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In re Estate Hutchins

August 14, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Susan Webber Wright United States District Judge

Memorandum Opinion and Order

Before the Court is defendant's motion for summary judgment to which plaintiff responded. For the reasons stated below, the motion is denied.


On February 27, 2003, the deceased, Malcolm Richard Hutchins, checked into a Motel 6 in Conway, Arkansas. He went there to meet his girlfriend, Olga Hillis. Hillis began dating Hutchins in September or October of 2001. In April 2002, Hutchins moved from Clarksville, Mississippi, where Hillis lives, to Fayetteville, Arkansas. After Hutchins moved, he and Hillis continued to meet in person two to three times each month. Their typical rendezvous point was Conway, and their routine was to meet at a motel on Friday and depart on Sunday. They stayed at the Conway Motel 6 more often than anywhere else.

Hutchins called Hillis on Thursday morning, February 27, 2003. He was anxious and wanted her to meet him in Conway. He arrived in Conway around 3:00 p.m. Hutchins called Hillis around 5:00 p.m. and gave her his room number. Hillis called Hutchins at 8:15 p.m. and told him she was on her way. She testified that when she talked to Hutchins, he sounded like he was "feeling good" alcohol-wise.

Hillis arrived in Conway at 11:30 p.m. She went straight to the motel. Hillis knew what room Hutchins was in, and he told her he would leave a room key in his car, but his car was locked. Hillis knocked on Hutchins' door but she did not hear anything. She went to the front desk and got a key from the desk clerk. She went back to the room, knocked on the door, and then opened it, but the security latch was on and she could not fully open the door. She saw Hutchins lying on the bed with his hand on his head. She thought he may have gotten drunk and passed out. He appeared to be breathing normally. Hillis decided to let Hutchins "sleep it off," and she went shopping for about an hour to an hour and a half. She went back to the motel and called Hutchins from her cell phone but he did not answer. She did not knock on the door because she did not want to awaken other guests. Hillis called Hutchins a few more times and then fell asleep in her car.

Hillis woke up around 5:00 a.m. on February 28, 2003, when someone parked next to her shut an automobile door. She could not find her cell phone so Hillis went back to the room, knocked, and opened the door as far as she could. She called Hutchins' name but he did not respond. He was in the same position, still had his hand on his forehead, and appeared to be breathing. Hillis panicked and ran to the motel office. She asked the clerk to call 911 because something was wrong; Hutchins would not answer the phone.

Hillis testified that the clerk told her she had to call her boss first, that he lived ten minutes away, and would be there shortly.*fn1 Hillis testified it was at least thirty minutes before the manager arrived. Hillis stayed in the lobby while waiting on the manager, and when he arrived, they went to the room together. When the manager opened the door, he told Hillis that Hutchins was dead. The manager then instructed the clerk to call 911.

The coroner's office received the call at 7:00 a.m., arrived at the scene at 7:19 a.m., and pronounced Hutchins dead at 7:25 a.m. The cause of death was hydrocodone intoxication. The coroner's office lists the date of death as February 27, 2003, and states Hillis found Hutchins at around 6:45 a.m.

Plaintiff, the Estate of Robert Rudolph Hutchins, filed this lawsuit on July 27, 2005 in state court, alleging negligence. Defendant removed the case to federal court on September 19, 2005. Defendant asserts in its motion for summary judgment that there is no evidence that Motel 6 was aware Hutchins was in immediate danger and it was not unreasonable for the clerk to call the manager before calling 911. Further, defendant contends plaintiff cannot prove that an alleged delay by Motel 6 employees in calling 911 was the proximate cause of Hutchins' death. Plaintiff contends it has established a prima facie case of negligence and can show through expert testimony that defendant's negligence was more likely than not the proximate cause of Hutchins' death.

Summary Judgment

Summary judgment should be granted only if "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The party seeking summary judgment has the initial burden of demonstrating through the evidentiary materials that there is no actual dispute as to any material fact in the case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). On motion for summary judgment, "[t]he inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is a need for a trial - whether, in other words, there are any 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." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). In determining whether this burden has been met, the court should view the evidence introduced and all factual inferences from that evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Id. "[T]he plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a 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 Corp. v. Catrett, supra, at 322.

"Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge, whether he is ruling on a motion for summary judgment or for a ...

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