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Jenson v. Louis

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 9, 2019

JEWEL JENSON, Individually and as Administratrix of the Estate of JOSHUA CORREA, deceased, and CYNTHIA BATES, Plaintiffs
v.
BRETT ST. LOUIS and POWER PALLET, INC., Defendants

          MEMORANDUM

          JAMES M. MUNLEY JUDGE.

         Before the court for disposition is a motion to dismiss portions of plaintiffs' complaint filed by Defendants Brett St. Louis and Power Pallet, Inc. The parties have briefed their respective positions and the matter is ripe for disposition.

         Background

         Plaintiffs instituted the instant action regarding an automobile accident on September 12, 2018 which caused the death of plaintiffs' decedent Joshua Correa. (Doc. 1, Compl.). On that day, Defendant Brett St. Louis operated a tractor trailer owned by his employer, Defendant Power Pallet, Inc. (Id. ¶ 16). He had pulled the tractor trailer to the side of I-476 South in Carbon County, Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶¶ 21-22). The tractor trailer did not have proper lamps, reflective devices or other items required to make it easily seen. (Id. ¶ 23).

         Plaintiffs' decedent was driving down the same road, when defendant pulled the tractor trailer out from the shoulder and into the lane of travel. (Id. ¶ 24). Because the tractor trailer was improperly illuminated, oncoming traffic such as Correa could not see him. (Id. ¶ 26). Correa's automobile collided with the tractor trailer and Correa was killed. (Id. ¶ 25).

         The complaint asserts t Defendant St. Louis's decision to enter Correa's lane of travel without clearance and with deficient illumination caused the accident. (Id.) Defendant St. Louis drove recklessly, carelessly and negligently according to the plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 27).

         Based upon these allegations, the plaintiffs instituted the instant action by filing a seven-count complaint. The complaint raises the following causes of action: Count I- Negligence/Recklessness against Defendant St. Louis; Count II-Negligence/Recklessness against Power Pallet under vicariously liability; Count III- Negligent and/or Reckless Hiring/Supervision/Retention against Defendant Power Pallett, Inc.; Count IV- Negligent Entrustment against Defendant Power Pallet, Inc.; Count V- Negligent Infliction of Emotion Distress against all defendants; Count VI-Wrongful Death against all defendants and Count VII-Survival Action.[1] Defendants now move to dismiss, in part, Counts I, II, and III and dismissing Counts IV and V completely. Defendants also move to dismiss plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages. The parties have briefed their respective positions, bringing the case to its present posture.

         Jurisdiction

         The court has jurisdiction pursuant to the diversity statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Plaintiffs are citizens of Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶¶ 1-3). Defendants are citizens of New York. (Id. ¶¶ 5-6). Additionally, the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. Because complete diversity of citizenship exists among the parties and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, the court has jurisdiction over this case. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (''district 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. Tomkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938)).

         Standard of review

         Defendants filed their motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The court tests the sufficiency of the complaint's allegations when considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. All well-pleaded allegations of the complaint must be viewed as true and in the light most favorable to the non-movant to determine whether, “‘under any reasonable reading of the pleadings, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.'” Colburn v. Upper Darby Twp., 838 F.2d 663, 665-66 (3d Cir. 1988) (quoting Estate of Bailey by Oare v. Cnty. of York, 768 F.2d 503, 506 (3d Cir. 1985)). The plaintiff must describe “‘enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of' [each] necessary element” of the claims alleged in the complaint. Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007)). Moreover, the plaintiff must allege facts that “justify moving the case beyond the pleadings to the next stage of litigation.” Id. at 234-35. In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint the court may also consider “matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case.” Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.2 (3d Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). The court does not have to accept legal conclusions or unwarranted factual inferences. See Curay-Cramer v. Ursuline Acad. of Wilmington, Del., Inc., 450 F.3d 130, 133 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997)).

         Discussion

         As noted above, the defendants' motion to dismiss is aimed at various counts. Defendants' arguments fall into three categories. First, they argue that Count V, negligent infliction of emotional distress fails as a matter of law. Second, defendants argue that Counts I through IV violate the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in that they do not provide a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. Third, defendants seek dismissal of the plaintiffs' punitive damages claim. We shall discuss each separately beginning with Count V.

         I. Count V

         Count V asserts a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress against all defendants on behalf of Plaintiff Cynthia Bates, decedent's fiancée. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶¶ 64-74).

         Negligent infliction of emotion distress addresses “mental or emotional harm (such as fright or anxiety) that is caused by the negligence of another[.]” Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Gottshall, 512 U.S. 532, 544 (1994). Courts have recognized that “a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress holds out the very real possibility of nearly infinite and unpredictable liability for defendants. Courts therefore have placed substantial limitations on the class of plaintiffs that may recover for emotional injuries and on the injuries that may be compensable.” Id.

         For example, only certain categories of plaintiffs may recover for negligent infliction of emotion distress under Pennsylvania law. Specifically,

In order to recover, the [p]laintiff must prove one of four elements: (1) that the [d]efendant had a contractual or fiduciary duty toward him; (2) that [p]laintiff suffered a physical impact; (3) that [p]laintiff was in a “zone of danger” and at risk of an immediate physical injury; or (4) that [p]laintiff had a contemporaneous perception of tortious injury to a close relative. In all cases, a [p]laintiff ...

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