695 F.3d 417 (6th Cir. 2012), 11-1134, Rupert v. Daggett

Docket Nº:11-1134.
Citation:695 F.3d 417
Opinion Judge:JANE B. STRANCH, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:Sandra L. RUPERT, Special Administrator of the Estate of Ivan L. Rupert, Jr., deceased, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Freda DAGGETT, doing business as KFDGT Pilot Car Services, Defendant— Appellee.
Attorney:Scott R. Melton, Gruel, Mills, Nims & Pylman, LLP, Grand Rapids, Michigan for Appellant. Daniel S. Saylor, Garan Lucow Miller, P.C., Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee. Scott R. Melton, William F. Mills, Gruel, Mills, Nims & Pylman, LLP, Grand Rapids, Michigan for Appellant. Roger A. Smith, Caryn A....
Judge Panel:Before: WHITE, STRANCH, and FARRIS, Circuit Judges.[*]
Case Date:September 19, 2012
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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Page 417

695 F.3d 417 (6th Cir. 2012)

Sandra L. RUPERT, Special Administrator of the Estate of Ivan L. Rupert, Jr., deceased, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

Freda DAGGETT, doing business as KFDGT Pilot Car Services, Defendant— Appellee.

No. 11-1134.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

September 19, 2012

Argued: April 13, 2012.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 419

ARGUED:

Scott R. Melton, Gruel, Mills, Nims & Pylman, LLP, Grand Rapids, Michigan for Appellant.

Daniel S. Saylor, Garan Lucow Miller, P.C., Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

Scott R. Melton, William F. Mills, Gruel, Mills, Nims & Pylman, LLP, Grand Rapids, Michigan for Appellant.

Roger A. Smith, Caryn A. Gordon, Garan Lucow Miller, P.C., Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee.

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Before: WHITE, STRANCH, and FARRIS, Circuit Judges.[*]

OPINION

JANE B. STRANCH, Circuit Judge.

Michael Otteren was driving behind his travel companion, Freda Daggett, when Daggett made an illegal U-turn. As Otteren repeated Daggett's U-turn, his vehicle cut off a motorcycle being driven by Ivan Rupert, resulting in his death. His widow, Sandra Rupert, sued Daggett under the theory that the accident was a reasonably foreseeable result of Daggett's own negligence because she knew Otteren was following her. The district court granted summary judgment to Daggett upon holding, under Michigan law, that Otteren's operation of his own vehicle constituted a superseding, intervening cause that cut off any liability on Daggett's part. Because we conclude that Sandra Rupert raised genuine issues of material fact as to each element of the prima facie negligence case, we REVERSE the judgment of the district court.

I. BACKGROUND

Freda Daggett and Michael Otteren each owned and operated " pilot vehicles," which escort trucks hauling large or wide loads across the country. Daggett drove a Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck, while Otteren drove a GMC Suburban. At the time of the accident, Daggett was the far more experienced of the two and had been driving commercial trucks since 1983, logging approximately 400,000 miles as a pilot car driver. She is the owner and sole employee of KFDGT Pilot Car Services, a company she started in 2001.1 Otteren had been driving a pilot vehicle for about nine months before the accident for his own company, AAA Pilot Car Service. They were acquainted through Otteren's father, a truck driver with whom Daggett had worked, and Daggett had provided some instruction to Otteren about how to operate a pilot car. Sandra Rupert alleges that Daggett and Otteren had a mentor-mentee relationship, but the exact nature and degree of their association is not entirely clear from the record.

The chain of events giving rise to this case began when Daggett accepted Otteren's invitation to work with him on a multi-trip project escorting loads from Michigan to California, although they traveled separately. Upon reaching their final destination, both drivers hoped to find a job which would pay them to travel back across the country but, upon being unsuccessful in their pursuits, decided to drive back to Michigan together without a load to accompany.2 As they headed east on Interstate 70, they were in regular communication over CB radio and stopped together at the same locations.

