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Garlick v. Anadarko Petroleum Corp.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 15, 2017

MARIA GARLICK, as Administratrix of the Estate of GEORGE B. GARLICK, III, and in her own right, Plaintiff,



         This case is a tragedy in search of a cause of action. Plaintiff's decedent, George “Bart” Garlick, died in the dark of night when the water truck he was driving missed a turn-off, travelled in the wrong direction for nearly three miles, failed to navigate a curve, and tumbled down a nearby embankment. As unfortunate as that is, however, Plaintiff's retrospective efforts to wind the clock back and discern the true cause of the driver's accident have proven fruitless, even after five years of litigation. Without question, I have come to realize that the facts of this case are as steeped in misfortune as they are shrouded in mystery.

         Indeed, Plaintiff's efforts seem to rival what futility Erwin Schrödinger must have felt when he hypothesized long ago about the paradoxical box that contained his now famously inconclusive cat. That is to say, the causal thought experiment that still permeates this case at its twilight, among other shortcomings, is fatal to its continued vitality. Because the Plaintiff has failed, as a matter of law, to adduce sufficient evidence on a number of requisite elements, I will grant summary judgment in Anadarko's favor. Otherwise, a trial in this matter would amount to a guessing game based on pure speculation and naked conjecture-a method of assigning fault that our judicial system plainly does not countenance.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case's shadowy scene was perhaps best set by Plaintiff's own counsel, David L. Kwass, Esquire, during his oral argument before the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. As Mr. Kwass described:

On May 16, 2012, at 2:20 in the morning, an inexperienced truck driver driving in the wilderness, in the mountains in rural Pennsylvania, crashed and died. . . . On this evening, which was the very first time that Mr. Garlick had been assigned to drive this particular route, having only three weeks of experience driving these baby bottle trucks, Mr. Garlick missed a turn at Beach Creek Mountain Road [and] continued past the designated route.[1]

         The decedent was employed as a truck driver by Trans Tech Logistics, who leased its vehicles to QC Energy Resources. Am. Compl., ECF No. 59, at ¶ 15; Garlick v. Trans Tech Logistics, Inc., 636 F. App'x 108, 110 (3d Cir. 2015) (per curiam). QC Energy then contracted with Anadarko to supply water to natural gas drilling sites. Pl.'s Br. in Opp'n to Defs.'Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 128, at 2 (hereinafter “Pl.'s Br.”). The truck involved in the accident was owned and maintained at all times by QC Energy, not Anadarko. Am. Compl. ¶ 16. The truck driver had no direct employment or contractual relationship with Anadarko, who was merely a client of one of his employer's clients.

         With the assistance of local and state government officials, Anadarko provided QC Energy with a booklet containing directions to each of its 48 well pads. Pl.'s Br. at 3. QC Energy then distributed the booklets to all contracted Trans Tech Logistic drivers. Id. The routes listed on the directions led from water sources to the drilling sites and vice versa. Id. at 2-3. The directions to the drill site involved in the instant matter appear at Figure 1 on the following page:

Figure 1. Directions to Drilling Site

         An Anadarko designee explained that in compiling the above route, the company “would work with any local or municipal stakeholders to determine the most efficient and safest route into a facility.” Dep. of Jeffrey Lorson, ECF No. 128-7, at 80:07-10. Anadarko made no further promises, representations, or undertakings in relation to third-party drivers who supplied its sites with water. Moreover, there is no indication in the record that QC Energy's contracted drivers were required to follow the directions that Anadarko supplied; that the directions constituted anything other than suggested routes compiled by Anadarko's drilling team with the assistance of local government authorities; or that the drivers or their immediate employers were forbidden from supplementing the directions with additional directional tools, such as maps or GPS devices. See Id. at 81:10-24.

         The parties do not dispute that the directions set forth at Figure 1 were wholly accurate and that the driver, approximately 2.5 miles before he crashed, missed the right-hand turn-off onto Beech Creek Road, which turn-off was clearly listed on the directions sheet that Anadarko had supplied. Neither is it contested that the road on which the driver was travelling was a state route and the road that he would have entered immediately upon making the turn-off was a Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) road, both of which were owned and maintained at all times by the state government, never by Anadarko. Tr. of July 11, 2017 Oral Arg. at 59:01-06 (hereinafter “July 2017 Tr.”).

