United States District Court, D. Nebraska
BRADLEY B. BAUMANN, individually, co-special administrators of these Estates, NANCY R. BAUMANN, individually, co-special administrators of these Estates, and DONNA J. COSTLEY, individually, co-special administrators of these Estates, Plaintiffs,
JOSEF SLEZAK, VLADIMIR ZHUKOV, SWIFT-TRUCK LINES, LTD., LONG HAUL TRUCKING, INC., JOHN DOES 1-10, AKI TRUCKING, INC., and MTR EXPRESS, INC., Defendants.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
F.A. GOSSETT, Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the Court on the motions for summary judgment filed by Defendant Long Haul Trucking, Inc. ("Long Haul") (filing 117) and Defendants Vladimir Zhukov ("Zhukov"), Swift-Truck Lines, Ltd. ("Swift") and MTR Express, Inc. ("MTR") (collectively "the MTR Defendants") (filing 113). For the reasons explained below, the motions will be granted.
STATEMENT OF FACTS
This lawsuit arises out of two traffic accidents that occurred on September 9, 2012, on westbound Interstate 80 in Cheyenne County, Nebraska. At the time leading up to the first accident, Zhukov, driving for Defendant MTR, was operating a 2003 Volvo tractor and pulling a flat-bed semi trailer, owned by Swift. At approximately 4:15 a.m., Zhukov struck something in the roadway which caused the vehicle to lose air brake pressure. Zhukov then stopped his vehicle, thereby obstructing the right travel lane of I-80. Another truck driver, Gary Mayes, who observed Zhukov's disabled vehicle, placed a call to 911 which was logged in at 4:20 a.m. At approximately 4:24 a.m., Deputy Zachary Goodrich was dispatched to the scene of the Zhukov vehicle. At approximately 4:38 a.m., a collision occurred between a truck driven by Keith Johnson ("Johnson"), on behalf of Long Haul, and Zhukov's stopped vehicle, thereby causing a fire, as well as personal injuries to Johnson which resulted in his death.
After the accident between the Johnson and Zhukov trucks, I-80 was closed to westbound traffic, and vehicles were stopped for almost a mile east of the collision site. Among those vehicles were automobiles driven by husband and wife, Christopher and Diana Schmidt. Mrs. Schmidt was driving a Toyota Corolla, and Mr. Schmidt was directly behind her driving a Ford Mustang. Josef Slezak ("Slezak"), driving a 2003 Kenworth tractor semitrailer rig for the benefit of Defendant AKI Trucking, Inc. ("AKI"), approached the stopped traffic from the east at approximately 5:14 a.m. He did not apply the brakes, and his truck hit the Schmidt vehicles at approximately seventy-five miles-per-hour. When Slezak's truck impacted the rear of Mr. Schmidt's vehicle, it shoved Mr. Schmidt's vehicle into the car occupied by Mrs. Schmidt, and the couple's young children. The car occupied by Mrs. Schmidt and the children was pushed under another truck that was stopped in front of the Schmidt vehicles. Mr. Schmidt, Mrs. Schmidt, and their two sons, Samuel and Connor Schmidt, were killed in the accident, as was Mrs. Schmidt's unborn child.
There were at least thirty-six minutes between the Zhukov/Johnson accident and the Slezak/Schmidt collision. Prior to the Slezak/Schmidt accident, at least twenty vehicles had safely come to a stop due to the stalled traffic conditions. Plaintiff's Complaint alleges that "[t]he line of traffic stopped due to the Zhukov/Johnson collision was visible for no less than one mile to approaching traffic, and users of band radios, both westbound and eastbound, were warning oncoming drivers that traffic had come to a stop ahead." (Filing 39.) Plaintiffs' Complaint further alleges that when they stopped on I-80, Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt activated their four-way emergency lights. ( Id. ) The weather at the time was clear, with no wind.
The physical distance between the initial point of impact between the Zhukov and Johnson trucks, and the initial point of impact between the Slezak and Schmidt vehicles was.86 of a mile. Nebraska State Trooper and accident reconstructionist Travis Wallace ("Wallace") determined that Slezak ran into the back of the Ford Mustang before even attempting to stop. Wallace concluded that Slezak was most likely fatigued and unable to operate a motor vehicle safely, thereby leading to the collision with the Schmidt family. Slezak has admitted that he did not slow down or brake before the accident with the Schmidts and that he was driving over the eleven hours of service limit imposed on commercial truck drivers. At the time of the accident, Slezak had been driving for approximately fourteen hours.
SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD
Summary judgment should be granted "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. When passing upon a motion for summary judgment, the district court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Dancy v. Hyster Co., 127 F.3d 649, 652 (8th Cir. 1997).
In order to withstand a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must substantiate its allegations with "sufficient probative evidence [that] would permit a finding in [its] favor on more than mere speculation, conjecture, or fantasy." Moody v. St. Charles County, 23 F.3d 1410, 1412 (8th Cir. 1994) (citation and quotation omitted). "A mere scintilla of evidence is insufficient to avoid summary judgment." Id. Essentially, the test is "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986).
Plaintiffs' Complaint alleges that Long Haul Trucking is vicariously liable for the negligence of its employee, Johnson, in purportedly causing the Zhukov/Johnson accident, which allegedly led to the Slezak/Schmidt collision. (Filing 39.) Specifically, the Complaint alleges that as a direct and proximate result of Johnson's negligence, "a motor vehicle collision occurred, causing traffic to come to a stop, and creating the conditions which reasonably and foreseeably lead to the deaths of Christopher Schmidt, Diana Schmidt, Connor Schmidt, Samuel Schmidt, and unborn baby Schmidt." ( Id. )
Likewise, Plaintiffs' Complaint alleges that Zhukov negligently blocked traffic on I-80 and, as a direct and proximate result of this negligence, "a motor vehicle collision occurred, causing traffic to come to a stop, and creating the conditions which reasonably and foreseeably led to the deaths of [the Schmidts]." ( Id. ) Plaintiffs maintain that Swift is liable for the negligence of its employee, Zhukov, and that MTR negligently entrusted its vehicle to Zhukov and, therefore, bears liability for Zhukov's negligent acts.
Long Haul and the MTR Defendants (collectively "Defendants") contend that they are entitled to summary judgment because they did not owe the Schmidts a duty of care, and even if a duty was owed, Plaintiffs cannot demonstrate that any such duty was breached. Defendants also maintain that summary judgment is appropriate because Plaintiffs cannot show that any purported negligence on their part foreseeably led, or proximately caused, the collision between Slezak and the Schmidts. Having carefully considered the matter, the Court concludes, as a matter of law, that Defendants' alleged negligence was not ...