On March 17, 2007, Daggett and Otteren were continuing eastward on the interstate through Colorado, with Daggett in the lead, when they decided to take an exit so Otteren could fix one of his mirrors. Upon discovering there was not an eastbound on-ramp to get back on to the interstate, they agreed to take the westbound ramp instead. During her deposition, Daggett testified she did not recall whether they

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had further discussion about their route, although she did agree the " plan" was to " [f]ind a place to turn around and go back eastbound." Meanwhile, Ivan Rupert was approaching the exit on his Harley Davidson motorcycle from the westbound portion of the interstate.

Laura Perri, a witness to the accident, was driving in the right lane of the two lanes constituting the westbound portion of the interstate when she saw Daggett, and then Otteren, attempting to merge into that lane from the on ramp. She detailed the subsequent events in an affidavit as follows:

The two pilot vehicles entered Interstate 70 westbound at the Grand Mesa-Collbran entrance. There is a cement divider between the westbound and eastbound lanes of traffic when one enters the interstate at that point. I passed the pilot cars as they merged onto the interstate or shortly afterwards. The motorcycle driver was behind the trailing pilot vehicle in the right lane and signaled his intention to move into the left lane and then moved into the left lane. The two pilot cars were still in the right lane and were slightly ahead of the motorcycle. I was looking in my rear view mirror so I would be able to safely move from the left lane to the right after I passed the lead pilot vehicle. The trailing pilot vehicle was one and half to two car lengths behind the lead pilot vehicle.3 The motorcycle was five or six car lengths behind my vehicle.

I had just passed the lead pilot car when suddenly, the lead pilot car made an abrupt left turn from the west bound right lane, crossing over the westbound left lane into the median at the U-turn access point designated for authorized and emergency vehicles only. The trailing pilot vehicle followed the lead pilot vehicle, executing the same maneuver, turning left from the right hand westbound lane cutting across the westbound left lane behind the lead SUV pilot vehicle.4 Neither pilot vehicle activated its yellow roof lights or turn signals.

Perri described the angle taken by the pilot vehicles as a sharp perpendicular 5 turn with " no merging to the left lane at all." Daggett was able to proceed through the median without incident, but Ivan Rupert's motorcycle struck the right rear corner of Otteren's vehicle as their paths intersected. Rupert died as a result of his injuries. Just one mile from the accident site was an exit which would have allowed Daggett and Otteren to reenter the interstate on its eastbound side without taking a U-turn.

Otteren offered a different account of the facts. He testified to seeing Rupert's motorcycle about 300-350 feet behind him when he first saw it through his rearview mirror and said Daggett's vehicle was " a good quarter mile or so" in front of him. He recalls traveling completely in the left lane for about one quarter to one half of a mile for twenty to thirty seconds before deciding to turn into the median, at which time he slowed down and turned on his overhead and rear flashing lights, " which is standard procedure when we're doing pilot car work if you're going to turn around in the median."

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Sandra Rupert submitted an affidavit by Robert Caldwell, an experienced accident reconstruction expert, which stated that the description of events provided by Otteren is " unlikely" for two reasons. First, the vehicle damage indicates Otteren " had to be at a substantial angle to the roadway ... consistent with a sudden decision to make the dangerous U-turn." Second, the visibility of the median crossover is " extremely limited" from the westbound direction because it is located " immediately after" a guardrail installation. As a result of these findings, Caldwell concluded: " Ms. Daggett made an abrupt maneuver, crossing from the outermost, right hand lane, to the median crossover, followed immediately by Mr. Otteren. This resulted in a left turn immediately in front of Ivan Rupert."

Although neither Otteren nor Daggett were ticketed for an illegal U-turn, Otteren was charged with and convicted of careless driving causing death or injury, for which he was sentenced to six months in jail. During his sentencing hearing, Otteren made the following statement about why he attempted to take the U-turn:

I made a bad decision. I didn't do it on purpose. I didn't say, hey, there's a guy on a motorcycle, watch this. I just—...

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