Snider v. Sterling Airways, Inc.

Decision Date03 August 2016
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 13-CV-2949
PartiesELIZABETH C. SNIDER, Individually and as Executrix of the Estate of DANIEL A. SNIDER, and LEE W. SNIDER, a minor, by his mother, ELIZABETH C. SNIDER v. STERLING AIRWAYS, INC., et. al. v. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania


This civil action has been brought before the Court on Motion of the Third-Party Defendant, United States of America, to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction or alternatively, for Summary Judgment. For the reasons articulated in the paragraphs which follow, the Motion to Dismiss shall be granted.

History of the Case

This is the remaining lawsuit of three1 originally assigned to the undersigned, all of which arose out of the tragic crash of a Cessna T210L single engine aircraft in the early afternoon of June 21, 2010 as it neared the William T. Piper Memorial Airportin Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. As a result of the accident, which was caused by a total engine failure as the plane was preparing to land, the pilot, Patrick Jessup, and his two passengers, United States Forest Service employees Rodney Whiteman and Daniel Snider were killed. At the time of the accident, Messrs. Whiteman and Snider were in the process of conducting an aerial deforestation survey on behalf of the Forest Service. The plane was being operated pursuant to a charter plane and pilot contract between its owner, Defendant Sterling Airways, Inc. of Hornell, New York and the U.S. Forest Service, dated March 28, 2008. The accident airplane had been manufactured in 1973 and was equipped with a Continental Motors' TSIO-520-H engine that had last been overhauled in 2004.

With varying degrees of specificity, the complaints in the actions filed by the estates of the three individuals killed as a result of the crash allege negligence, gross negligence, recklessness and/or strict liability on the part of the various defendants in, inter alia, the manufacture, maintenance and operation of the Cessna, its engine and component parts. While all of the lawsuits were initially filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, after removal and remand, the Lewis-Whiteman and Snider matters were eventually re-removed to this Court following the filing of Third-Party Complaints againstPatricia Pierce and Rodney Whiteman2, the United States Forest Service Contracting Officer and Contracting Officer's Representative on the Aircraft and Pilot Services Contract between the Forest Service and Sterling. The United States then substituted itself for the individual employees pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §2679(d). As noted, by the motion which is now before us, the United States moves to dismiss this action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction or, in the alternative for the entry of summary judgment in its favor.

Standards Governing Rule 12(b)(1) and Rule 56 Motions

Dismissals of claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction are contemplated under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). Of course, the party asserting jurisdiction bears the burden of showing that at all stages of the litigation the case is properly before the federal court. Samuel-Bassett v. Kia Motors America, Inc., 357 F.3d 392, 396 (3d Cir. 2004).3 A motion pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) affords the opportunity to challenge the Court's jurisdiction both on the face of the complaint and as a factualmatter. Common Cause of Pennsylvania v. Pennsylvania, 558 F.3d 249, 257 (3d Cir. 2009). If the motion presents a facial attack, it concerns "an alleged pleading deficiency" whereas a factual attack concerns "the actual failure of a plaintiff's claim to comport factually with the jurisdictional prerequisites." CNA v. United States of America, 535 F.3d 132, 139 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting U.S. ex rel. Atkinson v. Pa. Shipbuilding Co., 473 F.3d 506, 514 (3d Cir. 2007)). "When a defendant attacks subject matter jurisdiction 'in fact,' as opposed to an attack on the allegations on the face of the complaint, the Court is free to weigh the evidence and satisfy itself whether it has power to hear the case." Carpet Group International v. Oriental Rug Importers Ass'n., 227 F.3d 62, 69-70 (3d Cir. 2000)(quoting Mortensen v. First Federal Savings & Loan Assoc., 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977). In such a situation, "no presumptive truthfulness attaches to plaintiff's allegations, and the existence of disputed material facts will not preclude the trial court from evaluating for itself the merits of jurisdictional claims." Id.

