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Shonta Battle v. Johnny Thomas & Thomas Contr. LLC

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United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division

August 18, 2022, Decided; August 18, 2022, Filed

CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:21-CV-2332-SEG

Reporter

2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 180212 *; 2022 WL 4596682

SHONTA BATTLE, Plaintiff, v. JOHNNY THOMAS and THOMAS CONTRACTING LLC, Defendants.

Core Terms

driver, punitive damages, driving, truck, crash, summary judgment, claim for punitive damages, Defendants’, no evidence, failure to produce, violations, collision, logs, award of punitive damages, documents, alleged violation, deposition, speeding, alcohol, ticket, trucking company, circumstances, inspections, spoliation, presume, records, regulations, supervising, discovery, post-trip

Counsel:  [*1] For Johnny Thomas, Thomas Contracting LLC, Defendants: Anna Beaton, LEAD ATTORNEY, Copeland Stair Valz & Lovell LLP, Atlanta, GA; Frederick Mills Valz III, LEAD ATTORNEY, Copeland Stair Kingma & Lovell LLP, Atlanta, GA.

For Shonta Battle, Plaintiff: Hani Ganji, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Ramin Kermani-Nejad, Kermain Firm LLC, Atlanta, GA.

Judges: SARAH E. GERAGHTY, United States District Judge.

Opinion by: SARAH E. GERAGHTY

Opinion


ORDER

This matter is before the Court on Defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment. (Doc. 36.) Defendants move for summary judgment only on Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. Plaintiff has filed a response in opposition (Doc. 39), and Defendants have filed a reply brief (Doc. 41). After consideration of the parties’ briefing and the entire record, the Court enters the following order.


I. Background and Factual Findings1

This case involves a two-truck collision. In the early morning hours of November 6, 2020, a semi-truck and trailer driven by Defendant Johnny Thomas collided with a truck driven by Plaintiff Shonta Battle. (Doc. 36-2 at 1; Doc. 39-2 at 1; Doc. 36-4 at 154.) Battle’s truck and Thomas’s truck were driving in the same direction, southbound, on Highway 155. (Doc. 36-2 [*2]  at 1-2; Doc. 39-2 at 1.) According to the Georgia Motor Vehicle Crash Report, Thomas, who was in the left lane, attempted to merge into the right lane. (Doc. 36-3 at 3.) Per the same report, Thomas “misjudged the clearance” and caused a same direction “side swipe.” (Doc. 36-3 at 3.) There is little additional record evidence on the particular circumstances of the crash, but the parties appear generally to agree with the accident description in the Georgia Motor Vehicle Crash Report.2 As a result of the crash, Plaintiff allegedly “suffered catastrophic injuries.” (Compl. ¶ 8.) This lawsuit followed, in which Plaintiff brings claims for negligence (Count 1), imputed liability (Count 2), respondeat superior (Count 3), negligent training, hiring and supervision (Count 4), and damages (Count 5).

Johnny Thomas was not issued any citation for the accident. (Doc. 36-2 at 2; Doc. 39-2 at 1-2.) He claims in his deposition — and Plaintiff does not dispute — that he was driving at about 15 miles per hour at the time of the collision. (Doc. 44 at 39, 51, 58.) There is no evidence to suggest that Thomas was driving under the influence, texting while driving, or talking on his cell phone at the [*3]  time of the accident, or that he exhibited any inappropriate, callous, or malicious behavior before or after the accident.3 On the other hand, the Motor Vehicle Crash Report indicates that Thomas was “at fault for improper lane change.” (Doc. 36-3 at 3.) And Defendants accept that the accident occurred due to “negligence.” (Doc. 36-1 at 8.)

In addition to acknowledging that Thomas caused the accident, Defendants admit that Thomas’s employer is vicariously liable for Thomas’s conduct under a theory of respondeat superior. (Doc. 2; Doc. 36-2). Johnny Thomas works for Thomas Contracting LLC (“TCL”), a small trucking company owned by Thomas’s brother, Dyana Thomas. TCL operates out of Dyana Thomas’s house in York, Alabama. (J. Thomas Dep., Doc. 36-4 at 107.) Johnny Thomas started driving for TCL fulltime in 2020, but he had worked for TCL “off and on” during the winter seasons (when his regular, bridge-construction job was on hiatus), since about 2006. (Id. at 57.)

