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Sutcliffe v. Bernese

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 12, 2019



          Matthew W. Brann United States District Judge

         I. BACKGROUND

         On February 25, 2019, Plaintiffs Lori Sutcliffe and Gary Sutcliffe filed a six-count complaint against Defendants, Lonnie Bernese, Waterstreet Enterprises LLC, Carl Kosman, Glenn Moyer, and Jeffrey Shaffer. This is a case of negligence predicated on this Court's diversity jurisdiction and brought under Pennsylvania law. It is based on a multi-vehicle automobile accident that occurred in the westbound lanes of Interstate 80 in Clinton County, Pennsylvania during a snowstorm. It is alleged that Lori Sutcliffe was badly injured as a result of this collision.

         On June 21, 2019, Defendants Lonnie Bernese and Waterstreet Enterprises, LLC filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. The motion is now ripe for disposition; for the reasons that follow, it is granted in part and denied in part.


         A. Motion to Dismiss Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court dismisses a complaint, in whole or in part, if the plaintiff has failed to “state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” A motion to dismiss “tests the legal sufficiency of a pleading”[1] and “streamlines litigation by dispensing with needless discovery and factfinding.”[2] “Rule 12(b)(6) authorizes a court to dismiss a claim on the basis of a dispositive issue of law.”[3] This is true of any claim, “without regard to whether it is based on an outlandish legal theory or on a close but ultimately unavailing one.”[4]

         Following the Roberts Court's “civil procedure revival, ”[5] the landmark decisions of Bell Atlantic Corporation v. Twombly[6] and Ashcroft v. Iqbal[7] tightened the standard that district courts must apply to 12(b)(6) motions.[8] These cases “retired” the lenient “no-set-of-facts test” set forth in Conley v. Gibson and replaced it with a more exacting “plausibility” standard.[9]

         Accordingly, after Twombly and Iqbal, “[t]o 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.'”[10] “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.”[11] “Although the plausibility standard does not impose a probability requirement, it does require a pleading to show more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.”[12] Moreover, “[a]sking for plausible grounds . . . calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of [wrongdoing].”[13]

         The plausibility determination is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.”[14] No. matter the context, however, “[w]here a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'”[15]

         When disposing of a motion to dismiss, the Court “accept[s] as true all factual allegations in the complaint and draw[s] all inferences from the facts alleged in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff].”[16] However, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in the complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.”[17] “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.”[18]

         As a matter of procedure, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has instructed that:

Under the pleading regime established by Twombly and Iqbal, a court reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint must take three steps. First, it must tak[e] note of the elements [the] plaintiff must plead to state a claim. Second, it should identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. Finally, [w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, [the] court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.[19]

         B. Facts Alleged in the Complaint

         The facts alleged in the complaint, which I must accept as true for the purposes of this motion, are as follows.

         On March 3, 2017 at approximately 2:30 p.m., Defendant Lonnie Bernese was operating a tractor-trailer on behalf of his employer Waterstreet Enterprises, LLC; he was travelling westbound on Interstate 80 when he “crashed into the rear of another vehicle.”[20] Plaintiff Lori Sutcliffe's “vehicle avoided Defendant Waterstreet's vehicle and stopped adjacent to the guardrail on the left side of the road.”[21] Shortly thereafter, Defendant Carl Kosman “lost control of his vehicle and crashed into Plaintiff's vehicle.”[22] Defendant Glenn Moyer also “lost control of his vehicle and crashed into Plaintiff's vehicle.”[23] Finally, Defendant Jeffrey Shaffer's “lost control of his vehicle and crashed into Defendant Kosman and Defendant Moyer's vehicle, which then crashed into Plaintiff's vehicle.”[24]

         As a result of the collision, “Plaintiff Lori Sutcliffe was caused to be thrown violently about her vehicle, thereby sustaining severe and debilitating personal injuries including, but not limited to, neck fracture and injuries to her head, neck, back, and body, anxiety, insomnia, emotional injuries, all or some of which injuries are or will prove to be of a permanent nature and character.”[25]

         C. Analysis

         Count I of the complaint alleges negligence by Lori Sutcliffe against Lonnie Bernese. Count II asserts negligence by Lori Sutcliffe against Waterstreet Enterprises, LLC. Count VI sets forth ...

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