Michael Kenney and Steven Malitz Secure Favorable Summary Judgment Ruling on Behalf of Trucking Company

December 9, 2020

Attorneys Michael Kenney and Steven Malitz from RRD’s Trucking and Transportation Group, along with Atty. Jonathan Zellner from RRD’s Appellate Group, achieved a significant victory before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a very high exposure trucking case with limited coverage. The lawsuit arose from an underride accident that took place on the shoulder of I-95 northbound in Greenwich, adjacent to the acceleration lane leading out of the DOT weigh station near Exit 3. Our client driver, having found the weigh station full, stopped on the shoulder to sleep just after 2:00 a.m. About 75 minutes later, the plaintiff, on his way back to New Haven after having attended a birthday party in New York City, drifted onto the right shoulder, contacted a ridge of ice left over from plowing operations, and continued forward in the shoulder for about 85 feet, directly into the rear of our client’s trailer. Fortunately the plaintiff survived the crash, but he sustained catastrophic injuries that led to no fewer than 13 surgeries, lengthy hospital stays and in-patient rehabilitation, and over $2M in medical bills. At the scene, the plaintiff told law enforcement he must have fallen asleep while driving. Testing confirmed his BAC was over the legal limit of .08, and hospital records documented that he had told hospital staff he had consumed seven drinks.

The plaintiff sued our clients, bringing claims of common law and statutory recklessness as well as negligence, and seeking millions of dollars in damages. Loss of consortium claims were brought on behalf of the plaintiff’s minor children. At his deposition, the plaintiff denied being drunk, denied telling law enforcement that he had fallen asleep at the wheel, denied telling hospital personnel he had been drinking, and claimed that the reason he was on the shoulder was that he hit a large area of black ice.

The case was removed to federal court on diversity grounds, and in the initial pleading stages we secured a dismissal of the recklessness counts under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a cognizable claim. We then pursued discovery with an eye toward a summary judgment motion directed to the remaining claims. After securing critical factual testimony from first responders and disclosing weather, toxicology and accident reconstruction experts to refute the plaintiff’s testimony, we moved for summary judgment, arguing that under these facts, the defendants did not owe the plaintiff a legal duty, and even if a duty were owed and was breached, the plaintiff’s own negligence and recklessness severed any proximate cause between the defendants’ negligence and the accident. Finally, we argued that even if the plaintiff could prove the defendants were negligent, his own overwhelming negligence barred his recovery as a matter of law under Connecticut’s modified comparative negligence rules.

The District Court granted the motion, agreeing with our argument that under the undisputed evidence, no reasonable jury could ever find that the plaintiff’s negligence did not bar his recovery. The District Court agreed that this case presented one of the relatively rare examples of when a party’s conduct was so egregiously unreasonable, that the issue of negligence could be decided as a matter of law on summary judgment. The Court further agreed with the our argument that a party cannot create a genuine issue of fact on summary judgment by simply advancing that party’s own testimony, where that testimony is unsupported by, and indeed directly contradicted by, all other admissible evidence.

The plaintiffs appealed the District Court’s summary judgment ruling as well as the Court’s earlier ruling dismissing the recklessness claims to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Following oral argument that took place telephonically due to COVID19 restrictions, the panel of Second Circuit judges unanimously affirmed the District Court’s rulings in all respects.

This case provides a very good example of our aggressive use of motion practice and discovery to defend a case with significant damages and potentially massive exposure.