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Mieczkowski v. The Salvation Army

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

January 23, 2017

DAWN MIECZKOWSKI, Plaintiff
v.
THE SALVATION ARMY, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM

          JAMES M. MUNLEY United States District Court

         Before the court for disposition is Defendant Salvation Army's (hereinafter “the defendant”) motion for partial summary judgment on Plaintiff Dawn Mieczkowski's (hereinafter “plaintiff”) punitive damages claims. (Doc. 29). For the reasons that follow, the court will grant the defendant's motion.

         Background

         This case arises from an accidental fall on September 14, 2013, at the Salvation Army Thrift Store located at 739 Sans Souci Parkway, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 31, Def.'s Statement of Uncontested Material Facts (hereinafter “SOF”) ¶ 1).[1] Plaintiff avers that she entered the store to drop off a clothing donation and, as she approached the drop-off location, “an uncontrolled and unkempt accumulation of donated household goods, bags, clothing, toys, and other matter” caused her to fall to the ground and endure serious injuries. (SOF ¶ 3).

         On August 20, 2015, plaintiff filed a complaint alleging counts of negligence and negligent supervision, both of which seek compensatory and punitive damages against the defendant. (Doc. 1, Ex. A., Compl.).[2]On December 16, 2016, the defendant filed the instant motion for partial summary judgment on plaintiff's punitive damages claims. The parties have briefed their respective positions and the matter is ripe for disposition.

         Jurisdiction

         The court has jurisdiction pursuant to the diversity statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Plaintiff is a citizen of Pennsylvania, the defendant is a citizen of New York, and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.[3] (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶ 1, Notice of Removal ¶¶ 6-9, 11). Because complete diversity of citizenship exists between the parties and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, the court has jurisdiction over the case. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (“[D]istrict courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs, and is between . . . citizens of different States[.]”). As a federal court 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)).

         Standard of Review

          Granting summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Knabe v. Boury, 114 F.3d 407, 410 n.4 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). “[T]his standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must examine the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Int'l Raw Materials, Ltd. v. Stauffer Chem. Co., 898 F.2d 946, 949 (3d Cir. 1990). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. A fact is material when it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. Where the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the party moving for summary judgment may meet its burden by establishing that the evidentiary materials of record, if reduced to admissible evidence, would be insufficient to carry the nonmovant's burden of proof at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Once the moving party satisfies its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party, who must go beyond its pleadings, and designate specific facts by the use of affidavits, depositions, admissions, or answers to interrogatories demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324.

         Discussion

         Defendant moves for partial summary judgment on plaintiff's punitive damages claims, contending that no evidence of record establishes defendant's conduct as outrageous. After a careful review, we agree.

         Under Pennsylvania law, punitive damages “are awarded only for outrageous conduct, that is, for acts done with a bad motive or with reckless indifference to the interests of others.” Martin v. Johns-Manville Corp., 494 A.2d 1088, 1097-98 (Pa. 1985). Reckless indifference refers to a conscious disregard of a risk known to the defendant or a risk “so obvious that he must . . . have been aware of it, and so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow.” Evans v. Phila. Transp. Co., 212 A.2d 440, 443 (Pa. 1965). In evaluating the appropriateness of a punitive damages claim, the Court must consider not only the offense itself, but also the circumstances surrounding it, including the wrongdoers' motives and the relationships between all the parties involved. Schwartz v. Rockey, 932 A.2d 885, 890 (Pa. 2007); see also Feld v. Merriam, 485 A.2d 742, 747 (Pa. 1984) (citing Chambers v. Montgomery, 192 A.2d 355, 358 (Pa. 1963)).

         Here, no evidence of record indicates that the defendant acted outrageously, that is, with a bad motive or with reckless indifference to plaintiff's interests. The defendant used an outdoor bin and a truck as designated areas for members of the public to deposit donated goods. (Doc. 32, Ex. A, Photographs). One of the defendant's employees testified that he was responsible for clearing the area around the truck, “time permitting.” (Doc. 32, Ex. B., Dep. of Raymond Konewicz, 9-10). At the time of plaintiff's fall, signage directed the public to “Please Take Donations to Truck, ” where goods had accumulated both inside and outside of the ...


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