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Watson v. Southwest Arkansas Electrical Cooperative Corporation

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Texarkana Division

January 2, 2020

LINDA WATSON, individually, and DAVID WATSON, as special administrator and personal representative of the estate of ROYCE SIDNEY WATSON, deceased PLAINTIFFS
v.
SOUTHWEST ARKANSAS ELECTRICAL COOPERATIVE CORPORATION and JASON RAY ALEXANDER DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          SUSAN O. HICKEY CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendants Southwest Arkansas Electrical Cooperative Corporation and Jason Ray Alexander's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 13). Plaintiffs Linda Watson and David Watson have filed a response. (ECF No. 16). Defendants have filed a reply. (ECF No. 17). The Court finds the matter ripe for consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises from a motor vehicle collision that occurred on April 16, 2018, in Texarkana, Arkansas. Royce Watson (“Mr. Watson”) and Plaintiff Linda Watson attended a funeral in Nash, Texas, after which they traveled in a multi-car funeral procession toward the graveside service in Texarkana, Arkansas. The funeral procession had a Texarkana, Texas Police Department escort up to the Arkansas state line. After crossing into Arkansas, there was no Arkansas police escort present, so the funeral director led the procession in a vehicle equipped with activated “white on blue” colored strobe lights and emergency flashers. Two other vehicles provided by the funeral home were also part of the procession and were equipped with the same colored strobe lights and emergency flashers.

         The funeral procession continued to the intersection of Old Post Road and North Rondo Road/Highway 237 in Texarkana, Arkansas. A stop sign governs eastbound traffic on Old Post Road. No. stop sign governs free-flowing, southbound traffic on North Rondo Road. The procession traveled east on Old Post Road and reached the stop sign at the intersection. The funeral director, in the lead car, reached the stop sign, traveled through the intersection, and proceeded to the cemetery.

         As part of the procession, Mr. Watson and Plaintiff Linda Watson also approached the intersection in their vehicle. At the same time, Defendant Alexander, acting in the course and scope of his employment with Defendant Southwest Arkansas Electrical Cooperative Corporation, was driving southbound on North Rondo Road, approaching the intersection at an average speed between thirty-four and forty miles per hour. Defendant Alexander witnessed the vehicle in front of the Watsons pass through the intersection without stopping at the stop sign. Witness accounts differ as to whether Mr. Watson stopped his vehicle at the stop sign, but it is undisputed that Mr. Watson's vehicle proceeded into the intersection and was struck by Defendant Alexander's vehicle. Defendant Alexander's vehicle was traveling at forty-nine miles per hour at the time of the crash. Mr. Watson died at the scene of the crash.

         On November 11, 2018, Plaintiffs filed this action, asserting claims of negligence, wrongful death, and survival. On November 5, 2019, Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment, contending that there is no genuine dispute of material fact and that they are entitled to summary judgment. Plaintiffs oppose the motion.

         II. STANDARD

         The standard for summary judgment is well established. A party may seek summary judgment on a claim, a defense, or “part of [a] claim or defense.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). When a party moves for summary judgment, “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Krenik v. Cnty. of LeSueur, 47 F.3d 953, 957 (8th Cir. 1995). This is a “threshold inquiry of . . . whether there is a need for trial-whether, in other words, there are genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they reasonably may be resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). A fact is material only when its resolution affects the outcome of the case. Id. at 248. A dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that it could cause a reasonable jury to return a verdict for either party. Id. at 252.

         In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must consider all the evidence and all reasonable inferences that arise from the evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Nitsche v. CEO of Osage Valley Elec. Co-Op, 446 F.3d 841, 845 (8th Cir. 2006). The moving party bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Enter. Bank v. Magna Bank, 92 F.3d 743, 747 (8th Cir. 1996). The nonmoving party must then demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record that create a genuine issue for trial. Krenik, 47 F.3d at 957. However, a party opposing a properly supported summary judgment motion “may not rest upon mere allegations or denials . . . but must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256.

         III. DISCUSSION

         As a preliminary matter, the Court must first address the parties' statements of fact. The Court may deem undisputed a movant's asserted fact if it is not properly controverted by the other party pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 56(c). Fed. R. Civ. 56(e); see also Local Rule 56.1(c) (providing that a movant's asserted facts will be deemed admitted if they are not controverted by the nonmovant's own statement of disputed material facts). A party asserting a genuine dispute of material fact must support the assertion by either citing to materials in the record or by showing that the cited materials do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).

         Plaintiffs' statement of disputed facts fails to comport with these requirements. It sets out whether Plaintiffs dispute each of the numbered facts asserted in Defendants' statement of undisputed facts and argues that genuine disputes of material fact exist as to some, but it fails to cite to materials in the record or show that Defendants' cited materials do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute. Plaintiffs' statement of disputed facts also set out twenty purported genuine issues of material fact that Plaintiffs contend should be submitted to the jury for resolution. This, however, is not the proper procedure for controverting the facts asserted by a summary judgment movant. Thus, the Court finds that Plaintiffs' statement of disputed facts has failed to properly controvert Defendants' asserted facts under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) and Local Rule 56.1. However, the Court does note that Plaintiffs' response brief contains a background section with several citations to the record. The Court will consider Plaintiffs' record cites to whatever extent they may serve to controvert Defendants' facts. See Silberstein v. I.R.S., 16 F.3d 858, 860 (8th Cir. 1994) (authorizing federal district courts to overlook violations of the local rules). Accordingly, all facts asserted in Defendants' statement of facts are deemed admitted for summary judgment purposes to the extent that they are not controverted by the record cites in Plaintiffs' supporting brief. See Chaffin v. City of Fort Smith, No. 2:05-cv-2061-JLH, 2005 WL 3805977, at *1 (W.D. Ark. Oct. 19, 2005).

         The Court now turns to the instant motion. Defendants contend that they are entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiffs' claims because: (1) Defendant Alexander had the right to assume that Mr. Watson would obey the stop sign and yield to incoming traffic, and acting on that right does not constitute negligence; and (2) Mr. Watson did not have a superior right-of-way because the funeral procession did not have a valid funeral escort vehicle, as required by Arkansas law. Plaintiffs argue that neither argument provides a basis for granting summary judgment in Defendants' favor and, furthermore, a genuine dispute of material fact exists as to whether Defendant Alexander was negligent by violating ...


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