Motions for summary judgment, on the other hand, are governed by the provisions of Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. Subsection (a) of that Rule provides,

A party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense - or the part of each claim or defense - on which summary judgment is sought. The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is nogenuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The court should state on the record the reasons for granting or denying the motion.

Under this rule then, summary judgment is appropriate only if there are no genuine issues of material fact such that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Erdman v. Nationwide Insurance Co., 582 F.3d 500, 502 (3d Cir. 2009). In considering a motion for summary judgment, the reviewing court should view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Burton v. Teleflex, Inc., 707 F.3d 417, 425 (3d Cir. 2013). The initial burden is on the party seeking summary judgment to point to the evidence "which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." United States v. Donovan, 661 F.2d 174, 185 (3d Cir. 2011)(quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed.2d 265 (1986)). An issue is genuine only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party, and a factual dispute is material only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Kaucher v. County of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006)(citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed.2d 202 (1986)). If the non-moving party bears the burden of persuasion at trial, "the moving party may meet its burden on summary judgment by showing that thenonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to carry that burden." Id, (quoting Wetzel v. Tucker, 139 F.3d 380, 383 n.2 (3d Cir. 1998)). "The mere existence of some evidence in support of the nonmovant is insufficient to deny a motion for summary judgment; enough evidence must exist to enable a jury to reasonably find for the nonmovant on the issue." Renchenski v. Williams, 622 F.3d 315, 324 (3d Cir. 2010)(quoting Giles v. Kearney, 571 F.3d 318, 322 (3d Cir. 2009). Thus, "if there is a chance that a reasonable juror would not accept a moving party's necessary propositions of fact," summary judgment is inappropriate. Id.(quoting El v. SEPTA, 479 F.3d 232, 238 (3d Cir. 2007)).

A. Independent Contractor Exclusion

Noting that "[b]ecause the United States has answered, and discovery is complete, this motion has 'moved into the realm of a factual challenge to the court's subject matter jurisdiction,'" the United States first avers that because the entire action is premised upon the alleged negligence of a government contractor and CMI has failed to show any independent negligence of a federal employee, the claims against the U.S. are barred by the independent contractor exclusion to the Federal Tort Claims Act.4

Generally speaking as a sovereign, the United States is immune from suit unless it consents to be sued. White-Squire v.United States Postal Service, 592 F.3d 453, 456 (3d Cir. 2010). This consent to be sued "must be unequivocally expressed." Id. The Federal Tort Claims Act has long been recognized as a limited waiver of the sovereign immunity of the United States, making the Federal Government liable to the same extent as a private party for certain torts of federal employees acting within the scope of their employment. United States v. Orleans, 425 U.S. 807, 813, 96 S. Ct. 1971, 1975, 48 L. Ed. 2d 390 (1976). Indeed, the Federal Tort Claims Act, reads as follows in pertinent part:

The United States shall be liable, respecting the provisions of this title relating to tort claims, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances, but shall not be liable for interest prior to judgment or for punitive damages.

28 U.S.C. §2674. Thus, "[t]he Federal Tort Claims Act vests exclusive jurisdiction in district courts for claims against the United States 'caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act occurred.'" Norman v. United States, 111 F.3d 356, 357 (3d Cir. 1997)(quoting 28 U.S.C. §1346(b)).

"Title 28 U.S.C. §2671 explains that 'Federal agency' and 'Employee of the government' do not include any contractor with the United States" and "[t]hus, there is an independent-contractor exemption in the Federal Tort Claims Act." Id. As a result, the United States is not liable for torts committed by its independent contractors. Orleans, 425 U.S. at 814, 96 S. Ct. at 1976; Theokary v. United States, No. 13-3143, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 6072 at *4, 562 Fed. Appx. 116, 118 (3d Cir. March 31, 2014).

However, "the FTCA does not immunize the United States from claims against it for injuries caused by the negligence or omission of its own employees if those employees were acting within the scope of their employment." Jackson v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., No. 06-4960, 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 11468 at *2 282...

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