         On the night in question, the driver had only been working for QC Energy for approximately three weeks. July 2017 Tr. at 21:02-09. In fact, he had no prior experience driving so-called “baby bottle” trucks, and the record even reflects that he may have been untruthful about his lack of prior experience on hiring documents that he supplied to QC Energy. See ECF No. 124 at 2.[2]

         The driver began working a 12-hour shift at 6:00 p.m. on May 15, 2012, the night of the accident, in Renovo, Clinton County, Pennsylvania. Defs.' Br. in Supp. of Summ. J., ECF No. 127, at 8 (hereinafter “Defs.' Br.”). As Mr. Kwass represented at oral argument before the Third Circuit, the night in question was the first night on which the driver had travelled to this particular drilling site. Importantly, however, the fatal trip was not his first trip to the drilling site that night. To the contrary, it is undisputed that at approximately 10:30 p.m. that evening, the driver successfully traveled from a water source to the very same drilling site and back to the water source immediately prior to commencing his fatal trip. Defs.' Br. at 9. It is believed that the driver did not miss the turn-off during his first trip or otherwise report any directional difficulties reaching the drill site at that time. Id. In fact, at oral argument before this Court, his counsel, Thomas G. Oakes, II, Esquire, admitted that the odometer readings showed that no excess mileage was accumulated during the driver's first trip. July 2017 Tr. at 45:20- 46:01.

         At approximately 2:20 a.m., on his second trip to the drill site that night, the driver missed the turn-off onto Beech Creek Road. Pl.'s Br. at 3. After he missed the turn-off, the driver continued down State Route 144 in the wrong direction for nearly three miles. Defs.' Br. at 8. Nothing in the record suggests that the driver had realized his mistake and had attempted to turn the truck around. Instead, it appears that his truck crashed while still travelling in the wrong direction when its speed and the weight of the water prevented it from successfully navigating a curve in the road. Pl.'s Br. at 1. At that time, it is believed that the truck's brakes failed, the driver lost control of the truck, and the truck collided with a nearby guardrail. Id. Unfortunately, the guardrail did not stop the truck, and the truck toppled down a nearby embankment, at which point the driver sustained fatal injuries. Id.

         Despite that tragedy, the Plaintiff has adduced no evidence establishing that Anadarko's actions or omissions in any way caused the driver to miss the turn on his second trip or to ultimately leave the roadway. As Anadarko has pointed out in its briefing and at oral argument, on the present record, its acts or omissions were no more likely to have caused the driver to miss the turn and crash his truck than: the driver's own fatigue; distraction by radio chatter; the darkness or the weather; the driver's misreading or miscalculating the directions; his own decision to stop following the directions; top heaviness from sloshing water within the bed of the truck; distraction by a cell phone or food; his speeding; mechanical failure of the truck; or an animal or vehicle passing by or intruding into the driver's lane. In fact, because the driver was using the same directions on both trips and because those directions were accurate, it would appear more likely that some external cause or chance event not attributable to Anadarko precipitated the missed turn and eventually, the accident.

         Even more, subsequent events that undoubtedly contributed to the ultimate crash also complicate Plaintiff's attempt to show causation. In fact, Plaintiff's own briefing admits that after the driver departed from the prescribed route, “the brakes on his QC Energy water tanker failed, ” and he became unable to navigate turns. Pl.'s Br. at 1. The amended complaint, filed in November 2013 confirmed that the driver “experienced brake failure and lost directional control of the truck.” Am. Compl., ECF No. 59, at ¶ 17. Based on those purported facts, the amended complaint alleged that the QC Defendants “were negligent [in] failing to perform routine maintenance on the subject truck”; in “failing to provide [the driver] with a truck that was in ‘fit for service' condition”; and in “failing to properly train [the driver] to operate the subject truck safely in the weather and road conditions which existed at the time of the accident.” Id. ¶ 20.

         On November 25, 2014, I adopted a Report and Recommendation by United States Magistrate Judge William I. Arbuckle, III, which granted summary judgment in favor of QC Energy on the ground that it was entitled to immunity under the Pennsylvania Worker's Compensation Act as the driver's statutory employer. 2014 WL 11395012 (adopting 2014 WL 11395241 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2014)). That Report and Recommendation also granted summary judgment in favor of Anadarko on the sole ground that Anadarko did not owe the driver a duty under either § 323 (Negligent Performance of an Undertaking to Render Services) or § 343(Dangerous Conditions Known or Discoverable by Possessor) of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. At that time, Anadarko had not moved for summary judgment on the basis of causation, and the § 323 issue was itself admittedly a tertiary issue in the parties' appellate briefing.

         On December 18, 2015, in a non-precedential per curiam opinion, the Third Circuit affirmed my grant of summary judgment in favor of QC Energy but reversed as to Anadarko, remanding the case for further proceedings before this Court. Garlick v. Trans Tech Logistics, Inc., 636 F. App'x 108 (3d Cir. 2015). Anadarko has filed a motion for summary judgment in which it argues that, as a matter of law, Plaintiff has not shown that Anadarko breached a duty of reasonable care that proximately caused the driver to depart from the directions and crash his water truck. I received briefing and conducted oral argument on the motion. Because the applicable law, as it would appear in any jury charge, requires that judgment be entered in favor of Anadarko, that motion is granted consistent with the foregoing discussion.

         II. LAW

         “One 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.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “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 correct.” Clark v. Modern Grp. Ltd., 9 F.3d 321, 326 (3d Cir. 1993) (Hutchinson, J.) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) and Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322).

         “A defendant meets this standard when there is an absence of evidence that rationally supports the plaintiff's case.” Clark, 9 F.3d at 326. “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.” Id.

