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Cotton v. Commodore Express

January 30, 2007

STEPHANIE WELLS COTTON, ET AL. PLAINTIFFS
v.
COMMODORE EXPRESS, INC., ET AL. DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garnett Thomas Eisele United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Ryder Truck Rental, Inc., d/b/a Ryder Transportation Services ("Ryder"). Therein, Ryder requests a legal ruling that it is not liable for the negligent acts of Defendant Commodore Express, Inc. ("Commodore"). For the reasons stated herein, the Court concludes that Ryder is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

I. The Accident Giving Rise to the Lawsuit

On July 25, 2002, a traffic accident on Interstate 40 in Faulkner County, Arkansas, claimed the lives of three individuals riding together in one vehicle: (1) Edna Giles-Vaughn; (2) Versie Mae Buchanan; and (3) Robert Vaughn. The estates of all three decedents filed separate lawsuits against Commodore Express. This Court consolidated all three actions. Intervenor Plaintiff Ronald Valentine was injured in the accident and is also pursuing a claim against Commodore.

Plaintiffs contend that a 2003 Freightliner driven by Jesus Carrilo and traveling eastbound crossed the median into the westbound lane, colliding with a tractor trailer driven by Ronald Valentine. On impact, the Carillo vehicle traveled over the top of the Valentine vehicle and came to rest in the median. The refrigerator unit of the Carillo unit became airborne and struck the front of the Vaughn vehicle, a van. On impact, the vehicle caught fire. All three passengers in the van were killed. Mr. Carillo and his wife, who was riding with him, also lost their lives in the accident.

II. Issue on Summary Judgment

Commodore is a common carrier in the business of hauling general commodities and produce nation-wide. Commodore leased from Ryder the tractors (but not the trailers) used to operate its business. Ryder is named as a Defendant in this lawsuit because it leased the tractor Mr. Carillo was driving to Commodore.

It is undisputed that Commodore Express, as Mr. Carillo's employer, will be liable for Mr. Carillo's negligence. The question before the Court is whether Ryder may also be liable for Mr. Carillo's negligence. Ryder has moved for summary judgment on the issue. Plaintiffs seek to hold Ryder liable under theories of respondeat superior and principal-agent liability.

III. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment should be entered if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, demonstrates that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); See also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2511 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact exists only if there is sufficient evidence from which a jury can return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249, 106 S.Ct. at 2510.

The determination of whether Ryder was an employer or principal of Commodore or Mr. Castillo is a legal conclusion, requiring both a determination of facts and application of law. In opposing summary judgment, Plaintiffs focus on the fact-intensive nature of the inquiry, suggesting that the issue should be resolved by a jury. However, where the material undisputed facts permit only one reasonable legal conclusion, summary judgment is appropriate. See Howard v. Dallas Morning News, Inc., 324 Ark. 91, 918 S.W.2d 178, 185 (Ark. 1996)("where the facts are undisputed, and only one inference can reasonably drawn from them, [the question of agency] becomes a question of law.").

IV. Facts without Material Controversy

Ryder has no ownership interest in Commodore. Ryder and Commodore entered into a written lease, entitled Truck Lease and Service Agreement ("the Lease").*fn1 The Lease sets forth the terms and conditions under which Ryder agreed to lease tractors to Commodore and also to provide maintenance for such leased vehicles.

Although Ryder leased tractors to Commodore, it did not provide Commodore with drivers, trailers, or cargo. There is no evidence that Ryder exercised any control or authority over where Commodore operated the leased tractors. Ryder billed Commodore weekly for services provided. The charges included fixed charges for the lease of each tractor; five cents for each mile driven by the leased tractors, charges for liability insurance, and a prorated charge for the federal highway use tax. Commodore purchased its own fuel. Ryder paid Commodore's fuel taxes, but billed Commodore for reimbursement on a monthly basis.

The Carillos were employed by and paid directly by Commodore. All Commodore drivers are Commodore employees. Ryder did not provide benefits or health insurance to Commodore or its drivers.

The Lease required Commodore to furnish and to maintain primary liability insurance on all leased tractors at its own cost. The Lease offered Commodore the option of purchasing the required insurance through Ryder or from any insurer of Commodore's choosing. Commodore elected to purchase coverage from Old Republic through Ryder, with policy limits of one million dollars.*fn2 That amount is an industry standard. Commodore purchased insurance for its trailers and cargos, and workers' compensation insurance, through another company.

Under the Lease, Ryder was obliged to perform all maintenance and repairs to the leased tractors. Commodore agreed to return each vehicle to Ryder's Maintenance Facility for at least eight (8) hours per month for preventative maintenance. Additionally, Commodore's drivers prepared Driver Vehicle Condition Reports to indicate specific items the drivers wanted Ryder's maintenance department to address. Drivers were to complete such reports after every "tour of duty."

The tractor driven by Carillos was painted with Commodore's logo. Ryder placed a unit number and location number on each tractor for its internal use. The numbers were placed on the tractor hood or near where the hood closes. Some of Ryder's tractors had a small, four-inch "Ryder" identification above the tractor unit number. The Court will assume for purposes of this motion that ...


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