United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
PATTY C. WILSON, Individually and as Administratrix of the Estate of Jerry Wilson, Deceased, Plaintiff,
TA OPERATING, LLC, and TRESTON WESLEY HARRIS, Defendants.
MATTHEW W. BRANN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
fateful October afternoon in 2011, tractor trailer driver
Jerry Wilson was traveling along Interstate 80 East in
Clinton County, Pennsylvania when his front brakes caught
fire. Mr. Wilson extinguished the flames and guided his rig
to the nearest service center, TA Operating, LLC, in Lamar.
primary technician who serviced the truck, Treston Wesley
Harris, knew about the recent blaze. In fact, Mr. Wilson also
purchased a new fire extinguisher from the establishment.
Thereafter, Mr. Harris purportedly repaired Mr. Wilson's
brakes, sent him on his way, and the trucker soon got back on
the road again.
minutes later and about fifteen miles east of the repair
shop, Mr. Wilson's brakes caught fire once more. At that
time, nearly 7:00 in the evening and on a desolate stretch of
highway, Mr. Wilson pulled his tractor trailer onto the
shoulder and deployed his fire extinguisher. When it failed
to quench the flames, he attempted to use a jug of water from
his truck's cabin.
makes this case truly uncommon and exceptionally tragic,
however, is what happened next. In the heat of the moment,
Mr. Wilson's heart stopped beating, and he died at that
spot alongside the roadway. The first passersby to witness
the scene discovered an unresponsive Mr. Wilson lying on the
ground with an empty water container still clutched in his
spoken in prior decisions as to the thorny causal issues this
case presents. Today, however, the sole determination before
the Court is whether the Defendants' conduct exhibited
the kind of recklessness for which a reasonable jury could
award the Plaintiff punitive damages. Applying prevailing
Pennsylvania law, I believe that the answer is yes.
the presumption that punitive damages are a rare measure, the
record is besmirched with serious factual questions that go
directly to the training, experience, supervision,
thoroughness, and knowledge of both remaining Defendants.
That those questions remain in dispute, as commemorated by
less than confidence-inspiring deposition testimony, is a
troubling facet of this litigation.
those reasons and in accordance with the discussion that
follows, Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment
as to Plaintiff's claim for punitive damages is denied.
of the principal purposes of the summary judgment rule is to
isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims or
defenses, and we think it should be interpreted in a way that
allows it to accomplish this purpose.” Summary judgment
is appropriate where “the movant shows that there is no
genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is
entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”“Facts that
could alter the outcome are ‘material facts, ' and
disputes are ‘genuine' if evidence exists from
which a rational person could conclude that the position of
the person with the burden of proof on the disputed issue is
defendant meets this standard when there is an absence of
evidence that rationally supports the plaintiff's
case.” “A plaintiff, on the other hand,
must point to admissible evidence that would be sufficient to
show all elements of a prima facie case under
applicable substantive law.”
inquiry involved in a ruling on a motion for summary judgment
or for a directed verdict necessarily implicates the
substantive evidentiary standard of proof that would apply at
the trial on the merits.” Thus, “[i]f the defendant
in a run-of-the-mill civil case moves for summary judgment or
for a directed verdict based on the lack of proof of a
material fact, the judge must ask himself not whether he
thinks the evidence unmistakably favors one side or the other
but whether a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the
plaintiff on the evidence presented.” “The mere
existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the
plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be
evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the
plaintiff.” “The judge's inquiry, therefore,
unavoidably asks . . . ‘whether there is [evidence]
upon which a jury can properly proceed to find a verdict for
the party producing it, upon whom the onus of proof is
party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial
responsibility of informing the district court of the basis
for its motion, and identifying those portions of the
pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and
admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,
which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue
of material fact.” “[R]egardless of whether the
moving party accompanies its summary judgment motion with
affidavits, the motion may, and should, be granted so long as
whatever is before the district court demonstrates that the
standard for the entry of summary judgment, as set forth in
Rule 56(c), is satisfied.”
the movant properly supports his motion, the nonmoving party,
to avoid summary judgment, must answer by setting forth
“genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved
only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be
resolved in favor of either party.” For movants
and nonmovants alike, the assertion “that a fact cannot
be or is genuinely disputed” must be supported by: (i)
“citing to particular parts of materials in the
record” that go beyond “mere allegations”;
(ii) “showing that the materials cited do not establish
the absence or presence of a genuine dispute”; or (iii)
“showing . . . that an adverse party cannot produce
admissible evidence to support the fact.”
opposing summary judgment, the non-movant may not rest upon
mere allegations, but rather must ‘identify those facts
of record which would contradict the facts identified by the
movant.'” Moreover, “[i]f a party fails to
properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly
address another party's assertion of fact as required by
Rule 56(c), the court may . . . consider the fact undisputed
for purposes of the motion.” On motion for summary
judgment, “[t]he court need consider only the cited
materials, but it may consider other materials in the
the summary judgment stage the judge's function is not
himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the
matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for
trial.” “[T]here is no issue for trial
unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving
party for a jury to return a verdict for that
party.” “If the evidence is merely
colorable . . . or is not significantly probative, summary
judgment may be granted.”
