Brown v. Astron Enterprises, Inc., CV-96-N-1141-W.

Decision Date06 October 1997
Docket NumberNo. CV-96-N-1141-W.,CV-96-N-1141-W.
Citation989 F.Supp. 1399
PartiesDiane BROWN, et al., Plaintiffs, v. ASTRON ENTERPRISES, INC., et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Alabama

John W Haley, Hare Wynn Newell & Newton, Birmingham, AL, for Diane Brown, Thomas Brown.

David M Toolan, Atlanta, GA, for Astron Enterprises, Inc.

Gerald Alan Templeton, Tessa M. Thrasher, Lloyd Schreiber & Gray, Birmingham, AL, for North American Flight Training Academy.

Memorandum of Opinion

EDWIN L. NELSON, District Judge.

I. Introduction.

In this Alabama state law action, the plaintiffs, Diane Brown and Thomas Brown ("the Browns"), claim injury caused by the alleged "negligent and wanton" operation of an aircraft by defendants, Astron Enterprises, Inc. ("Astron"), North American Flight Training Academy ("NAFTA"), and William L. Mabry. Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 2, 4, 12. The court has subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, complete diversity of citizenship between the parties. Id. at ¶ 5; Answer of Astron to Amended Complaint at ¶ 5; Answer of NAFTA to Amended Complaint at 8.1

The matter is presently before the court on motion of the defendant NAFTA for summary judgment, filed July 8, 1997. The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for decision. Upon due consideration, the motion will be granted and claims against NAFTA will be dismissed with prejudice.

II. Statement of Facts.2

On February 23, 1995, Paul Marko ("Marko"), a student pilot, set out from Chamblee, Georgia, in a Cessna 152 single engine aircraft on a solo cross-country flight for the purpose of furthering his goal of earning a private pilot's license. At approximately 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the aircraft, with Marko at the controls, crashed into the Browns' home near Bessemer, Alabama. The National Transportation and Safety Board (the "NTSB") determined that Marko, though beginning his flight with more than adequate fuel, failed to lean the fuel mixture and that the probable cause of the accident was fuel exhaustion.3 There were no personal injuries, either to Marko or persons on the ground. The plaintiffs, however, in addition to damage to their home, claim both compensatory and punitive damages for mental anguish and the loss of enjoyment of their home.

Marko rented the aircraft from NAFTA pursuant to an agreement between NAFTA and Marko's flying instructor, Michael O'Neal.4 The agreement permitted O'Neal, a self-employed Certified Flight Instructor ("CFI"), to use the aircraft for training purposes. As permitted by the authority granted him by the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") as a CFI, O'Neal authorized his student Marko to make flight from Georgia into the state of Alabama. The plaintiffs posit that NAFTA also "authorized" the flight because it had "control" over the aircraft. Nonetheless, NAFTA had no specific knowledge of the flight or of Marko's qualifications, nor was it required by the FAA to have such knowledge when such a flight was authorized by a qualified instructor.

NAFTA contends that the true owner of the aircraft is its co-defendant Astron and not NAFTA. The evidence on summary judgment consideration is that Astron possessed the title and registration; NAFTA had agreed to purchase the aircraft from Astron and has assumed actual possession; and NAFTA had made periodic payments toward the agreed upon purchase price, beginning in February 1994.5 NAFTA stored the aircraft at Peachtree Dekalb Airport, where it permitted O'Neal to use it for flight training purposes, and where it rented the aircraft to Marko on the day of the crash.

NAFTA, a Georgia corporation, also contends that it conducts no business in Alabama and did not purposefully avail itself of the privileges and benefits of Alabama law. While true that, prior to the crash, NAFTA had no contacts with the State of Alabama, the Browns contend that NAFTA did have contact with the state on the day of the crash, even though Marko was not engaged in furtherance of any business purpose for NAFTA in Alabama, other than rental of its aircraft.

III. Summary Judgment Standard

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The party asking for summary judgment "always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of `the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). The movants can meet this burden by presenting evidence showing there is no dispute of material fact, or by showing that the nonmoving party has failed to present evidence in support of some element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. There is no requirement, however, "that the moving party support its motion with affidavits or other similar materials negating the opponent's claim." Id. at 323.

Once the moving party has met his burden, Rule 56(e) "requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the `depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions of file,' designate `specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The nonmoving party need not present evidence in a form necessary for admission at trial; however, he may not merely rest on his pleadings. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. "[T]he plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Id. at 322.

After the plaintiff has properly responded to a proper motion for summary judgment, the court must grant the motion if there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A dispute is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. 477 U.S. at 248. "[T]he judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 249. His guide is the same standard necessary to direct a verdict: "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Id. at 251-52; see also Bill Johnson's Restaurants, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 461 U.S. 731, 745 n. 11, 103 S.Ct. 2161, 76 L.Ed.2d 277 (1983). However, the nonmoving party "must do more than show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249 (citations omitted); accord Spence v. Zimmerman, 873 F.2d 256 (11th Cir.1989). Furthermore, the court must "view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden," so there must be sufficient evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 254; Cottle v. Storer Communication, Inc., 849 F.2d 570, 575 (11th Cir. 1988). Nevertheless, credibility determinations, the weighing of evidence, and the drawing of inferences from the facts are the function of the jury, and therefore the evidence of the non-movants is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. The non-movant need not be given the benefit of every inference but only of every reasonable inference. Brown v. City of Clewiston, 848 F.2d 1534, 1540 n. 12 (11th Cir. 1988).

IV. Discussion.

Defendant NAFTA seeks summary judgment on three alternative grounds: (1) the court lacks in personam jurisdiction over NAFTA, a nonresident defendant; (2) NAFTA is not liable to plaintiffs on the merits; and (3) Marko is an indispensable party to this litigation, and in his absence, the case cannot proceed.

A. Personal Jurisdiction.

NAFTA argues that the court lacks personal jurisdiction because NAFTA has no contacts with Alabama other than when the plane it rented to Marko came to rest on the roof of the Browns' home and because that event was not the result of its own purposeful act. NAFTA does not dispute, however, that it rented the aircraft to Marko, a student pilot who followed his intended route into Alabama on the day of the crash. Therefore, NAFTA's argument fails under well established principles of due process.

The analysis begins as a two-step procedure. First, personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant by a federal court sitting as a diversity court is proper only if authorized by state law. Cable/Home Communication Corp. v. Network Productions, Inc., 902 F.2d 829, 855 (11th Cir.1990); Alexander Proudfoot Co. [World Headquarters L.P. v. Thayer], 877 F.2d [912,] 919 (11th Cir.1989). If a basis for personal jurisdiction exists under the forum state's long-arm statute, the federal court then must consider whether the exercise of personal...

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