As for Johnny Thomas’s driving history, the parties had the opportunity to conduct discovery, and the only record evidence produced to date comes from Johnny Thomas’s deposition. According to the evidence in the record, Johnny [*4]  Thomas received only one citation in the past ten years — and that was for passing a weigh scale house in his truck without driving over the digital scale. (Id. at 35; Doc. 36-2 at 2.) Aside from the weigh scale citation, the uncontroverted evidence shows that Thomas has never received a ticket while driving a truck. He has had only one other ticket in his life — a speeding ticket from 19 years ago. (J. Thomas Dep. at 37; Doc. 36-2 at 3.) Thomas further denies — and Plaintiff does not present evidence to show otherwise — that he has ever been ticketed for driving under the influence, texting while driving, making improper lane changes, driving recklessly, or following too closely. (J. Thomas Dep. at 35-38.) He denies ever having been involved in any other crashes (id. at 81) despite driving trucks professionally since 1985. (Id. at 88.)

Although, as noted above, Plaintiff has had a full opportunity to conduct discovery, Plaintiff has come forward with no evidence to suggest that Johnny Thomas’s testimony about his driving record is other than what Thomas says it is. In a document filed more than a year after the initiation of this lawsuit and after the close of discovery, Plaintiff [*5]  states that he sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and is “awaiting further information” on Defendants. (Doc. 39-2 at 3, n.1.) No such further information has been forthcoming. The only additional “bad act” Plaintiff attributes to Thomas is a 20-year-old conviction for felony marijuana possession. (Doc. 39 at 4.)

Given the undisputed evidence of Thomas’s driving record and the absence of any egregious action or inaction related to the accident in question, upon what is the punitive damages claim based? In a nutshell, Plaintiff argues that a jury could conceivably draw inferences unfavorable to Defendants based on Defendants’ failure to produce certain documents that TCL should have maintained under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (“FMCSRs”).

On this score, Dyana Thomas’s testimony certainly did not inspire confidence in his company’s compliance with the FMCSRs. Plaintiff specifically points out that Defendants failed to produce in discovery:

(1) Johnny Thomas’s driver qualification and driver history file, in alleged violation of 49 C.F.R. § 391.51(c) and § 391.53(c);

(2) the pre-trip, post-trip, and annual inspections of TCL’s semi-truck and trailer, in alleged violation of [*6]  § 396.11(a)(4) and § 396.21(b);

(3) Johnny Thomas’s driver logs, in alleged violation of § 395.8(k)(1);

(4) Johnny Thomas’s drug/alcohol test results, in alleged violation of § 382.401(b)(1)); and

(5) the crash/incident report, in alleged violation of § 390.15.

(Doc. 39-1 at 2.)

An additional fact with respect to Dyana Thomas and the missing FMCSR documents must be noted. Dyana Thomas gave his deposition testimony from a Mississippi state prison where Thomas is incarcerated, having been convicted of sexual battery. (D. Thomas Dep., Doc. 39-1 at 15-16.) His wife now runs TCL and presumably maintains its files. (Id. at 87). Dyana Thomas testified that TCL “diligently” searched for his brother’s file and logs, but that no such documents could be found. (Id. at 61-64.) He noted that a leak “flooded” his home office and caused certain documents to become wet and moved to the basement. (Id. at 61.) It is not clear from the record whether documents related to the accident at issue here were among those damaged. In any event, it appears to be undisputed that Defendants failed to produce these documents in discovery. (Doc. 35 at 13.)

Having no evidence of willful or outrageous conduct by Johnny Thomas, Plaintiff bases his punitive damages claim on a theory [*7]  that a jury could believe that something more happened in this case than meets the eye, especially given the FMCSR deficiencies and alleged credibility issues stemming from Dyana Thomas’s criminal convictions. (Doc. 39 at 2-3, 8-10). Plaintiff’s argument, boiled down, is that both the driver and the trucking company owner might be lying about what caused the accident, and because the company additionally failed to create or maintain certain records, a jury could reasonably infer that the accident happened in some other way (or for some other reason) than Thomas says it did. The only question on summary judgment is whether the punitive damages claim should go to a jury.


II. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate where the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. The party seeking summary judgment bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute as to any material fact. Herzog v. Castle Rock Entm’t, 193 F.3d 1241, 1246 (11th Cir. 1999). Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must demonstrate that summary judgment is inappropriate by designating [*8]  specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. Graham v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co., 193 F.3d 1274, 1282 (11th Cir. 1999). The nonmoving party “need not present evidence in a form necessary for admission at trial; however, he may not merely rest on his pleadings.” Id.

