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Bits & Pieces

Roberts v. Bentarius Fonta Stewart

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United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, Southern Division

July 18, 2022, Decided; July 18, 2022, Filed

CIVIL ACTION NO. 22-0187-KD-MU

Reporter

2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 126797 *

CLARENCE L. ROBERTS, et al., Plaintiffs, v. BENTARIUS FONTA STEWART, et al., Defendants.

Core Terms

removal, amount in controversy, damages, past and future, injuries, trailer, permanent, facially, exceeds, report and recommendation, punitive damages, accident report, recommendation, Notice, courts

Counsel:  [*1] For Clarence L. Roberts, Arkyla Miller, Plaintiff: William Bradford Kittrell, LEAD ATTORNEY, WBK, P.C., Daphne, AL USA.

For Bentarious Fonta Stewart, Unlimited Deliveries LLC, doing business as | MK-Trucking |, Defendants: Albert Trousdale, II, LEAD ATTORNEY, Trousdale Ryan, P.C., Florence, AL USA; Jonathan Keith Corley, LEAD ATTORNEY, Opelika, AL USA.

Judges: P. BRADLEY MURRAY, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

Opinion by: P. BRADLEY MURRAY

Opinion


REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs’ Motion to Remand (Doc. 5), Defendants’ Response in Opposition to Plaintiffs’ Motion to Remand (Doc. 7), and Plaintiffs’ Reply in Support (Doc. 8). This motion has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for entry of a report and recommendation, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and S.D. Ala. Gen LR 72(a)(2)(S). Upon consideration of all relevant filings in this case and the applicable law, the undersigned recommends that Plaintiffs’ motion to remand be DENIED for the reasons set forth below.


I. Background

On April 7, 2022, Plaintiffs Clarence L. Roberts and Arkyla Miller, his wife, filed a complaint against Defendants Bentarius Fonta Stewart and Unlimited Deliveries, LLC d/b/a MK-Trucking in the Circuit Court of Mobile County, Alabama seeking [*2]  compensatory and punitive damages due to injuries they suffered from a motor vehicle accident with a commercial truck and trailer driven by Stewart and owned by Unlimited Deliveries. (Doc. 1-1). In his complaint, Plaintiff Clarence Roberts alleges claims for negligent and/or wanton operation of a vehicle against Stewart and negligent and/or wanton hiring, retention, monitoring, supervising and/or training against Unlimited Deliveries. (Id. at pp. 3-14). Plaintiff Arkyla Miller has asserted a loss of consortium claim. (Id. at p. 15).

Defendants filed a Notice of Removal, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1441, and 1446, removing the action to this Court on May 6, 2022. (Doc. 1). In the notice of removal, Defendants alleged that removal was proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 because the action is between citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds the sum of $75,000. (Id. at pp. 3-8). Plaintiff moved to remand this case on June 2, 2022, on the ground that Defendants failed to meet their burden of proving the amount in controversy exceeds the sum of $75,000. (Doc. 5).


II. Legal Analysis

Because Defendants removed this case to federal court, they have the burden of proving that federal jurisdiction exists.  [*3] See Williams v. Best Buy Co., 269 F.3d 1316, 1319 (11th Cir. 2001); Davidson v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., CA 16-0516-KD-C, 2016 WL 7428220, *5 (S.D. Ala. Dec. 8, 2016). Federal courts, being of limited jurisdiction, must “proceed with caution in construing constitutional and statutory provisions dealing with [their] jurisdiction.” Victory Carriers, Inc. v. Law, 404 U.S. 202, 212, 92 S. Ct. 418, 30 L. Ed. 2d 383 (1971), quoted in Univ. of S. Ala. v. Am. Tobacco Co., 168 F.3d 405, 410 (11th Cir. 1999). “Because removal jurisdiction raises significant federalism concerns, federal courts are directed to construe removal statutes strictly,” and “all doubts about jurisdiction should be resolved in favor of remand to state court.” Univ. of S. Ala., 168 F.3d at 411; see also Burns v. Windsor Insurance Co., 31 F.3d 1092, 1095 (11th Cir. 1994) (holding that any questions or doubts are to be resolved in favor of returning the case to state court). Defendants claim in this case that federal jurisdiction is proper based on diversity of citizenship. (Doc. 1). Therefore, Defendants bear the burden of establishing that both Plaintiffs are diverse from both Defendants and of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds the $75,000 jurisdictional requirement. See Williams, 269 F.3d at 1319; Tapscott v. MS Dealer Service Corp., 77 F.3d 1353, 1357 (11th Cir. 1996), abrogated on other grounds by Cohen v. Office Depot, Inc., 204 F.3d 1069 (11th Cir. 2000).