2005, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reiterated the
Commonwealth's standard for assessing punitive damages In
Hutchison ex rel. Hutchison v. Luddy, In
Hutchison, then Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille
confirmed that nothing prohibits a plaintiff in a negligence
action from “undertaking the additional burden”
of showing that punitive damages are warranted. To the
contrary, the Supreme Court observed that many of its leading
punitive damages decisions involved negligence
claims. Speaking to the case's facts, the
plaintiff in Hutchison was sexually victimized as a
child by a local clergyman. The victim had since argued
that the diocese to which the priest belonged should incur
punitive damages, on the ground that its negligent
supervision of the offender evidenced a reckless disregard
for its parishioners' safety. The Supreme Court agreed.
explained the well-settled standard governing the assessment
of punitive damages as follows: “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.” As such, because the aim of
punitive damages is the deterrence of outrageous conduct,
proof that the defendant acted with a “malicious,
wanton, reckless, willful, or oppressive” state of mind
is “vital” to the plaintiffs
federal court sitting in diversity must apply state
substantive law,  and I have applied the standard from
Hutchison, often by direct quotation, in a number of
recent cases involving punitive damages counts in this
division of the Court:
• Tucker v. Horn, No. 4:16-CV-0071, 2016 WL
4679018, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 7, 2016) (“Under
Pennsylvania law, punitive damages are only available to
compensate ‘for conduct that is outrageous, because of
the defendant's evil motive or his reckless indifference
to the rights of others.'”);
• Cerreta v. Red Roof Inns, Inc., No.
4:16-CV-0706, 2016 WL 4611689, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 6, 2016)
• Flook v. Maxx, No. 4:15-CV-02069, 2016 WL
69619, at *2 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 6, 2016) (same);
• Williams v. Nealis, No. 4:15-CV-01950, 2016
WL 2610029, at *3 (M.D. Pa. May 6, 2016) (“To succeed
on a claim for punitive damages under Pennsylvania law, a
plaintiff must establish that the defendant's conduct was
outrageous because of his or her ‘evil motive' or
‘reckless indifference to the rights of
• Fassett v. Sears Holdings Corp., No.
4:15-CV-00941, 2015 WL 5093397, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 28,
2015) (“[I]t is true that punitive damages are
warranted only for ‘behavior which is willful,
malicious, or so careless as to indicate wanton disregard for
the rights of the parties injured.'”);
• Russell v. Chesapeake Appalachia, L.L.C., No.
4:14-CV-00148, 2014 WL 6634892, at *2 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 21,
2014) (“To establish a punitive damages claim,
‘the state of mind of the actor is vital. The act, or
the failure to act, must be intentional, reckless or
fact, a recent search reveals that the judges of this Court
have cited the Hutchison case at least seventy-five
times since its publication.
that guidance here, I note that the case presently before the
Court does not involve willful or malicious conduct-either of
which would command a more straightforward outcome. As far as
discovery has revealed, no one intentionally meddled with Mr.
Wilson's brakes, hoping that calamity would ensue. No one
disputes that. Still, under Hutchison and its
progeny, the Plaintiff may neverthless prevail at this
juncture if the Defendants actions or inactions evidence a
reckless disregard for Mr. Wilson's safety. This motion
thus turns on a singular question: was the Defendants'
repair of Mr. Wilson's vehicle reckless? As it turns out,
however, such a narrow construction is deceptively simple.
have termed recklessness “one of the most poorly
understood” and “one of the murkiest standards in
tort.” The Supreme Court of the United States,
for instance, has described incremental levels of culpability
between negligence and intent, such as deliberate
indifference, recklessness, or gross negligence, as
“nebulous.” And other federal courts, too, have
described the boundaries between such descriptors as gross
negligence and recklessness as
“amorphous.”Consequently and in an attempt to
clarify this ambiguity, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
also explained in Hutchison that a punitive damages
claim premised upon reckless indifference may succeed if the
plaintiff satisfies two conditions: first, that “a
defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm
to which the plaintiff was exposed, ” and second, that
“he acted, or failed to act, as the case may be, in
conscious disregard of that risk.”
the outset, one thing is certain: the two factors enumerated
by Pennsylvania's highest court certainly contemplate a
fact-intensive inquiry. Whether a defendant
“subjectively appreciated” and “consciously
disregarded” any risk of harm are both undoubtedly
questions that depend on the nuanced circumstances of each
case. A court's job would be much different if mere
negligence or blatant malice were evident, but searching for
facts to establish “reckless indifference”
presents a much more complicated set of circumstances-
perhaps one best suited for a jury's determination.
