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Thomas v. Shutika

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 4, 2014



MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

This is a civil rights action brought by Jeffrey Thomas, and his wife, Ishaye Thomas, against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and an employee of the state Department of Corrections, Mark Shutika. (Doc. 1.) According to the Thomases' complaint, in January of 2011, Jeffrey Thomas was incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution Rockview, when he was ordered by defendant Shutika to operate a jackhammer as part of a work detail at this facility. Thomas alleges that he was untrained in the operation of this equipment and unequipped with safety shoes, but was nonetheless coerced by the defendant to undertake this work assignment. According to Thomas, due to his lack of training and safety equipment he suffered multiple fractures to his right foot as a result of the jackhammer jumping and crushing his foot. (Id.) Following this factual recital, Thomas' complaint brings four claims against the defendants: (1) a civil rights claims against defendant Shutika under Title 42, U.S. Code Section 1983 (Doc. 1, Count I.); (2) a state law negligence claim against defendant Shutika; (Doc. 1, Count II.); (3) a claim of respondeat superior liability against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (Doc. 1, Count III.); and (4) a claim on behalf of Ishaye Thomas, Jeffrey Thomas' spouse, for loss of consortium as a result of her husband's injuries. (Doc. 1, Count IV.)

This matter now comes before the Court on a motion for summary judgment filed by the defendants. (Doc. 36.) With respect to this motion the facts-both disputed and undisputed-can be simply stated.[1]

The undisputed facts can be stated in broad brush. In January of 2011, Jeffrey Thomas was a state inmate, housed at the State Correctional Institution, Rockview, where he was assigned to an outside prison work detail supervised by the defendant, Mark Shutika. In January, 2011, Thomas and another inmate, Bradford May, were assigned to do perform work at a residence located on the prison grounds, including landscaping, and using a jackhammer to demolish some outdoor concrete. Sometime after defendant Shutika delivered the two inmates to this work site, Thomas suffered a crushing foot injury when the jackhammer he was operating jumped, striking his foot and causing multiple fractures of the foot.

Beyond the stark outline of these undisputed facts, much of what transpired during this incident is disputed and contested. There are three participants and witnesses to these events-the defendant, Mark Shutika; the plaintiff, Jeffrey Thomas; and an inmate, Bradford May. Each of these witness-participants provides a different factual narrative regarding what occurred at this worksite.

For his part, defendant Shutika insists that when he delivered Thomas and May to their worksite on the morning of the accident he instructed May to operate the jackhammer. (Doc. 38-4.) Thus, Shutika denies assigning Thomas to perform this work, and completely disputes Thomas' account that he was threatened with discipline by Shutika if he did not undertake this work.

In stark contrast, the plaintiff, Jeffrey Thomas, insists that when they arrived at the worksite, Shutika assigned him to operate the jackhammer, a piece of heavy equipment which he had never operated before. (Doc. 38-3.) Thomas insists that he protested this work assignment, which he regarded as dangerous due to his lack of training, but was threatened with disciplinary action if he refused this order. (Id.) Under the compulsion of threatened discipline, Thomas states that he attempted to operate this equipment, and promptly suffered a severe foot injury. (Id.)

The third participant in these events, inmate Bradford May, provides yet another narrative thread to this episode, a narrative which at various points corroborates and contradicts the accounts of both Thomas and Shutika. (Doc. 38-2.) Thus, May states that when he and Thomas arrived at the job site Shutika assigned Thomas to operate the jackhammer, contradicting Shutika's account of these job assignments. (Id.) May, however, is unable to confirm Thomas' assertion that Thomas protested this assignment, and was forced to undertake this work upon threat of discipline, stating that he simply does not know what transpired between the plaintiff and defendant. Further, May-who had operated the jackhammer in the past-undermines to some degree Thomas' assertions regarding the danger of this equipment and the need for training prior to operating the jackhammer, describing the operation of this particular piece of heavy equipment as largely a matter of common sense.[2]

It is against this factual background, a background marked by sharply defined factual disputes, that this summary judgment motion comes before us for consideration. Given the factual conflicts in this case, conflicts which relate directly to matters that lie at the heart of this lawsuit, for the reason set forth below the motion will be denied.

II. Discussion

A. Summary Judgment, Standard of Review

The defendants have moved for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that "[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P., Rule 56 (a). Through summary adjudication a court is empowered to dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine issue as to any material fact, " Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, and for which a trial would be "an empty and unnecessary formality." Univac Dental Co. v. Dentsply Int'l, Inc., No. 07-0493 , 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31615, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2010). The substantive law identifies which facts are material, and "[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute about a material fact is genuine only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis that would allow a reasonable fact finder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 248-49.

The moving party has the initial burden of identifying evidence that it believes shows an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Conoshenti v. Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co. , 364 F.3d 135, 145-46 (3d Cir. 2004). Once the moving party has shown that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's claims, "the non-moving party must rebut the motion with facts in the record and cannot rest solely on assertions made in the pleadings, legal memoranda, or oral argument." Berckeley Inv. Group. Ltd. v. Colkitt , 455 F.3d 195, 201 (3d Cir. 2006); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). If the nonmoving party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden at trial, " summary judgment is appropriate. Celotex , 477 U.S. at 322. Summary judgment is also appropriate if the non-moving party provides merely colorable, conclusory, or speculative evidence. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 249. There must be more than a scintilla of evidence supporting the nonmoving party and more than some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. ...

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