Koch v. Mcconnell Transp. Ltd.

Decision Date29 May 2015
Docket NumberCV 13-3016
PartiesDOREEN A. KOCH, as the Administratrix of the Estate of CURTIS GEORGE MAINS, JR., Plaintiff, v. MCCONNELL TRANSPORT LIMITED and SNOKIST, LTD., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

(Wexler, J.)

APPEARANCES:

LURIE, ILCHERT, MacDONNELL & RYAN, LLP

By: William Ryan, Esq.

475 Park Avenue South

New York, NY 10016

Attorneys for Plaintiff

WILSON ELSER MOSKOWITZ EDELMAN & DICKER, LLP

By: Beata Shapiro, Esq.

1010 Washington Boulevard

Stamford, CT 06901

Attorney for Defendant McConnell Transport Limited

GIBSON, McASKILL & CROSBY LLP

By: Robert Scott, Esq.

69 Delaware Avenue, Suite 900

Buffalo, NY 14202

Attorney for Defendant Snokist, Ltd.

WEXLER, District Judge:

Plaintiff Doreen A. Koch ("Plaintiff" or "Koch"), as the Administratrix of the Estate of Curtis George Mains, Jr. ("Decedent" or "Mains") brings this action against Defendants McConnell Transport Limited ("McConnell") and Snokist, Ltd. ("Snokist")(collectively, "Defendants"), claiming their negligence caused the injury and death of Decedent Mains. Defendant McConnell moves for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("Fed. R. Civ. Proc."). For the reasons stated below, the Court finds that issues of fact preclude granting summary judgment.

BACKGROUND

As reflected in the parties' Local 56.1 Statements and the other documents submitted in connection with the motion, the following facts are undisputed: On December 10, 2012, an empty trailer owned by Defendant McConnell, a trucking company, was delivered to Defendant Snokist, a seller of Christmas trees. At Snokist, the McConnell trailer was loaded with Christmas trees to be delivered to Home Depot in Commack, New York for sale. Once the trailer was loaded and sealed, McConnell picked up the trailer and drove it to the Home Depot location in Commack. Snokist arranged for the trees to be unloaded at the Home Depot location by a third-party vendor, ICS. ICS did not arrive at Home Depot on time, so Home Depot management directed its employees to unload the Snokist trees from the McConnell trailer. Decedent was one of the Home Depot employees directed to unload the trailer. There was visible snow and ice on the trees and the interior floor of the McConnell trailer all the way to the opening of the trailer's doors. Decedent climbed into the trailer and began to unload the Christmas trees. He fell while pulling a tree out of the trailer, hit his head on the pavement, and died of his injuries within 24 hours.

In addition to what is undisputed, there are various facts that are disputed. Most importantly, there is a dispute concerning the involvement of McConnell's driver in the unloading of the trees once they arrived at Home Depot. The most extensive testimony on thisissue was from Chris McGee, a Home Depot employee, who testified that he "definitely saw [the driver of the truck] on several occasions throughout the time, but did not know if he was there" when McGee arrived on the scene. See Snokist Response to Defendant McConnell's Statement of Material Facts ("Snokist Res."), Ex. E: Deposition of Chris McGee ("McGee Dep."), at 19-20. He testified that he did "remember seeing [the driver] getting out of the cab on at least one occasion and then going back and forth between the cab of the truck and the rear of the truck. I remember that he did try to dislodge some trees from the truck and wasn't able to pull any out." McGee Dep., at 20. He further stated the "[t]he driver attempted to climb up and dislodge trees from the truck and was not able to do so and Home Depot associates attempted to pull trees out from ground level and were not able to do so." McGee Dep., at 21.

In terms of chronology of who first tried to dislodge the trees, McGee stated "I think the driver made the first attempt from near the top to climb up and dislodge some." McGee Dep., at 22. "I believe the driver climbed up onto the rear of the truck which had very little purchase (sic). It was not a good place to put your feet up there and try to pull a three (sic) from near the top." McGee Dep. at 22. "Actually, I first think he tried to pull some out of the bottom to try and trigger a small tree avalanche to get the rear of the truck clear. And in failing that, he tried to get some from the top as well." McGee Dep., at 22-23.

Regarding what, if anything, the driver said and to whom, McGee testified that he "heard him speaking, but I did not address him directly," and that he "was just speaking to the area at large, minor comments regarding difficulty of getting the trees out." McGee Dep. At 26-27. He stated, "I couldn't say [the driver] stepped in [to the trailer] because there was physically no room for anyone to step in, but he did attempt to pull some trees, yes. And no, he was not successful."McGee Dep., at 30.