“At the summary judgment stage, facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a ‘genuine’ dispute as to those facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007). Where the record tells two different stories, one blatantly contradicted by the evidence, the Court is not required to adopt that version of the facts when ruling on summary judgment. Id. “[C]redibility determinations, the weighing of evidence, and the drawing of inferences from the facts are the function of the jury. . ..” Graham, 193 F.3d at 1282. “If the record presents factual issues, the court must not decide them; it must deny the motion and proceed to trial.” Herzog, 193 F.3d at 1246. Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial. Scott, 550 U.S. at 380. A party is entitled to summary judgment if “the facts and inferences point overwhelmingly in favor of the moving party, such that reasonable people could not arrive at a contrary verdict.” Miller v. Kenworth of Dothan, Inc., 277 F.3d 1269, 1275 (11th Cir. 2002) (quotations omitted).


III. Discussion

Defendants contend [*9]  that Plaintiff has failed to present a triable issue of fact regarding his punitive damages claim, and they seek summary judgment on that claim. Georgia law provides:

Punitive damages may be awarded only in such tort actions in which it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.

O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(b). Under Georgia law, “[m]ere negligence, even gross negligence, will not support an award of punitive damages.” Harris v. Leader, 231 Ga. App. 709, 499 S.E.2d 374, 378 (Ga. Ct. App. 1998). Instead, “aggravati[ng]” or “outrage[ous]” circumstances such as spite, malice, or evil or fraudulent motive on the defendant’s behalf must be present to warrant punitive damages. Colonial Pipeline Co. v. Brown, 258 Ga. 115, 365 S.E.2d 827, 832 (Ga. 1988).

Whether a defendant’s conduct is sufficient to warrant punitive damages is generally a jury question. Weller v. Blake, 315 Ga. App. 214, 726 S.E.2d 698, 703 (Ga. Ct. App. 2012). But “summary judgment is appropriate if the . . . record does not suggest that a plaintiff could carry his burden of proof by showing clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with the requisite intent.” Dickerson v. Am. Nat’l Prop. & Cas. Co., No. 3:07-cv-111-CDL, 2009 WL 1035131, at *9 (M.D. Ga. Apr. 16, 2009).

In a case such as this, a plaintiff might seek punitive [*10]  damages (1) against the truck driver (and his employer) for the driver’s misconduct and (2) against the employer alone for recklessly hiring, supervising, or retaining the driver. Pace v. Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, PA, No. 1:12-CV-3096-AT, 2014 WL 4976773, at *17 (N.D. Ga. Aug. 21, 2014). Although it is not entirely clear from the complaint, the Court assumes that Plaintiff seeks damages on both theories and therefore addresses both below.4


A. Punitive Damages Claim Against Johnny Thomas (Driver) and TCL (Employer) for Thomas’s Alleged Misconduct


1. Absence of Aggravating or Outrageous Facts or Circumstances

Plaintiff appears to seek punitive damages against both the defendant driver (Thomas) and the defendant company (TCL) for Johnny Thomas’s alleged misconduct. In cases involving vehicle accidents, “punitive damages are not recoverable where the driver at fault simply violated a rule of the road,” but they are recoverable “where the collision resulted from a pattern or policy of dangerous driving.” Carter v. Spells, 229 Ga. App. 441, 494 S.E.2d 279, 281 (Ga. Ct. App. 1997). Courts have found a pattern or policy of dangerous driving sufficient to support punitive damages, for example, where the driver had a history of driving while intoxicated or regularly driving at excessive speeds. See id. (collecting cases); Lindsey v. Clinch County Glass, Inc., 312 Ga. App. 534, 718 S.E.2d 806, 808 (Ga. Ct. App. 2011) (collecting cases and finding no evidence that the [*11]  driver was “speeding, driving while under the influence, or that he had a history of distraction-related accidents, traffic violations, or other evidence that would show a pattern of dangerous driving or other aggravating circumstances so as to authorize an award of punitive damages.”).

Here, Defendants admit that Johnny Thomas caused the accident, but contend that the facts and circumstances surrounding the collision are not aggravating or outrageous. The Court agrees that they are not. Similar to the Lindsey case, here there is no evidence that, at the time of the collision, Thomas was speeding, travelling too fast for conditions, driving under the influence of alcohol or other substances, or acting with such a willful and wanton lack of care as to entitle a jury to presume that he was consciously indifferent to the consequences of his actions. See Hughey v. KTV’s Transp., LLC, No. 1:19-cv-3499-SDG, 2022 WL 902841, at *2 (N.D. Ga. Mar. 28, 2022). Thomas stated in his deposition that he did not drink alcohol in the 24 hours before the crash (J. Thomas Dep. Vol. II, Doc. 44 at 55), that he “probably” got eight hours of sleep before the accident (id. at 42), that he respects limitations regarding hours of service for motor vehicle carriers [*12]  (id. at 5), and that he was driving at about 15 miles per hour at the time of the accident (id. at 58). Thomas received no citation in connection with the incident. He was not charged with or accused of being under the influence, and there is no allegation that he acted with malice or did anything other than change lanes improperly. Plaintiff has no evidence to the contrary.