Diversity of the parties is not at issue. The question presented is whether Defendants have met their burden of proving that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional limit. Plaintiffs’ complaint does not seek a specific amount of damages. (Doc. 1-1). The Complaint also does [*4]  not set forth any specific amount of medical expenses, lost wages, or any other special damages incurred. (Id.). In a case in which the complaint does not set forth a specific amount of damages, removal is proper if the requisite amount in controversy is “facially apparent from the complaint.” Williams, 269 F.3d at 1319. If the amount in controversy is not facially apparent, the court may look to the notice of removal and to evidence submitted that is relevant to the amount in controversy at the time the case was removed to determine if the jurisdictional requirement is met. Id. (citing McNutt v. Gen. Motors Acceptance Corp., 298 U.S. 178, 189, 56 S. Ct. 780, 80 L. Ed. 1135 (1936)).

In their complaint, Plaintiffs seek recovery of an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages based on injuries Roberts received in a motor vehicle accident. (Doc. 1-1). Because the amount of damages sought is not readily determinable from the complaint, Defendants “‘must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy more likely than not exceeds’ $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs.” Boehm v. Terminix Int’l Co. Ltd. P’ship, Civil Action 22-0001-WS-M, 2022 WL 229890, at *1 (S.D. Ala. Jan. 25, 2022) (quoting Roe v. Michelin North America, Inc., 613 F.3d 1058, 1061 (11th Cir. 2010)). “In some cases, this burden requires the removing defendant to provide additional evidence demonstrating that removal is proper,” while in other cases, “it may be ‘facially apparent’ from [*5]  the pleading itself that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional minimum, even when ‘the complaint does not claim a specific amount of damages.'” Roe, 613 F.3d at 1061 (quoting Pretka v. Kolter City Plaza II, Inc., 608 F.3d 744, 754 (11th Cir. 2010)) (footnote omitted). “Eleventh Circuit precedent permits district courts to make ‘reasonable deductions, reasonable inferences, or other reasonable extrapolations’ from the pleadings to determine whether it is facially apparent that a case is removable.” Roe, 613 F.3d at 1061-62 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting Pretka, 608 F.3d at 754).

Defendants contend the Complaint on its face, bolstered by the Accident Report, sufficiently shows the Roberts damages claim exceeds $75,000.00, exclusive of interest and costs. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants have not met their burden of proof.

In the complaint, Plaintiffs state that Stewart was operating a commercial truck and trailer owned by Unlimited Deliveries when he negligently and wantonly ran a stop sign at Red Fox Road causing the truck and trailer to “violently crash” into the 2018 Honda Accord being operated by Roberts, who was traveling northbound on US Highway 43. (Doc. 1-1 at p. 6; PageID. 16). The complaint further states that a “high energy crash” occurred and Roberts’s vehicle was dragged underneath the trailer and was crushed. (Id.). [*6]  According to the complaint, the crash caused Roberts to “suffer significant personal injuries.” (Id.). Specifically, the complaint avers that Roberts suffered “serious bodily harm, personal injury, traumatic brain injury, medical bills (past and future), permanent physical impairment, permanent scarring, physical pain and suffering (past and future), mental anguish, medical expenses, financial loss, inconvenience, annoyance, loss of enjoyment and quality of life (past and future) and general damages.” (Id. at p. 8; PageID. 18). Miller, his wife, also seeks damages for loss of consortium, past and future. (Id. at p. 15; PageID. 25). Plaintiffs also seek punitive damages in this case. “While a request for punitive damages does not automatically establish the amount-in-controversy, a court may properly consider punitive damages in the evaluation of whether a defendant has shown that the amount-in-controversy is satisfied.” Fox v. Winn-Dixie Montgomery, LLC, Civ. A. No. 21-00306-CG-B, 2021 WL 4484564, at *6 (S.D. Ala. Sept. 13, 2021) (quoting Hogan v. Mason, Civ. A. No. 2:16-BE-1732-S, 2017 WL 1331052, at *3 (N.D. Ala. Apr. 11, 2017)).