         “[T]he 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.” Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 252. 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.” Id. “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.” Id. “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 imposed.'” Id. (quoting Schuylkill & Dauphin Imp. Co. v. Munson, 81 U.S. 442, 447 (1871)). Summary judgment therefore is “where the rubber meets the road” for a plaintiff, as the evidentiary record at trial, by rule, will typically never surpass that which was compiled during the course of discovery. “In this respect, summary judgment is essentially ‘put up or shut up' time for the non-moving party.” Berckeley Inv. Grp., Ltd. v. Colkitt, 455 F.3d 195, 201 (3d Cir. 2006) (Fisher, J.).

         “[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 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.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323 (internal quotations omitted). “[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.” Id.

         Where 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.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 250. 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).

         “When 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.'” Port Auth. of N.Y. and N.J. v. Affiliated FM Ins. Co., 311 F.3d 226, 233 (3d Cir. 2003) (Weis, J.). 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2). On motion for summary judgment, “[t]he court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3).

         “[A]t 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.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249. “[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.” Id. “If the evidence is merely colorable . . . or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Id. at 249- 50 (internal citations omitted).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Both on appeal and before this Court, the Plaintiff has attempted to divorce § 323 from principles of ordinary negligence-taking certain elements of each cause of action when they most suit her, while willfully forgetting other parts. In particular, § 323 requires both that the defendant undertake to render a particular service to the plaintiff and that the plaintiff's injuries be caused by its reliance on the defendant's provision of that particular service.

         The only undertaking here-to the extent that it even can be called that- was Anadarko's providing directions to QC Energy. Anadarko undertook to provide no further assurances, and the driver here could never have, as § 323 requires, relied upon precautions that Anadarko never previously undertook to supply him. Thus, to the extent that Plaintiff argues that Anadarko should have provided more than accurate directions alone, that contention falls well beyond § 323's scope.

         Moreover, § 323, like ordinary negligence, imposes a duty of reasonable care and nothing more. When asked at oral argument how exactly Anadarko breached a duty of reasonable care if its directions were accurate and were sufficient to guide the driver to the site on one occasion, Mr. Oakes, following the lead of Mr. Kwass's oral argument before the Third Circuit, answered that Anadarko's duty required it to install lighting and signage on a state-owned road and place a flagman at the intersection in the dark of night. July 2017 Tr. at 16:05- 25. That answer not only conflicts with decades of established Pennsylvania law that reserves to the state the obligation of maintaining state-owned roads, but it also would effectively impose a duty of absolute care on Anadarko.

         Seeming to recognize those shortcomings, Plaintiff's counsel raised a novel, unpled theory for the first time during oral argument before the Third Circuit. There, Mr. Kwass argued that § 323 required Anadarko not only to erect signs and lights but to provide “the safest route possible.” Plaintiff has never pled such a grandiose theory-and for good reason. It would have been dismissed at the earliest of stages. Neither ordinary negligence nor § 323 imposes strict liability when an injury occurs, and that is precisely what this novel theory seeks. Further, because discovery has never been conducted on such a theory, it lacks any supporting evidence whatsoever to survive the summary judgment stage.

         Finally, all potential sources of negligence involved here require that a defendant's acts or omissions be the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries. As will be demonstrated more fully below, Plaintiff's bare-bones allegations at the summary judgment stage fall well short of satisfying that element as a matter of law. Indeed, not only is it unclear that Anadarko's alleged omissions in any way contributed to the missed turn and the ultimate crash, the record is littered with a number of intervening causes, including driver error and brake failure, that destroy whatever miniscule causal showing the Plaintiff has made.

         As such, I will grant Anadarko's motion for summary judgment based on each of the independent grounds that follow.

         A. Anadarko Is Entitled To Summary Judgment As A Matter Of Law Because Even Assuming That § 323 Applies To This Case, And Its Application Is Dubious, Plaintiff Has Not Adduced Sufficient Facts Showing That Anadarko Breached A Duty Of Reasonable Care Under That Provision Or Otherwise.

         “The necessary elements to maintain an action in negligence are: a duty or obligation recognized by the law, requiring the actor to conform to a certain standard of conduct; a failure to conform to the standard required; a causal connection between the conduct and the resulting injury and actual loss or damage resulting to the interests of another.” Morena v. S. Hills Health Sys., 501 Pa. 634, 462 A.2d 680, 684 n.5 (1983).

         “The question of whether a duty exists is purely a question of law.” Brown v. Com. Dep't of Transp., 11 A.3d 1054, 1056 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2011). Section 323 of the Second Restatement is one potential source of a duty in tort that Pennsylvania courts have adopted. Morena, 462 A.2d at 684. Because it requires the defendant to assume an undertaking, § 323 was referred to in early decisions as the “Good Samaritan” provision. Filter v. McCabe, 733 A.2d 1274, 1277 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1999). Although it may apply to private transactions for ...

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