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Ladenheim v. Starr Transit Co., Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 16, 2017

MILA LADENHEIM, et al.
v.
STARR TRANSIT COMPANY, INC., et al.

          MEMORANDUM

          John R. Padova, J.

         Plaintiffs Mila and Leonard Ladenheim brought this suit against Defendant Starr Transit Company, Inc. after Ms. Ladenheim was injured while riding a bus operated by Defendant. Plaintiffs assert a single claim of negligence against Defendant. The parties have completed discovery and Defendant has moved for summary judgment.[1] In addition, Plaintiffs have moved to amend their Complaint to include a claim for punitive damages. For the following reasons, we deny both Motions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The relevant evidence in the summary judgment record is as follows. Plaintiffs Mila and Leonard Ladenheim are Pennsylvania residents. (Stipulated Material Facts (“SMF”) ¶¶ 1-2.) Defendant Starr Transit is a New Jersey corporation with its principal place of business in Trenton, New Jersey. (Id ¶ 3.) On January 18, 2016, a bus operated by Defendant picked up Plaintiffs and other passengers in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania to take them to a wedding in New York City. (Id ¶¶ 4-5.) Richard Joyce, a New Jersey citizen, drove the bus. (Id ¶¶ 6-7.) Joyce made an announcement at the beginning of the trip instructing everyone to remain seated while the bus was moving unless they had to use the restroom. (Id ¶ 19; Julia Strassman Dep. at 19- 20.) Passengers Jeff Sandler, Julia Strassman, and Joyce himself testified that Joyce made no other announcements during the trip and did not tell anyone to sit down, wear seatbelts, or observe the signs on the bus. (Sandler Dep. at 14; Julia Strassman Dep. at 20; Joyce Dep. at 61-62.) However, another passenger, Phyllis Kosloff, testified that Joyce warned all passengers “several times” to remain seated, both before and during the trip. (Kosloff Dep. at 16.)

         The passengers gave varying descriptions of Joyce's driving during the trip. Kosloff testified that there was no unusual braking or swerving during the trip, stating that “it was just driving.” (Id. at 19-20). Julia Strassman recalled that the driving was a “little jerky” but was nothing out of the ordinary. (Julia Strassman Dep. at 22, 32.) Ira Strassman also testified that he had “no recollection of anything out of the ordinary” during the bus trip. (Ira Strassman Dep. at 59.) On the other hand, Stanley Sved said the driver was “riding the brake” and stopping in a way that caused passengers to “jolt[] forward.” (Sved Dep. at 37.) Leonard Ladenheim and Jeff Sandler similarly described Joyce as hitting the brake hard and causing sudden stops. (Sandler Dep. at 20-21; Leonard Ladenheim Dep. at 32.)

         Erwin Gorlechen was a fellow passenger on the bus. Gorlechen testified that he stood in the bus aisle, instead of sitting in his seat, for much of the trip. (Gorlechen Dep. at 67-68.) Leonard Ladenheim described Gorlechen as being “unable to keep his feet” and unstable during the trip, though he continued to stand. (Leonard Ladenheim Dep. at 49, 51.) He also testified that he told Gorlechen to sit down, but Gorlechen remained standing. (Id. at 52.) Joyce testified, however, that he did not see Gorlechen in the aisle during the trip. (Joyce Dep. at 37.) When asked if he would have told Gorlechen to sit down had he seen Gorlechen in the aisle for half an hour, Joyce replied that he had “never had a passenger . . . stand in the aisle” for that length of time and that he had never been in a situation where he had to tell a passenger to sit down because they had been standing for fifteen minutes or more. (Id. at 94.)

         The bus encountered heavy traffic while approaching the George Washington Bridge. Joyce testified that he slowed the bus to ten miles-per-hour while approaching the Bridge, but then drove the bus between ten and fifteen miles-per-hour when on the bridge. (Id. at 36-39, 42.) The other passengers confirmed in their testimony that the bus encountered significant traffic while approaching the bridge and that the traffic continued on the bridge. (Sved Dep. at 50; Julia Strassman Dep. at 21, 32; Mila Ladenheim Dep. at 87, 90.) Around this time, Mila Ladenheim approached Joyce, sat on the steps next to Joyce in the front of the bus, and asked him about the route they were taking to the wedding and if the traffic would affect the bus's expected arrival time at the wedding. (Joyce Dep. 33-34; Mila Ladenheim Dep. at 87, 90.) Ms. Ladenheim testified that she sat on the bus's steps for “‘five to ten minutes'” while the bus was negotiating traffic. (SMF ¶ 12 (quoting Mila Ladenheim Dep. at 94).) Joyce testified that the two talked while Ms. Ladenheim sat on the steps. (Joyce Dep at 34-35.) Joyce admitted that he did not ask Ms. Ladenheim to return to her seat or leave the steps because he had already made an announcement at the beginning of the trip and Ms. Ladenheim was an adult. (Id. at 21, 35, 99.) He further acknowledged that “[w]here she was sitting was not the greatest place to sit.” (Id. at 35.)

         Mila Ladenheim described what happened next in her deposition:

“I noticed considerable slowing down, and I noticed that Mr. Joyce was trying to get out of a lane. He put the blinker on to go to the right, and he was glancing at that window several times because obviously people - it seemed that people were not letting him in but he was intent to change lanes because ours wasn't moving much, but the other one was. I would say in the last minute or so I was very attentive to what was going on. The attempt was unsuccessful, but the car in front of us came to a full stop, at which point I yelled ‘watch out, ' was a natural response. He hit a hard brake, and we almost hit the car in front of us.”