As to the general process typically used to unload Christmas trees, McGee testified that it was "done by hand," and "[t]he driver and his help would enter the trailer and throw the tress (sic) down." When asked if the driver always helped out, McGee stated that "[o]n the few occasions that I unloaded Christmas trees, yes, I think so." McGee Dep., at 29-30.

To refute the McGee's testimony that the McConnell driver was involved in the unloading of the trees, McConnell points to the less extensive testimony of other witnesses. Lori Springer, a safety manager with McConnell, testified that the McConnell driver would have no responsibility for the loading and unloading of trees. See Defendant McConnell Transport Limited's Notice of Motion for Summary Judgment ("McConnell's Motion"), Exhibit (Ex."), C: Deposition of Lori Springer ("Springer Dep."), at 50. Another Home Depot employee, Kenneth Sambuco testified that he was "sure [the driver] was around. I don't remember him specifically." See McConnell's Reply to Snokist Opposition ("Reply to Snokist"), Ex. 3: Deposition of Kenneth Sambuco, at 75. Another Home Depot employee testified that he did not recall if he ever saw the driver. Reply to Snokist, Ex. 4: Deposition of Donato Gonzalez, at 55. Another, Mauricio Ramos testified that he first saw the driver in the truck and didn't remember if he ever saw him exit the truck. Reply of Snokist, Ex. 5: Deposition of Mauricio Ramos, at 54. Finally, Robert Parente testified that he did not see, speak to or identify the driver. Reply of Snokist, Ex. 6: Deposition of Robert Parente, at 100.

Other disputed issues include whether the McConnell driver was present when the trees were loaded onto the truck by Snokist, and whether the driver, or someone else, broke the seal on the back of the truck to start the unloading process.

DISCUSSION
I. Legal Principles

1. Standards on Motion for Summary Judgment

The standards for summary judgment are well settled. Rule 56(a) of the Fed. R. Civ. Proc. states that summary judgment is appropriate only if "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Mihalik v. Credit Agricole Cheuvreux North America, Inc., 2013 WL 1776643 (2d Cir. 2013). The moving party bears the burden of showing entitlement to summary judgment. See Huminski v. Corsones, 396 F.3d 53, 69 (2d Cir. 2005). In the context of a Rule 56 motion, the court "is not to weigh the evidence but is instead required to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party, and to eschew credibility assessments." Amnesty Am. v. Town of W. Hartford, 361 F.3d 113, 122 (2d Cir. 2004).

Once the moving party has met its burden, the opposing party "'must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts .... [T]he nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Caldarola v. Calabrese, 298 F.3d 156, 160 (2d Cir. 2002), quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). As the Supreme Court has stated, "the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties" alone will not defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). The nonmoving party may not rest upon mere conclusory allegations or denials but must set forth "'concrete particulars'" showing that a trial is needed. R.G. Group, Inc. v.Horn & Hardart Co., 751 F.2d 69, 77 (2d Cir. 1984), quoting SEC v. Research Automation Corp., 585 F.2d 31, 33 (2d Cir. 1978). Accordingly, it is insufficient for a party opposing summary judgment "'merely to assert a conclusion without supplying supporting arguments or facts.'" BellSouth Telecomms., Inc. v. W.R. Grace & Co., 77 F.3d 603, 615 (2d Cir. 1996), quoting Research Automation Corp., 585 F.2d at 33.

II. The Present Motion
A. Duty Owed to Plaintiff's Decedent

Defendant McConnell moves for summary judgment, arguing it cannot be liable for negligence since it did not owe the Decedent a duty of care. McConnell urges that its relationship was with Snokist, with whom it had contracted for the transport of the Christmas trees, and since it did not have a relationship with Plaintiff's Decdent, there was no duty of care owed, and therefore no breach.

It is well-settled that under New York law, a claimant seeking to establish a prima facie case of negligence must demonstrate that "(1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a cognizable duty of care; (2) the defendant breached that duty; and (3) the plaintiff suffered damaged as a proximate result." Williams v. Utica Coll. of Syracuse Univ., 453 F.3d 112, 116 (2d Cir. 2006) (citations omitted). An existence of a duty of care is usually a question of law for the court. Palka v. Servicemaster Mgmt. Serv. Corp., 83 N.Y.2d 579, 585, 611 N.Y.S.2d 817, 634 N.E.2d 189 (1994). It is for the fact-finder to determine whether the duty was breached and, if so, whether...

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