United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has
advised, “a court should be reluctant to grant a motion
for summary judgment when resolution of the dispositive issue
requires a determination of state of mind, for in such cases
much depends upon the credibility of witnesses testifying as
to their own states of mind, and assessing credibility is a
delicate matter best left to the fact
finder.” By extension, the Honorable Sylvia H.
Rambo of this Court has explained, this is particularly apt
advice “when a dispositive issue requires a
determination of a party's state of
case law frequently reinforces this advice when the
recklessness of an actor is at issue: “[R]ecklessness
usually presents questions of fact unsuitable for summary
judgment unless no reasonable mind can differ as to the
conclusion.”“Viewing the record in a light most
favorable to Plaintiff, a question of fact therefore remains
as to whether Defendant's action rose to the level of
recklessness.” “Because there are questions of
material fact regarding whether [the Defendant] was acting in
a reckless manner at the time of the collision, the Motion
for Partial Summary Judgment will be
not mean to convey that an issue involving recklessness can
never appropriately be disposed of at the summary judgment
stage. That is plainly an overstatement. For instances, could
the facts in a case's record, taken together, only ever
rise to the level of mere negligence, then summary judgment
would be appropriate there as a matter of law. So, the
central question here really is whether a reasonable jury,
after considering all of the facts and circumstances, could
determine that the Defendants acted recklessly? In light of
the evidence to which I now turn, I believe that such a jury
could decide as much, and therefore, partial summary judgment
as to the Plaintiff's punitive damages claim must be
is replete with examples of courts in states with similar
standards for assessing punitive damages as Pennsylvania
allowing claims involving faulty automotive repair to be
decided by a jury. In Nichols v. Baker, for example,
the Supreme Court of Arizona refused to disturb a jury
verdict that had found that a commercial trucking company
acted “wantonly” when it failed to properly
repair brakes on one of its trucks. The faulty brakes
ultimately required the drive (the plaintiff in
Nichols) to jump from the truck when it failed to
negotiate a curve at the bottom of a steep
hill. Two months prior to the accident,
another driver had told the truck's prior owner (the
defendant in Nichols) that the brakes had failed,
but he declined to have the brakes adequately
repaired. Such facts sufficiently supported the
conclusion that the prior owner's inaction “not
only creates an unreasonable risk of bodily harm to the
plaintiff but also involves a high degree of probability that
substantial harm will result.”
in Goff v. Lubbock Building Products, the Texas
Court of Appeals, the state's intermediary court, upheld
a jury verdict awarding enhanced damages against a building
products company that failed to adequately maintain the
brakes on one of its trucks. The defective brakes were a
primary factor in an automobile collision that killed a
passenger in another vehicle. Despite its knowledge of the
truck's brake problems, the company failed to adequately
repair them and assigned a young, inexperienced driver to
operate the truck on the day of the accident.According to
the Goff court, that was sufficient to show that the
trucking company acted with a “conscious indifference
of the rights or welfare of others.”
courts have similarly recognized that botched automotive
repairs may rise to the level of recklessness. In Burrows
v. Core-Mark International, Inc., for example, the
United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a
jury award of punitive against a delivery truck
company. The plaintiff, who was the victim of a
motor vehicle accident caused by one of the defendant's
delivery trucks, alleged that the company failed to notice
and repair the defective brakes. The employee who was
required by law to perform a pre-trip inspection testified
that he could not recall completing it. Likewise, the
court considered that the brakes were out of adjustment
immediately following the accident constituted circumstantial
evidence of inadequate inspection. Thus, the court concluded
that there was sufficient evidence in the record that would
enable a reasonable jury to conclude that the defendants
acted wantonly or with deliberate indifference.