(SMF ¶ 14 (quoting Mila Ladenheim Dep. at 106).) At this time, Gorlechen fell on top of Ms. Ladenheim. (Laytin Dep. at 21-22; Leonard Ladenheim Dep. at 69; Jeff Sandler Dep. at 58.) Ms. Ladenheim testified that after the accident she could not move her extremities, and other passengers testified that they heard her saying that she was in pain and was “not OK.” (Mila Ladenheim Dep. at 118; Joyce Dep. at 38; Leonard Ladenheim Dep at 94.) Joyce drove straight to the hospital and dropped off Ms. Ladenheim. (Joyce Dep. at 126-27.) As a result of the accident, Ms. Ladenheim suffered serious spinal injuries and required two surgeries. (See Dr. Riew Aff. ¶¶ 2-4.)

         Passengers gave conflicting accounts of both the severity of the stop that preceded Gorlechen's fall and the effect that the stop had on other passengers. Sid Laytin described the stop as a “short stop” where “the bus driver strongly applied the brakes and the bus slowed dramatically.” (Laytin Dep. at 27, 30.) Jeff Sandler said “[i]t was like someone slammed on their brakes and [the bus] came to a complete stop.” (Sandler Dep. at 49.) He also testified that Gorlechen went flying backward when the bus braked. (Id. at 47, 57-60.) Leonard Ladenheim testified that the sudden stop caused him to feel like he “was lifted up out of [his] seat.” (Leonard Ladenheim Dep. at 75; see also id. at 69.) Moreover, he said that the stop caused Gorlechen to “literally start[] to fly through the air.” (Id. at 69.)

         Other passengers had different views. Gorlechen testified that he did not lose his balance because of a sudden stop or swerve, saying “I fell. That's all.” (Gorlechen Dep. at 98-99.) Stan Sved stated that he perceived “excessive braking” on the bus around the time of the accident, but that when the accident happened he, “as well as other people on the bus . . . were pretty much unaware of it.” (Sved Dep. at 64.) Sved also stated that he didn't “see anything flying off the seats” at the time of the accident. (Id. at 65.) Phyllis Kosloff said that she “did not get jolted out of [her] seat at any time, ” and that had she been thrown out of her seat during the trip, she would have remembered. (Kosloff Dep. at 42, 83.) Julia Strassman testified that she perceived nothing unusual at the time of the accident, and Ira Strassman said that he had no recollection of the bus braking suddenly before the accident. (Julia Strassman Dep. at 43, Ira Strassman Dep. at 19.) Additionally, the bus was outfitted with a GPS tracking service that includes a feature that automatically reports a “hard stop alert” when the bus decelerates by more than seven miles-per-hour. (French Aff. ¶¶ 2-6.) The CEO of the GPS company reviewed the data from the trip and verified that there was “no hard stop alert.” (Id. ¶ 8.) Finally, Defendant's Director of Transportation executed an affidavit in which he stated that the bus was equipped with a Drive Cam, which records video ten seconds before and ten seconds after a “trigger event” caused by a collision or hard braking. (Graff Aff. ¶¶ 5-7.) He stated that no Drive Cam footage was triggered for that trip. (Id. ¶¶ 10-12.)

         The passengers also gave differing accounts as to where the accident took place. Joyce believed that the bus was one-third of the way across the George Washington Bridge at the time of the accident, which would mean the accident occurred in New Jersey. (Joyce Dep. at 30.) Stan Sved said the accident occurred “right before the approach or right as we were going on to the [George Washington Bridge], ” which would also place the accident in New Jersey. (Sved Dep. at 58.) Julia Strassman testified that she did not think the bus had crossed the George Washington Bridge at the time of the accident. (Julia Strassman Dep. at 38.) Leonard Ladenheim stated that the accident occurred after the bus had passed the “Welcome to New York State” sign on the George Washington Bridge, placing the accident in New York. (Leonard Ladenheim Dep. at 25). Gorlechen testified that the accident occurred when the bus had already crossed the George Washington Bridge into the Bronx. (Gorlechen Dep. at 31, 34, 78.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). An issue is “genuine” if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, (1986). A factual dispute is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Id. In ruling on a summary judgment motion, we consider “the facts and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to . . . the party who oppose[s] summary judgment.” Lamont v. New Jersey, 637 F.3d 177, 179 n.1 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007)). If a reasonable fact finder could find in the nonmovant's favor, summary judgment may not be granted. Congregation Kol Ami v. Abington Twp., 309 F.3d 120, 130 (3d Cir. 2002) (citation omitted).

         “[A] 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 record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Where the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof on a particular issue at trial, the movant's initial Celotex burden can be met simply by “pointing out to the district court” that “there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Id. at 325. After the moving party has met its initial burden, the adverse party's response “must support the assertion [that a fact is genuinely disputed] by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . .; or (B) showing that the materials [that the moving party has cited] do not establish the absence . . . of a genuine dispute.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). Summary judgment is appropriate if the nonmoving party fails to respond with a factual showing “sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. “‘While the evidence that the non-moving party presents may be either direct or circumstantial, and need not be as great as a preponderance, the evidence must be more than a scintilla.'” Galli v. New Jersey Meadowlands Comm'n, 490 F.3d 265, 270 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Hugh v. Butler Cty. Family YMCA, 418 F.3d 265, 267 (3d Cir. 2005)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Defendant moves for summary judgment on Plaintiff's sole claim for negligence, and we consider that Motion before addressing Plaintiffs' Motion for Leave to Amend the Complaint. In analyzing Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, we first determine which state's law to apply to this dispute and then consider the Motion's merits.

         A. Choice of Law

          The parties disagree as to which state's law should apply to this case. Plaintiffs argue that New York law applies, while Defendant argues that we should apply Pennsylvania law. We find ...


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