whether to grant a motion to dismiss, a federal court must construe the complaint liberally, accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Id. See also D.P. Enters. v. Bucks County Cmty. Coll., 725 F.2d 943, 944 (3d Cir. 1984).

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not require a plaintiff to plead in detail all of the facts upon which he bases his claim. Conley, 355 U.S. at 47. Rather, the Rules require a "short and plain statement" of the claim that will give the defendant fair notice of the plaintiff's claim and the grounds upon which it rests. Id. The "complaint must allege facts suggestive of [the proscribed] conduct." Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1969. Neither "bald assertions" nor "vague and conclusory allegations" are accepted as true. See Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997); Sterling v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Auth., 897 F. Supp. 893 (E.D. Pa. 1995). The claim must contain enough factual matters to suggest the required elements of the claim or to "raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of" those elements. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1965)).

III. Discussion

The standard for awarding punitive damages is well-settled in Pennsylvania. "Punitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant's evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others." Hutchinson v. Luddy, 870 A.2d 766, 770 (Pa. 2005) (quoting Feld v. Merriam, 485 A.2d 742, 747 (Pa. 1984)). Their purpose is to punish the defendant for his actions and to deter other persons from engaging in like conduct. Thus, they are appropriate only when ...

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