For the foregoing reasons, the circumstances of the accident are a far cry from those in other cases in which courts have permitted punitive damages claims to go before a jury.5 At worst, Thomas was careless when he allowed his truck to sideswipe Plaintiff’s truck. While this may have been negligent, it does not rise to the level of culpability necessary to impose punitive damages. Clark v. Irvin, No. 1:09-cv-101-WLS, 2011 WL 13152865, at *7 (M.D. Ga. May 31, 2011) (“[T]he Court finds that Defendant Irvin’s conduct only constituted violations of rules of the road—FMCSR and Georgia statutory provisions—and therefore would be considered, at most, negligence or negligence per se, which cannot alone support an award of punitive damages.”).


2. Absence of a Pattern or Practice of Dangerous Driving

Nor does Thomas’s driving infraction record — the sum of which consists [*13]  of a 19-year-old speeding ticket and one citation for failing to weigh his truck’s load on a digital scale — create a dispute of material fact on the appropriateness of punitive damages. Plaintiff contends that “Defendants have a credibility issue” because Defendants both have criminal convictions. (Doc. 39 at 3.) But at the summary judgment stage, it is insufficient simply to aver that Defendants are not credible. Plaintiff must come forward with facts to dispute Defendants’ evidence regarding “pattern and practice.” Plaintiff has not done so.6

The undisputed record evidence to date shows that Thomas’s history of driving-related infractions is limited to the relatively minor issues listed above. Plaintiff next points out that Thomas was convicted of marijuana possession over 20 years ago. (Doc. 39 at 4.) But there is no indication that this dated conviction had any connection to truck driving, and it appears to have no other relevance to the punitive damage inquiry.

In case after case, courts have granted summary judgment to at-fault drivers on the issue of punitive damages in car accident cases, even where the factual circumstances were far more aggravating than those presented here. [*14]  See, e.g., Bartja v. Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, Pa., 463 S.E.2d 358 (Ga. Ct. App. 1995) (upholding dismissal of punitive damages claim against driver and employer despite evidence that driver had a “tendency to fall asleep at the wheel”); Coker v. Culter, 208 Ga. App. 651, 431 S.E.2d 443 (Ga. Ct. App. 1993) (affirming grant of summary judgment as to punitive damages in favor of defendant driver even where he was speeding on wet roads, had consumed alcohol, and behaved abhorrently after collision). In short, the facts viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff are insufficient to show a pattern or policy of dangerous driving and do not support a claim for punitive damages.


B. Punitive Damages Claim Against TCL (Employer) for Negligent Hiring, Training, or Supervision

Plaintiff seeks punitive damages against TCL on his negligent hiring, training, and supervising claim. To obtain punitive damages on such a claim, a plaintiff must do more than show negligence, or even gross negligence. Rather, a plaintiff must come forth with “some facts [to] support a conclusion that the employer acted with such ‘an entire want of care’ as to ‘raise [a] presumption of conscious indifference to [the] consequences.'” Western Indus., Inc. v. Poole, 280 Ga. App. 378, 634 S.E.2d 118, 120-121 (Ga. Ct. App. 2006) (citations omitted). “A plaintiff can shoulder this burden of proof only by showing that an employer had actual knowledge of numerous [*15]  and serious violations on its driver’s record, or, at the very least, when the employer has flouted a legal duty to check a record showing such violations.” Western Indus., 634 S.E.2d at 121 (citing Smith v. Tommy Roberts Trucking Co., 209 Ga. App. 826, 435 S.E.2d 54, 57-58 (Ga. Ct. App. 1993)) (emphasis supplied).

Plaintiff contends that Defendants “failed to produce Defendant Johnny Thomas’s driver qualification and driver history file — which would show exactly how many tickets and moving violations Johnny Thomas [h]as received.” (Doc. 39-2 at 2-3.) It follows, Plaintiff argues, that a jury “may presume that Johnny had more moving violations and traffic citations.” (Doc. 39-2 at 3.). But this is not a reasonable inference. According to the Eleventh Circuit:

Under federal law, an inference must be reasonable to defeat a motion for summary judgment. A reasonable inference is one that a reasonable and fair-minded person in the exercise of impartial judgment might draw from the evidence. Reasonable inferences may rest in part on conjecture, for an inference by definition is at least partially conjectural. But a jury cannot be allowed to engage in a degree of speculation and conjecture that renders its finding a guess or mere possibility. Such an inference is infirm because it is not based on the evidence.

