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Aranda v. YRC Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

June 4, 2019

MARIA DE JESUS PARTIDA ARANDA, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
YRC INC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SIDNEY A. FITZWATER SENIOR JUDGE

         In this removed lawsuit arising from a fatal automobile accident, defendants YRC Inc. (“YRC”) and Jeffrey Thorp (“Thorp”) move for partial summary judgment, contending that there is no genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Thorp and YRC were grossly negligent, or whether the decedent endured any conscious pain and suffering prior to his death. For the reasons that follow, the court grants defendants' motion insofar as plaintiffs seek to hold YRC vicariously liable for Thorp's alleged gross negligence, and denies the motion in all other respects.

         I

         On July 17, 2017 plaintiffs Maria de Jesus Partida Aranda (“Maria”), Justino Gutierrez (“Justino”), and Jonathan Gutierrez Partida (“Jonathan”)[1] were traveling southbound on Interstate 35 (“I-35”) in a pickup truck.[2] Justino was driving, his wife Maria was in the back seat, and their son Jonathan was in the front passenger seat. The family was running errands, and Justino was using the trip as an opportunity to teach his teenage son about driving. They were in the far right lane of I-35-in standstill traffic-waiting to exit onto Royal Lane.

         At the same time, defendant Thorp was driving a double-trailer semi truck southbound on I-35. He was transporting freight for his employer, YRC, from Independence, Missouri to Irving, Texas. Between 1995 and 2008, Thorp received 50 different warning letters, suspensions, and discharges from YRC, [3] was involved in five non-preventable accidents, and caused one preventable injury. The vast majority of Thorp's disciplinary infractions involved tardiness or absenteeism, but he also received multiple warning letters for driving for longer hours than the law permitted.

         According to plaintiffs, Thorp was behind schedule and in a hurry on July 17. He was approaching his 14-hour shift limit under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act, and he would soon be forced to pull over for a break. Thorp was traveling in the center left lane as he approached the Royal Lane exit. Traffic in the far right lane was not moving, and the lane immediately to Thorp's right was moving at a crawl. As Thorp drove by at 57 miles per hour, a red car[4] in the lane to Thorp's right changed into his lane. Thorp collided with the car.

         In the resulting pile-up, another tractor-trailer struck plaintiffs' pickup truck. Jonathan testified about the impact:

Q. . . . What is the first thing you remember about the accident?
A. The movement.
Q. And how would you describe that?
A. It was strong like-something like a giant like grabbed a string and just pulled us with all of his force to the barricade [at] the side of the road.

Ps. App. 212. The force of the collision threw Justino toward the passenger side of the vehicle and left him lying at Jonathan's feet. Maria, meanwhile, was knocked unconscious. When she awoke, she saw that Jonathan had escaped from the pickup truck, but she and Justino were trapped inside. Rescuers had to extricate them. Justino was still breathing, but he was not moving or speaking, so first responders placed him in an ambulance and attempted to resuscitate him. Their efforts failed; Justino died as a result of the accident.

         Plaintiffs filed this suit in August 2017 in Texas state court. Defendants removed the case to this court in March 2018.[5] The first amended complaint[6] that plaintiffs subsequently filed in this court alleges that Thorp acted with negligence and gross negligence in operating his tractor trailer, and that YRC acted with negligence and gross negligence in hiring, training, supervising, and entrusting a semi truck to Thorp. Based on theories of respondeat superior, agency, and joint-venture liability, plaintiffs allege that YRC is jointly and severally liable for any award against Thorp. Defendants now seek partial summary judgment on whether plaintiffs are entitled to damages for Justino's alleged pain and suffering; whether YRC acted with gross rather than ordinary negligence in hiring, training, and supervising Thorp; whether Thorp himself acted with gross rather than ordinary negligence in operating his tractor trailer; and whether YRC is vicariously liable for Thorp's alleged gross negligence. The parties have briefed the motion, and it is ripe for decision.

         II

         When a party moves for summary judgment on claims on which the opposing parties will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party can meet its summary judgment obligation by pointing the court to the absence of admissible evidence to support the opposing parties' claims. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). Once the moving party does so, the opposing parties must go beyond their pleadings and designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Id. at 324; Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc) (per curiam). An issue is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the opposing parties' favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The opposing parties' failure to produce proof as to any essential element of a claim renders all other facts immaterial. See TruGreen Landcare, L.L.C. v. Scott, 512 F.Supp.2d 613, 623 (N.D. Tex. 2007) (Fitzwater, J.). Summary judgment is mandatory if the opposing parties fail to meet this burden. Little, 37 F.3d at 1076.

         When a heightened proof standard will apply at trial, that standard controls at the summary judgment stage. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 254 (holding that where clear and convincing evidence standard would apply at trial of libel action, it applied in determining merits of summary judgment motion). Under Texas law, gross negligence must be proved by clear and convincing evidence. Coastal Transp. Co. v. Crown Cent. Petroleum Corp., 136 S.W.3d 227, 233 n.2 (Tex. 2004) (noting that, effective September 1, 1995, Texas law requires that plaintiff prove gross negligence by clear and convincing evidence). This standard requires that plaintiffs adduce evidence that is “sufficient to make the existence of the facts highly probable, ” not merely evidence that is “sufficient to make the existence of fact more probable than not, as required by the preponderance standard.” Foley v. Parlier, 68 S.W.3d 870, 880 (Tex. App. 2002, no pet.). Therefore, the proof must be “sufficient to produce in the ...


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