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Babenko v. Dillon

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 2, 2019



          Joseph F. Leeson, Jr. United States District Judge


         In this personal injury action, Plaintiffs Avram and Marina Babenko assert two claims: (1) negligence as to Defendant Ethan Dillon; and (2) negligent entrustment as to Defendant Thomas Dillon. Plaintiffs seek compensatory, non-economic, and punitive damages from Defendants. Defendants now move to dismiss all allegations of reckless behavior and punitive damages from the complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). They claim that Plaintiffs failed to sufficiently allege facts that give rise to a claim for punitive damages. For the reasons set forth below, the motion to dismiss is granted.


         On or about June 18, 2017, Plaintiff Avram Babenko operated a 2016 Nissan SUV with his daughter, Plaintiff Marina Babenko, as a passenger. See Compl. ¶ 11, ECF No. 1. Plaintiffs traveled eastbound on PA Turnpike SR 276 when a vehicle operated by Defendant Ethan Dillon struck Plaintiffs' vehicle from behind. See Compl. ¶¶ 11, 13. Ethan Dillon was operating the vehicle with the express or implied permission of Defendant Thomas Dillon. See id. Plaintiffs suffered numerous injuries as a result. See Compl. ¶¶ 15, 16.

         In their complaint, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant Ethan Dillon was negligent, reckless, or both for, among other things: (1) operating his vehicle at an unsafe speed; (2) failing to properly brake his vehicle; (3) failing to properly observe roadways; and (4) failing to yield the right of way to other vehicles. See Compl. ¶¶ 25(c), 25(e), 25(g), and 25(r). Plaintiffs also allege that Defendant Thomas Dillon acted negligently, carelessly, and recklessly when he negligently entrusted his vehicle: (1) to a driver insufficiently experienced and trained in the operation of vehicles upon state and local highways; (2) to a driver without sufficient training and experience in the handling of such a vehicle at highway or greater speeds; (3) to a driver without sufficient training and experience in the maintenance of control of such vehicles at normal speeds, including but not limited to, braking and the avoidance of obstacles; and (4) to an insufficiently experienced driver to operate upon the highways of this state and to carry passengers who may contribute to distraction from the extra care and attention needed for the operation of such vehicles at highway and greater speeds. See Compl. ¶¶ 29(a)-(d).


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows a court to dismiss a complaint for its “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The Rules generally demand “only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Connelly v. Lane Constr. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 786 (3d Cir. 2016) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal quotations omitted)).

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). In rendering a decision on a motion to dismiss, this Court must “accept all factual allegations as true [and] construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d at 233 (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002) (internal quotations omitted)). Only if “the ‘[f]actual allegations . . . raise a right to relief above a speculative level'” has the plaintiff stated a plausible claim. Id. at 234 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. However, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Id. (explaining that determining “whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief . . . [is] a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense”). The defendant bears the burden of demonstrating that a plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Hodges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991)).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiffs bring two claims: (1) a claim against Defendant Ethan Dillon for negligence; and (2) a claim against Defendant Thomas Dillon for negligent entrustment. See Compl. ¶¶ 25, 29. From these two claims, Plaintiffs seek compensatory, economic, noneconomic, and punitive damages. See Compl. ¶ 2. Defendants move to dismiss the claim for punitive damages, arguing that Plaintiffs failed satisfied their burden to plead claims for punitive damages. See Defs.' Mot. Dismiss. ¶ 10, ECF No. 16.

         Because this action is based on diversity jurisdiction, the alleged events underlying Plaintiffs' claims occurred in Pennsylvania, and this Court sits in Pennsylvania, the Court must apply the substantive law of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. See Hunt v. U.S. Tobacco Co., 538 F.3d 217, 220 (3d Cir. 2008). In Pennsylvania, punitive damages are “an ‘extreme remedy' available in only the most exceptional matters. Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 883 A.2d 439, 445 (Pa. 2005) (quoting Martin v. Johns-Manville Corp., 508 Pa. 154, 171-73 (1985) rev'd on other grounds sub nom.). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court explained that punitive damages are only appropriate in certain circumstances:

Punitive damages may be appropriately awarded only when the plaintiff has established that the defendant has acted in an outrageous fashion due to either the defendant's evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others. A defendant acts recklessly when his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another and such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Id. (quoting Hutchison v. Luddy, 870 A.2d 766, 771 (Pa. 2005)) (internal quotations omitted). In circumstances where a plaintiff seeks punitive damages through a theory of deliberate indifference, the plaintiff must show that the defendant actually recognized the risk of harm and proceeded to act in conscious disregard or indifference to ...

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