Berbridge v. Sam’s E., Inc., 728 F. App’x 929, 932 (11th Cir. 2018) (citing [*16]  Daniels v. Twin Oaks Nursing Home, 692 F.2d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 1982)) (citations and punctuation omitted).

True, Dyana Thomas may not have conducted a background check on his brother as required by federal regulations, and he either did not create or did not maintain Thomas’s driver file. (D. Thomas Dep. at 59, 78.) There is no indication on this record, however, that TCL would have found anything of concern, had it thoroughly investigated Thomas’s employment history and background. See Western Indus., 634 S.E.2d at 121. There is simply no record evidence of “numerous and serious violations” on Thomas’s record, and the proposed inference to the contrary is purely speculative.

It is instructive to compare the facts here with those in Smith v. Tommy Roberts Trucking Co., 209 Ga. App. 826, 435 S.E.2d 54, 57 (Ga. Ct. App. 1993), a case in which it was determined that the punitive damages question should go before the jury. In Smith, as in the instant case, the employer failed to follow federal regulations requiring it to check into the defendant-driver’s record. Id. But, unlike in this case, the plaintiff in Smith went on to show that the driver’s record for just the three years prior to the accident included a DUI, two speeding tickets, a violation of a traffic-control device, and a guilty plea to a charge of following too closely. Id. at 56. Had the trucking company in Smith endeavored to checked into [*17]  its driver’s record, it would have found a big red flag. No evidence suggests that the same is true here. See Pace v. Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, PA, No. 1:12-CV-3096-AT, 2014 WL 4976773, at *20 (N.D. Ga. Aug. 21, 2014) (“[E]ven if [the trucking company defendant] failed to pull [the driver’s] driving record when it hired him, the record shows that [the driver’s] driving record at that time was nearly spotless, with just one speeding ticket in ten years.”)

Additionally, the fact that Thomas allegedly put the wrong social security number on his driver application, and that he may or may not have inserted the wrong date on the application is immaterial. So are Plaintiff’s allegations, undeveloped on the record, that TCL failed to train and supervise Thomas. “[T]he only evidence relevant to an award of punitive damages . . . relates to the proximate cause of the collision.” See Ferguson v. Garkusha, No. 1:18-CV-03440, 2020 WL 4732187, at *6 (N.D. Ga. Aug. 14, 2020) (citing Brooks v. Gray, 262 Ga. App. 232, 585 S.E.2d 188, 190 (Ga. Ct. App. 2003)). And no one contends either that the accident happened because Thomas’s application was inaccurate or because it obscured a history of misconduct. Ferguson, 2020 WL 4732187 at *6. Plaintiff cannot succeed on his punitive damages claim against TCL for negligent hiring, training, or supervision.


C. Punitive Damages Based on TCL’s Failure to Create and/or Maintain Records Required by Federal Motor Carrier [*18]  Safety Regulations (FMCSR)

Plaintiff argues that a jury could presume facts sufficient to uphold a punitive damages award against TCL based on TCL’s failure to produce certain records. Plaintiff specifically argues that:

(1) Defendants’ failure to produce the subject truck’s pre-trip, post-trip, and annual inspections, in alleged violation of 49 C.F.R. § 396.11(a)(4) and § 396.21(b), “means the truck was not safe to drive.”

(2) Defendants’ failure to produce Thomas’s driver logs and the crash/incident report in violation of 49 C.F.R. § 395.8(k)(1) and § 390.15 means that Thomas “was fatigued at 4am when he crashed into Plaintiff” and “Defendants were at fault for the crash.”

(3) Defendants’ failure to produce Thomas’s driver drug test results, in alleged violation of 49 C.F.R. § 382.401(b)(1), means that Thomas “was inebriated at the time of the crash.”

(Doc. 39 at 8-9.) It is not clear from the record whether Plaintiff is arguing that TCL once possessed the above-referenced records but destroyed them, or that TCL never created the documents.7 The Court nonetheless addresses each category of documents in turn. In so doing, the Court applies the principle that “[i]n order for a claim of spoliation of evidence in connection with a regulatory violation to support an award of punitive [*19]  damages, the violation must have been related or have contributed to the accident, or have been a substantial factor in bringing about the collision.” Waldrop v. Coastline, No. 3:13-CV-00204-TCB, 2015 WL 11257573, at *6 (N.D. Ga. Mar. 12, 2015) (disallowing punitive damages claim in collision case where there was no indication that the regulatory violation contributed to the accident).


