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Elliston v. Wing Enterprises, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

December 2, 2016



          F. Dennis Saylor IV United States District Judge.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         On April 14, 2012, Robert Elliston, a Massachusetts resident, ordered a “Little Giant Extreme Ladder” from defendant Wing Enterprises, a Utah corporation. (Compl. ¶ 5). The ladder arrived at his home in Massachusetts eleven days later. (Id.). Without opening the box, he loaded the ladder into his car and drove to Oklahoma, where he has a second home. (Id.). On April 30, 2012, he unpacked the ladder to use for a small project at his Oklahoma home. (Id.).

         The Little Giant Extreme ladder is essentially two ladders in one, with a wider outer portion and a narrower inner portion that can be assembled either together or as two separate ladders. (Id.). The plaintiff separated the two ladders, and assembled them as two small A-frames, in a configuration referred on the attached label as the scaffolding position. (Id.). He then placed a twelve-foot-long plank across the two A-frames. (Id.). He stood upon the plank and began removing roof shingles along the eave of a porch roof that was approximately eight to nine feet above the ground. (Id.). According to the complaint, while he was standing upon the plank, one of the legs of the smaller, narrower ladder buckled and snapped off at the bottom rung. (Id.). He fell to the ground and landed with his chest on the broken ladder. (Id.).

         The next day, experiencing chest pain and difficulty breathing, Elliston went to the emergency room at a local hospital. (Compl. ¶ 6). An x-ray revealed pneumothorax (a punctured lung) on the right side. (Id.). He was admitted for surgery, and then discharged on May 2, 2012. (Id.). According to the complaint, he has still not fully regained the same respiratory function he had prior to the accident. (Compl. ¶ 7).

         B. Procedural Background

         Proceeding pro se, plaintiff filed the complaint in this action on April 29, 2015. The complaint alleges that defendants Wing Enterprises and Risk Retention Services-Wing Enterprises' insurer-were strictly liable for his injuries based on a failure to warn and a design defect in the ladder. Plaintiff has since clarified that he was mistaken to claim strict liability, and instead intends to proceed under a theory of breach of warranty under Massachusetts law, including a claim under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93A. (Pl.'s Mem Opp'n Summ. J. at 2).[1] The complaint seeks both compensatory and punitive damages.

         On June 6, 2015, defendant Wing Enterprises moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. On July 1, 2015, defendant Risk Retention Services moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim and lack of personal jurisdiction. On July 14, 2015, plaintiff agreed to dismiss all claims against Risk Retention Services. Risk Retention Services was dismissed from the action on September 9, 2015. The Court then denied the motion to dismiss of Wing Enterprises.

         Wing Enterprises has now moved for summary judgment with respect to plaintiff's claim for punitive damages. For the reasons stated below, that motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         II. Legal Standard

         The role of summary judgment is to “pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.” Mesnick v. General Elec. Co., 950 F.2d 816, 822 (1st Cir. 1991) (internal quotation marks omitted). Summary judgment is appropriate when the moving party 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). “Essentially, Rule 56[] mandates the entry of summary judgment ‘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.'” Coll v. PB Diagnostic Sys., 50 F.3d 1115, 1121 (1st Cir. 1995) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). In making that determination, the court must view “the record in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, drawing reasonable inferences in his favor.” Noonan v. Staples, Inc., 556 F.3d 20, 25 (1st Cir. 2009). When “a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the adverse party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986) (internal quotations omitted). The non-moving party may not simply “rest upon mere allegation or denials of his pleading, ” but instead must “present affirmative evidence.” Id. at 256-57.

         III. Analysis

         Under Massachusetts law, punitive damages are not available unless expressly authorized by statute. International Fidelity Ins. Co. v. Wilson, 387 Mass. 841, 856 n.20 (1983). Here, punitive damages are not ...

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