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Charles Watts and Sharon Watts v. Eric Hollock and Ayers Towing Service

November 30, 2011

CHARLES WATTS AND SHARON WATTS, PLAINTIFFS
v.
ERIC HOLLOCK AND AYERS TOWING SERVICE, INC. DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Munley

MEMORANDUM

Before the court is Plaintiffs Charles and Sharron Watts' (hereinafter "plaintiffs") motion for leave to amend the complaint. (Doc. 88). Having been fully briefed, the matter is ripe for disposition.

Background

This case arises out of an accident that occurred on October 1, 2008. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶ 5). On that day, Defendant Eric Hollock (hereinafter "Hollock") drove a flatbed trailer up a winding access road along Penobscot Mountain. (Id. ¶¶ 9-13). Hollock was hauling a 40,000-pound hoist to the top of the mountain. (Id.) The truck skid on the road and became ensnared in the mud on the access road. (Id. ¶¶ 18-19). Plaintiff Charles Watts (hereinafter "Watts") was part of a crew of men sent to assist Hollock in freeing the stranded truck. (Id. ¶ 20).

As part of their plan to free the truck, the crew decided to attach a bulldozer to the front of the tractor-trailer and drag it from a jackknifed position to safety. (Id. ¶ 25). They also attached a forklift to the trailer to pull it away from the cliff as the bulldozer pulled the tractor forward. (Id.) Hollock was to sit in the truck's driver's seat to steer as the bulldozer and forklift pulled the trailer around. (Id. ¶ 28). He was not to place the truck in gear or attempt to accelerate the truck until the forklift and bulldozer had been detached. (Id. ¶ 27). Watts's job during this operation was to stand near the forklift as a spotter. (Id. ¶ 29). This operation put the truck in motion, but Hollock allegedly did not follow his assigned role. (Id. ¶ 30). Instead of waiting for the bulldozer and forklift to be detached from his truck, plaintiffs claim Hollock engaged the transmission and started to drive the truck forward. (Id.) When the truck gained traction the line attached to the bulldozer became slack, which caused the forklift to tip over and fall on top of Watts, causing "severe, permanent and catastrophic injuries." (Id. ¶ 31).

Plaintiffs filed a complaint in this action on January 14, 2010. In the complaint, plaintiffs alleged that (1) Hollock acted with recklessness to bring about the October 1, 2008 accident and that he is liable for compensatory and punitive damages, (2) Ayers is vicariously liable for compensatory and punitive damages caused by the reckless conduct of Hollock, its employee and (3) Plaintiff Sharon Watts, Charles Watts's wife, is entitled to damages for loss of consortium. (Id. ¶¶ 37-46). Defendants filed a motion to dismiss plaintiffs' punitive damage claims on March 22, 2010 (Doc. 9), but the parties agreed the motion would be withdrawn, making a ruling by this court unnecessary (Docs. 10, 11). The case was in discovery for approximately one year.

On April 5, 2011, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment requesting the dismissal of the claims for punitive damages. (Doc. 33). On May 5, 2011, the parties entered into a joint stipulation with the consent of the court in which plaintiffs agreed to withdraw their punitive damages claims and defendants agreed to withdraw their motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 46). The court held a pretrial conference, ruled on motions in limine and set this case for trial on February 28, 2012. Plaintiffs now request this court for leave to amend the complaint. Jurisdiction

The court has jurisdiction pursuant to the diversity statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Plaintiffs are residents of Texas. (Doc 1, Compl. ¶ 1). Defendant Eric Hollock is a citizen of Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶ 2). Defendant Ayers Towing Services is a Pennsylvania corporation with a principal place of business in Mountaintop, Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶ 3). Because complete diversity of citizenship exists between the parties and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.00, the court has jurisdiction over the case. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Because we are sitting in diversity, the substantive law of Pennsylvania shall apply to the instant case. Chamberlain v. Giampapa, 210 F.3d 154, 158 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938)).

Discussion

Plaintiffs seek leave of the court to amend their complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15. In conjunction with their request for leave, plaintiffs filed their proposed amended complaint for the court's consideration. (See Doc. 89-1, Ex. F, Am. Compl.). The proposed amendments primarily replace claims of "reckless" conduct with those of "negligent" conduct.

Leave of the court is required under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a)(2) when a party seeks to amend a pleading outside of the time-frame allowed in Rule 15(a)(1).*fn1 Courts are instructed to "freely give leave when justice so requires." FED. R. CIV. P. 15(a)(2). In discussing the requirement that leave to amend be freely given, the Supreme Court held that "[i]f the underlying facts or circumstances relied upon by a plaintiff may be a proper subject for relief, he ought to be afforded an opportunity to test his claim on the merits." Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962). District courts are justified in denying leave to amend when the movant has unduly delayed the case, when the movant seeks leave in bad faith or with a dilatory motive, when granting leave would unduly prejudice the other parties, and when the amendment would prove futile. See Riley v. Taylor, 62 F.3d 86, 90 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Foman, 371 U.S. at 182).

The Third Circuit has "consistently recognized . . . that 'prejudice to the nonmoving party is the touchstone for the denial of an amendment.'" Arthur v. Maersk, Inc., 434 F.3d 196, 204 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Lorenz v. CSX Corp., 1 F.3d 1406, 1413-14 (3d Cir. 1993)). To defeat a motion for leave to amend a complaint, "the non-moving party must do more than merely claim prejudice; 'it must show that it was unfairly disadvantaged or deprived of the opportunity to present facts or evidence which it would have offered had the . . . amendments been timely filed." Bechtel v. Robinson, 886 F.2d 644, 652 (3d Cir. 1989) (quoting Heyl & Patterson Int'l, Inc. v. F. D. Rich Housing of the Virgin Is., Inc., 663 F.2d 419, 426 (3d Cir. 1981)).

Plaintiffs desire to change the degree of care alleged to be violated from recklessness to simple negligence. Plaintiffs do not seek to add new parties or drastically alter the cause of action. Plaintiffs assert that the simple amendments proposed are warranted in light of the joint stipulation dismissing the punitive damages claims.

Defendants claim that plaintiffs must demonstrate recklessness at trial, irrespective of the standard imposed by law, as that is the only standard alleged in the first complaint. Defendants also contend that allowing the proposed amendments would be unduly prejudicial. Defendants cite seven reasons for why they ...


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