1. Defendants’ Failure to Produce the Truck’s Pre-Trip, Post-Trip, and Annual Inspection Reports

Plaintiff presents no evidence to show that Thomas’s truck had any mechanical issues before or after the accident. No deposition testimony supports any such theory. No witness reported seeing or hearing anything go wrong with the truck. Yet, according to Plaintiff, a reasonable jury could presume that TCL’s failure to produce the truck’s pre-trip, post-trip, and annual inspections (in alleged violation of 49 C.F.R. § 396.11(a)(4) and § 396.21(b)) “means the truck was not safe to drive.” (Doc. 39 at 9.) The Court cannot agree that a reasonable jury could award punitive damages on this speculative basis where zero evidence links any mechanical failure to the cause of the crash.

The court in Clark v. Irvin, No. 1:09-CV-101-WLS, 2011 WL 13152865 (M.D. Ga. May 31, 2011) considered and rejected a similar claim. In Clark, a plaintiff argued that her [*20]  punitive damages claim against a trucking company should go to a jury, in part, because the defendant company failed to comply with certain FMCSRs regarding its tractor-trailer’s working condition and the maintenance of safety-related records, including inspection reports. Id., at *5. The Court in Clark disagreed, finding that plaintiff had not causally connected the defendant’s failure to perform log audits and annual reviews to the reasons for the crash. Id., at *10 (“The only evidence relevant to an award of punitive damages . . . relates to the proximate cause of the collision.”). Further, addressing the plaintiff’s spoliation argument, the court noted the absence of “any applicable authority that directly supports a court’s imposition of punitive damages as a sanction for spoliation.” Id.

Here, just as in Clark, Plaintiff has not causally related TCL’s failure to produce reports about the truck to the accident in question. The uncontroverted facts suggest that this case involves a low-speed sideswipe that occurred during a lane change, where the driver misjudged the clearance and hit Plaintiff’s truck. (Doc. 36-3 at 3.) On these facts, Plaintiff’s proposed inference (that the truck was unsafe to drive) has no [*21]  grounding in evidence. No reasonable jury could award punitive damages on this record based on Defendants’ failure to produce pre-trip reports, post-trip reports, and annual truck inspections.


2. Defendants’ Failure to Produce Johnny Thomas’s Driver Logs and the Crash Incident Report

Johnny Thomas stated in his deposition that he kept a paper log of his “work status” (i.e., driving hours and other information) at the time of the crash, but that he did not know what became of it. (J. Thomas Dep. at 125-26.) Dyana Thomas stated in his deposition that TCL generally maintained Thomas’s paper logs but that his brother’s logs relating to the accident could not be found, despite a diligent search. (D. Thomas Dep. at 98-99.). Defendants admit that they are not in possession of driver logs for Thomas (Doc. 35 at 13), and it does not appear that Defendants produced a crash report either.

According to Plaintiff, Defendants’ failure to produce driver logs for the date of the crash “means that Johnny [Thomas] was fatigued at 4 am when he crashed into Plaintiff.” (Doc. 39 at 9.) The Court does not agree that the missing logs could lead a jury to award punitive damages consistent with law, because here [*22]  again, there is a significant causation problem for punitive damages. See, e.g., Huezo v. Halilovic, No. 1:13-CV-2580-SCJ, 2015 WL 13776584, at *3 (N.D. Ga. Apr. 7, 2015) (granting motion for summary judgment as to punitive damages, despite trucking company’s failure to maintain travel and time records in violation of FMCSRs, because no evidence showed that the accident was caused by excessive driving hours).

Compare the facts at hand to those in J.B. Hunt Transp., Inc. v. Bentley, 207 Ga. App. 250, 427 S.E.2d 499, 505 (Ga. Ct. App. 1993), a case in which the court found that it was reasonable to presume that evidence destroyed after an accident would have favored plaintiff and could lead to punitive damages. In J.B. Hunt, the driver was allegedly exhausted from working excessive hours, and the trucking company was a “habitual violator” of the hours-in-service requirements of the Georgia Public Service Commission. Id. at 504. The company had even been penalized for having its drivers engage in excessive driving. Id. Evidence further showed that the truck in question was swerving erratically and out of its lane for 10-20 miles before the crash, but the relevant logbook had been destroyed, as were the pre-trip and post-trip inspection reports. Id. at 501-05. Against that background, the court held that it was a reasonable presumption that the destroyed documents [*23]  would have shown that the driver had insufficient rest. Id. at 505. The presumption in J.B. Hunt was “proper where the regulatory violations were habitual, directly related to the unlawful conduct complained of, and where the spoliation of evidence directly affected and potentially contributed to the collision.” Waldrop v. Coastline, No. 3:13-CV-00204-TCB, 2015 WL 11257573, at *5 (N.D. Ga. Mar. 12, 2015).