addition, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth
Circuit made the following relevant observation in a case
involving claims similar to the ones at bar:
The analogy can be drawn to a mechanic who fails to test the
brakes on a car. Assuming that the examination should have
been conducted, the mechanic is negligent but not liable for
punitive damages unless it can be shown that he
or she knew or had reason to know that the brakes were faulty
and thus a substantial likelihood existed that the brakes
would fail and result in great bodily
another case, the United States District Court for the
District of Kansas permitted a punitive damages claim to
reach the jury where a highway accident was caused by a lost
tire. In Simpson v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., the
plaintiff's left front tire and rim came loose and fell
off his vehicle just six days after it had been serviced at
the defendant's shop. The mechanic who worked on
plaintiff's vehicle did not certify on the service ticket
that the lug nuts had been securely tightened to manufacturer
specifications. In addition, even though a test drive
was required by the defendant's service manual in all
instances where a tire was removed during repair, a test
drive was not taken. The mechanic in question had only been
working for defendant for two weeks, he had no prior
automotive experience, and he was eventually terminated for
the court concluded that summary judgment was inappropriate
as to the punitive damage issue to the extent that defendant
could be construed as having authorized the mechanic's
conduct. The court noted that “there is
some evidence that the company and its managing agents knew
or should have known that [the mechanic] and other employees
were not following certain company procedures which were
designed to prevent wheel-offs and insure that tire rotations
were performed properly.” The court noted that
“[t]here is also evidence that the failure to comply
with certain procedures is causally related to [the
the facts in the present case certainly do not reveal
evidence of malicious intent, they are not so innocuous as to
mandate a grant of summary judgment. To the contrary, whether
punitive damages are warranted here depends on several
disputed factual issues as to training, experience, and
supervision, which are properly reserved to the jury.
the outset, Defendant Treston Wesley Harris's testimony
was less than reassuring:
Q. Okay. So which did you believe was the problem, the
parking brake or the brakes when you pressed the pedal?
A. Why would it be parking brake if I took the line off the
other one? I took the line off the service side. That's
the pedal part. Not the button parking brake part.
Q. Okay. Well, didn't you replace the spring brake valve?
Q. Isn't that the parking brake?
A. No, it's the valve.
Q. Okay. So the spring brake valve is not part of the parking
A. I have no idea.
A. You are getting me all confused here, buddy.
Q. Well, what did you replace?
A. I replaced the spring brake valve. It says right there on
the work order.
Q. I know. Isn't that part of the parking brake? Do you
know- do you know-
Q. If that's part of the parking brake?
Q. Wasn't that something you think would be important to
know when you're making repairs on someone's brakes,
whether or not you're repairing the parking brake or the
brake when you pushed the pedal?
A. I was working with a tech.
Q. I asked you if you thought that was important for you to
A. Yeah, I'm sure I would have asked the question because
I was working with the tech.
Q. You sure that you would have asked the question, am I
replacing a part for the parking brake or am I replacing the
part for the brakes for the pedals; do you think you asked
A. I don't know. Sir, this shit was four years
the record calls into the question the source and extent of
Mr. Harris's experience and training as to brake repairs.
Mr. Harris attended school until at least the eleventh grade
and later obtained his GED. He testified that he had never
worked on tractor trailers prior to starting at TA Operating
in July 2010 at age 25.
being elevated in rank to a “Tech 2” in February
2011, Mr. Harris did not receive the prescribed brake
training that would typically have attended such an
advancement. In fact, he had not even participated in that
training course prior to working on Wilson's brakes eight
months later. When asked why Mr. Harris did not
receive the training in a timely fashion, Donald Nyman, Jr.,
the shop's general manager answered, “I didn't
really look at it. I didn't know the time frame
countervailing argument is that Mr. Harris received some
level of supervision from Mr. Garbrick, the supervisory
mechanic at TA Operating's Lamar site on the date in
question, to accommodate for his lack of experience and
training. However, the extent of that supervision is a highly
contested factual matter, as evidenced by the following
exchange during Mr. Garbrick's deposition:
Q. Approximately how much time did you spend with Treston
Harris, either advising him or doing work related to Treston
Harris-or, excuse me, Jerry Wilsons's vehicle?
A. I don't remember.
Q. Was it a minute, was it an hour can you give me any idea?
A. I can guess.
Q. No, I don't want you to guess.
Q. Well, can you, is there any way in [ ] looking at your
written document that you signed, you hand wrote, I assume
that's your handwriting; is that correct?
Q. And that's your signature?
. . .
Q. Does that tell you by looking at that, your description,
approximately how much time you think you spent with Treston
on Jerry Wilson's vehicle?
A. I don't think I can be very accurate.
. . .
Q. Okay. Sounds like he was-when the two of you were
together, he just moved some air lines and that's about
it. I mean, it sounds like you weren't with him very
long. I mean, is that accurate or no?
[Counsel rephrases question following objection. No answer
supplied in the transcript.]
Q. I mean based on this, you don't have a very detailed
description as to the work that he performed. So your
handwritten-what was the purpose of this handwritten note
that you signed?
A. My employer required it.
Q. And did he tell you to document everything that you
recalled, you observed Treston Harris do?
Q. Okay. Well what did he tell you to do?
A. Just write down what happened.
Q. And he left it up to you how detailed you wanted to be?
A. I never wrote a statement before.
Q. Okay. Well, did he tell you to put down everything that is
important, that you thought was important?
Q. And is that what you tried to do?
Q. And what you thought was important are the things that you
personally observed or that he asked you about; is that fair?
Q. Can you read this for the record, please? Or I'll read
it, you are having trouble with your eyes. I can read it for