The Accident Report, which was attached as an exhibit to the Notice of Removal, reflects that the accident occurred on March 15, 2022, when Stewart, who was driving a tractor-trailer eastbound at approximately [*7]  40 m.p.h. on Red Fox Road, failed to stop at the stop sign at the intersection of U.S. Highway 43 because his dog crawled underneath his legs preventing him from braking. (Doc. 1-2 at p. 4; PageID. 81). Roberts, who was traveling approximately 65 m.p.h. on Highway 43 in a Honda Accord, did not have time to brake and struck the flatbed trailer. (Id.). The flatbed trailer dragged the Accord down Harvill Road causing the Accord to strike the front of another vehicle. (Id.). The tractor-trailer came to rest down Harvill Road with its flatbed trailer on top of the Accord driven by Roberts. (Id.). EMS arrived on the scene approximately 13 minutes after the accident where Roberts was trapped in his vehicle. (Id. at pp. 3, 5; PageID. 80, 82). Roberts was transported by Mobile County EMS to the University of South Alabama Medical Center, and the driver of the vehicle that Roberts’s vehicle hit while it was being dragged was transported to Grove Hill Memorial Hospital by private vehicle. (Id. at p. 3; PageID. 80). Roberts’s vehicle was totaled. (Id.).

Roberts claims damages for “serious bodily harm, personal injury, traumatic brain injury, medical bills (past and future), permanent physical impairment, [*8]  permanent scarring, physical pain and suffering (past and future), mental anguish, medical expenses, financial loss, inconvenience, annoyance, loss of enjoyment and quality of life (past and future) and general damages.” (Doc. 1-1). The Eleventh Circuit has held that “[c]omplaints alleging serious, lasting physical injuries are typically removable because it is facially apparent that these claims are worth more than $75,000.” Hickerson v. Enter. Leasing Co. of Ga., LLC, 818 F. App’x 880, 883 (11th Cir. 2020) (citing Gebbia v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 233 F.3d 880, 883 (5th Cir. 2000)). In Hickerson, the Eleventh Circuit held that “[f]rom the alleged traumatic brain injuries alone, the district court could reasonably infer or deduce that the cost of treatment would satisfy the jurisdictional amount.” Hickerson, 818 F. App’x at 884.

While it is impermissible for courts to speculate on the amount in controversy, see Lowery v. Alabama Power Co., 483 F.31184, 1209, 1215 (11th Cir. 2007), courts are allowed to assess a plaintiff’s claim based on their judicial experience and common sense, see Rachel v. PNC Bank, N.A., Civ. A. 16-00351-KD-MU, 2017 WL 1362034, at *2-3 (S.D. Ala. Apr. 10, 2017). Both the complaint and the accident report show that Roberts suffered severe injuries and that his vehicle was totaled. Roberts’s vehicle, a Honda Accord, was crushed and drug by a tractor-trailer in a high-speed crash. The accident report states that neither driver was able to brake before impact. Roberts had [*9]  to be extracted from his vehicle and taken to a trauma hospital by ambulance. He has alleged damages for future medical bills, future physical pain and suffering, and future loss of enjoyment and quality of life, as well as traumatic brain injury, permanent physical impairment, and permanent scarring. The face of the complaint shows that Roberts’s injuries were serious and long lasting. Applying “judicial experience and common sense,” the Court concludes that it is facially apparent from the complaint, and further supported by the accident report, that the jurisdictional amount is satisfied.


III. Conclusion

Based on the foregoing, it is RECOMMENDED that Plaintiffs’ motion to remand be DENIED.


NOTICE OF RIGHT TO FILE OBJECTIONS

A copy of this report and recommendation shall be served on all parties in the manner provided by law. Any party who objects to this recommendation or anything in it must, within fourteen (14) days of the date of service of this document, file specific written objections with the Clerk of this Court. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b); S.D. Ala. Gen. LR 72(c)(1) & (2). The parties should note that under Eleventh Circuit Rule 3-1, “[a] party failing to object to a magistrate judge’s findings or recommendations contained in a report and recommendation [*10]  in accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) waives the right to challenge on appeal the district court’s order based on unobjected-to factual and legal conclusions if the party was informed of the time period for objecting and the consequences on appeal for failing to object. In the absence of a proper objection, however, the court may review on appeal for plain error if necessary in the interests of justice.” 11th Cir. R. 3-1. To be specific, an objection must identify the specific finding or recommendation to which objection is made, state the basis for the objection, and specify the place in the Magistrate Judge’s report and recommendation where the disputed determination is found. An objection that merely incorporates by reference or refers to the briefing before the Magistrate Judge is not specific.

DONE this the 18th day of July, 2022.

/s/ P. BRADLEY MURRAY

UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE


End of Document

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