Here, unlike in J.B. Hunt, there is no evidence that Thomas was exhausted, that TCL encouraged excessive hours for its drivers, or that the truck was operating erratically before the accident. There is no context at all from which a jury could reasonably presume that Thomas caused an accident for any of the foregoing reasons.8 Neither would the absence of a post-incident crash report allow a jury to award punitive damages on this record. Plaintiff says that such failure should lead to a presumption that Defendants were at fault. But Defendants appear to admit “simple negligence.” (Doc. 36-1 at 8.) The failure to create or maintain an accident report cannot justify punitive damages under the law on this record, where no evidence links the FMCSR violations to the accident. See Mcgarity v. FM Carriers, Inc., No. CV410-130, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41356, 2012 WL 1028593, at *17 (S.D. Ga. Mar. 26, 2012) (“Plaintiff improperly relies upon the litany of alleged FMCSR violations to support an [*24]  award of punitive damages rather than the proximate cause of the accident.”)


3. Defendants’ Failure to Provide Evidence of a Post-Accident Drug and Alcohol Screen

TCL apparently did not give Thomas a drug or alcohol screen after the accident.9 Plaintiff alleges that Defendants’ failure to produce records of the test violates 49 C.F.R. § 382.401(b)(1) and “means that Johnny [Thomas] was inebriated at the time of the crash.” (Doc. 39 at 9.)

In Waldrop v. Coastline, No. 3:13-CV-00204-TCB, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 191462, 2015 WL 11257573 (N.D. Ga. Mar. 12, 2015), this court considered a similar argument. As Battle does here, the Waldrop plaintiff argued that a defendant failed to administer a drug test to its employee following an accident, and that a jury could presume that such a test would have produced evidence favoring plaintiff, which in turn would have supported the request for punitive damages. Id. In Waldrop, the court found no indication that the trucking company’s regulatory violation with respect to the test contributed to or caused the accident, and that there was no evidence that the driver was under the influence, a habitual drinker, or that he had ever been cited for driving drunk. Id., at *6. The court further found that the failure to comply with the applicable federal regulation, [*25]  in the absence of such evidence, could not support a clam of punitive damages.

Here, there is similarly no evidence to suggest that Thomas was inebriated, or that he has any history of driving under the influence. He denied drinking or taking drugs or medication within 24 hours before the accident. (J. Thomas Dep., Vol. II at 55-56.) He stated in his deposition that he does not drink alcohol. (Id. at 55.) Thomas was not cited for driving under the influence, and apparently the officer at the scene saw no reason to test Thomas for substance use. (Id. at 52.) Plaintiff has not come forward with facts to refute any of the evidence above. Punitive damages cannot be awarded on the ground that TCL failed to test Thomas and/or failed to preserve the test results.10

On a final note, the facts here are quite different from those in a case like Herring v. Berkshire Hathaway Homestate Insurance Company, No. 1:18-cv-4711-WMR, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 196961, 2020 WL 6135654 (N.D. Ga. Sept. 24, 2020), where the court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the punitive damages claim. In Herring, the court permitted the punitive damages claim to go to a jury where the trucking company failed to perform required random drug and alcohol tests and to require the [*26]  driver to be tested after the accident. Id. at *3, 7. In that case, there were numerous facts tying the defendants’ FMCSR-related failures to the crash, including evidence that the driver was taking narcotics, that he had physical disabilities and medical problems, and that he knowingly concealed his conditions from medical examiners. Id. at *4-5. On those facts — so unlike the facts in the instant case — the court held that the jury could find that the driver’s medical conditions, physical limitations, and narcotic medications could have caused or contributed to the crash. Id. at * 5-7.

In summary, violations of FMCSRs governing motor carriers — standing on their own – “cannot be considered wanton or reckless and [are] therefore insufficient to meet the clear and convincing standard for punitive damages.” Clark v. Irvin, No. 1:09-cv-101-WLS, 2011 WL 13152865, at *11 (M.D. Ga. May 31, 2011). While TCL appears to have been lax and perhaps negligent in its failure to adhere to such regulations, Defendants have demonstrated the absence of a genuine dispute as to any material fact on the punitive damages claim. To the extent that Plaintiff’s summary judgment response brief makes a spoliation argument, the Court observes that Plaintiff has not filed any motion or sought any [*27]  relief related to alleged spoliation, and that “an award of punitive damages is not a remedy for spoliation.” Id. at *10. The question of punitive damages may generally be a jury question, but here Battle has not provided sufficient evidence to create a triable issue.


