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Bizzell v. Transport Corporation of America, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

August 4, 2017

MAYONNA BIZZELL, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Willetta Reaves and as Next Friend of G.B., a minor PLAINTIFF
v.
TRANSPORT CORPORATION OF AMERICA, INC.; and JIMMIE MARTIN “MARTY” HARPER, JR. DEFENDANTS

          OPINION AND ORDER

          J. LEON HOLMES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Mayonna Bizzell brings this action as personal representative of the Estate of Willetta Reaves and as next friend of G.B., a minor, against the defendants, Transport Corporation of America, Inc., and Jimmie Martin Harper, Jr., seeking damages for the death of Willetta Reaves, who sustained fatal injuries in a motor vehicle accident. Late on May 15, 2016, Reaves was traveling east on Interstate 40 in Pulaski County, Arkansas, when her vehicle was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer operated by Harper, an employee of Transport Corporation. Bizzell[1] filed suit in the Circuit Court of Pulaski County on June 3, 2016, and the defendants removed the action to this Court on June 15, 2016, based on diversity. Bizzell alleges claims for negligence against Harper and against Transport Corporation in the form of negligent entrustment, as well as claims against both defendants under Arkansas's wrongful death and survival statutes. She also seeks punitive damages. Transport Corporation has admitted that it is vicariously liable for Harper's negligence, if any, based on the doctrine of respondeat superior.

         The defendants have filed two motions for partial summary judgment. In the first, the defendants assert that they are entitled to summary judgment on punitive damages and whether Transport Corporation is directly liable for its own negligence. Document #57. In the second, Transport Corporation argues it is entitled to summary judgment on the wrongful death claim because Bizzell and G.B. are not beneficiaries under Arkansas's wrongful death statute. Document #62.

         I.

         A court should grant summary judgment if the evidence demonstrates that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). If the moving party meets that burden, the nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts that establish a genuine dispute of material fact. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1356, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986); Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc). A genuine dispute of material fact exists only if the evidence is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and must give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the record. Pedersen v. Bio-Med. Applications of Minn., 775 F.3d 1049, 1053 (8th Cir. 2015). If the nonmoving party fails to present evidence sufficient to establish an essential element of a claim on which that party bears the burden of proof, then the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id.

         II.

         A. Punitive Damages

         Bizzell seeks “the maximum amount of punitive damages allowed by law.” Document #42-1 at 11, ¶45. The defendants maintain that the evidence is insufficient to allow a claim for punitive to go to the jury. Document #58 at 3-9. Bizzell bases her argument for punitive damages largely, though not exclusively, on her claim of negligent entrustment. She says that Transport Corporation ignored Harper's poor driving history and should have known that Harper's risky driving habits would result in injury but allowed him to continue driving anyway. Document #71 at 10.

         Inasmuch as this is a diversity case and the accident occurred in Arkansas, the law of the State of Arkansas governs. See Burger Chef Sys., Inc. v. Govro, 407 F.2d 921, 923 (8th Cir. 1969). In Arkansas, the standard for an award of punitive damages is set by statute:

In order to recover punitive damages from a defendant, a plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant is liable for compensatory damages and that either or both of the following aggravating factors were present and related to the injury for which compensatory damages were awarded:
(1) The defendant knew or ought to have known, in light of the surrounding circumstances, that his or her conduct would naturally and probably result in injury or damage and that he or she continued the conduct with malice or in reckless disregard of the consequences, from which malice may be inferred; or
(2) The defendant intentionally pursued a course of conduct for the purpose of causing injury or damage.

Ark. Code Ann. § 16-55-206 (2003). Unless a reasonable jury could conclude by clear and convincing evidence that the defendants knew or ought to have known that their conduct would naturally and probably result in injury or damage, and that they continued the conduct with malice or in reckless disregard of the consequences from which malice may be inferred, summary judgment is proper. See Sokol & Assocs., Inc. v. Techsonic Indus., Inc., 495 F.3d 605, 610 (8th Cir. 2007). Negligence alone, even gross negligence, does not justify punitive damages. Alpha Zeta Chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity by Damron v. Sullivan, 293 Ark. 576, 587, 740 S.W.2d 127, 132 (1987).

         Generally, the Arkansas Supreme Court has limited punitive damages in cases arising out of motor vehicle accidents to two situations: racing and drunk driving. See Perry v. Stevens Transport, Inc., No. 3:11CV00048 JLH, 2012 WL 2805026 at *4 (July 9, 2012) (citing Nat'l Bank of Commerce v. McNeil Trucking Co., 309 Ark. 80, 88, 828 S.W.2d 584, 588 (1992)). The Arkansas Supreme Court has, however, affirmed punitive damages in some other contexts and in D'Arbonne Construction Co. v. Foster, the court explained that “[w]hether a vehicle is being operated in such a manner as to amount to wanton or willful ...


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