IV. Conclusion

Defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment is GRANTED. (Doc. 36.) The parties are ORDERED to file their Consolidated Pretrial Order within 30 days of the date of this order. If the parties would like a stay of this deadline to allow them to conduct mediation, they may file a motion to that effect. The parties are reminded that the Court can order this case referred to mediation before a magistrate judge of this Court at no cost. If the parties would like such a referral, they may so request by motion.

SO ORDERED this 18th day of August, 2022.

/s/ Sarah E. Geraghty

SARAH E. GERAGHTY

United States District Judge


End of Document


Pursuant to the Local Rules of this court, each of the proponents’ facts will be deemed admitted unless the other side “(i) directly refutes the [proponents’] fact with concise responses supported by specific citations to evidence (including page or paragraph number); (ii) states a valid objection to the admissibility of the [proponents’] fact; or (iii) points out that the [proponents’] citation does not support the [proponents’] fact or that the [proponents’] fact is not material or otherwise has failed to comply with the provisions set out in LR 56.1 B(1).” LR 56.1B(2), NDGa. Where a factual assertion or portion thereof is properly disputed, the Court will view the material evidence and factual inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and will, where appropriate, also cite directly to the evidence supporting the Court’s resulting factual recitation.

See Defendants’ Statement of Undisputed Facts, Doc. 36-2 at 1 (characterizing the accident as a “vehicle side swipe accident”); Plaintiff’s Response to Defendants’ Statement of “Undisputed” Facts, Doc. 39-2 at 1 (stating Thomas “improperly changed lanes and crashed into Plaintiff.”).

The Georgia Motor Vehicle Crash Report appears to indicate that no alcohol or drug test was performed at the scene of the accident. (Doc. 36-3 at 3).

The complaint contains a single reference to punitive damages, and that is found in the Plaintiff’s “prayer for relief” section. (Doc. 1-1 at 9.) In that section, Plaintiff seeks punitive damages against “Defendants.” Id.

See, e.g., Cheevers v. Clark, 214 Ga. App. 866, 449 S.E.2d 528 (Ga. Ct. App. 1994) (involving drunk driving in the incident at issue and subsequent arrests for drunk driving); Holt v. Grinnell, 212 Ga. App. 520, 441 S.E.2d 874 (Ga. Ct. App. 1994) (involving history of drunk driving); Smith v. Tommy Roberts Trucking Co., 209 Ga. App. 826, 435 S.E.2d 54 (Ga. Ct. App. 1993) (involving evidence that trucking company rewarded fast driving, and a driver with several traffic violations and a DUI).

While Plaintiff may argue that his efforts to investigate were frustrated by TCL’s failure to keep documents, there are other sources, aside from an employer, from which to discover information about a person’s driving record and criminal history. Plaintiff apparently took advantage of one such source, noting that he is “awaiting further information” on a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (Doc. 39-2 at 3, n.1.) However, the time to respond to the summary judgment motion has passed, Plaintiff proffered no evidence regarding the result of this request, and Plaintiff sought no extension of his deadline on account of the FOIA request.

The complaint does not fully answer this question, and neither does the summary judgment record. In one sentence of Plaintiff’s response brief, he claims that there was willful destruction of documents. See Doc. 39 at 11 (stating that “facts and inferences” show that “TCL destroys documents to hide potential violations.”) Plaintiff has not, however, filed any motion relating to alleged spoliation of evidence.

At the time of the crash, Thomas was on his way from Georgia to Anniston, Alabama. (J. Thomas Dep. at 80.) Thomas states that he went on duty at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. on the night before the crash, which occurred at about 4 a.m. (Id. at 164-65.)

Johnny Thomas states in his deposition that TCL did not give him a post-accident drug or alcohol screen. (J. Thomas Dep., Vol. II at 52.) Dyana Thomas states that such a test should have been performed, but he could not recall if it had been in this case. (D. Thomas Dep. at 180.)

10 See Brumley v. Keech, 2012 Ark. 263 (2012) (holding that where alleged failure to comply with the FMCSR post-accident testing requirements occurred after the accident and did not contribute to it, and where there was no evidence that defendant had been drinking alcohol or using controlled substances or that he appeared under the influence, the violation could not support a punitive damages award); Abdul v. Logistics Express, Inc., No. 1:07CV1186-LG-RHW, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 129981, 2009 WL 6965088 (S.D. Miss. July 8, 2009) (stating that defendants’ failure to ensure that an alcohol test was administered to the tractor-trailer driver did not support an award for punitive damages as there was no indication that the violations contributed to or caused the accident, and there was no evidence the driver had been drinking alcohol prior to the accident).

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