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White v. Maldonado

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 7, 2020

STEPHEN WHITE and DEBRA SARNO, Plaintiffs,
v.
JOSEPH MALDONADO and M&M PRODUCE, INC., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND MOTION TO STRIKE CERTAIN OPINIONS OF DEFENDANTS' EXPERT

          ALLISON D. BURROUGHS U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Stephen White filed this action in his capacity as the duly appointed administrator for the estate of Debra Sarno. See [ECF No. 1-2 at 1]. Plaintiff alleges negligence, gross negligence, and wrongful death, and seeks damages related to pain and suffering and punitive damages against Defendant Joseph Maldonado in connection with a fatal motor vehicle accident that involved Mr. Maldonado and Ms. Sarno. [Id. at 1, 4-8]. In addition, Plaintiff seeks damages related to pain and suffering, punitive damages, and damages related to vicarious liability from Mr. Maldonado's former employer, M&M Produce, Inc. (“M&M Produce” and, collectively with Mr. Maldonado, “Defendants”). [Id. at 1, 7-8]. Presently before the Court are Plaintiff's and Defendants' respective motions for partial summary judgment. [ECF Nos. 74, 78, 82]. Also before the Court is Plaintiff's motion to strike certain opinions of Defendants' expert, Stephen Benanti. [ECF No. 76]. For the reasons explained herein, Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of comparative negligence, [ECF No. 74], is DENIED. Plaintiff's unopposed motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability, [ECF No. 78], is GRANTED. Defendants' partial motion for summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages, [ECF No. 82], is DENIED. Plaintiff's motion to strike certain opinions of Defendants' expert, Mr. Benanti, [ECF No. 76], is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On April 4, 2017, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court. [ECF No. 1-2]. Defendants removed the matter from state court on May 2, 2017, on the basis of diversity jurisdiction because Mr. Maldonado was a resident of Connecticut and M&M Produce had its principal place of business in Connecticut. [ECF No. 1]. Defendants filed their answer with affirmative defenses on May 9, 2017. [ECF No. 6]. Following discovery, Plaintiff filed a series of motions on April 30, 2019, including a motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of comparative negligence, [ECF No. 74], a motion to strike certain opinions of Defendants' expert, Mr. Benanti, [ECF No. 76], and a motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability, [ECF No. 78]. Defendants filed their oppositions to two of these motions on June 6, 2019, [ECF Nos. 89, 91], but did not oppose Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability, see [ECF No. 86 at 1 n.1]. On May 8, 2019, Defendants filed a motion for partial summary judgment on Plaintiff's claim for punitive damages. [ECF No. 82]. Plaintiff filed his opposition on May 22, 2019, [ECF Nos. 84, 85], and Defendants filed their reply on June 5, 2019, [ECF No. 88].

         B. Factual Summary

         Except as otherwise noted, the following facts are not in dispute.

         On the morning of April 21, 2014, Ms. Sarno was driving a taxicab northbound across the Zakim Bridge when she pulled her vehicle to the right side of the road and came to a stop. [ECF No. 75 ¶¶ 1-2; ECF No. 83 ¶¶ 1-2]. There is no breakdown lane on the Zakim Bridge. [ECF No. 75 ¶ 4; ECF No. 89 ¶ 4].[1] Ms. Sarno called the dispatcher at Malden Cab and spoke with Sue Ellen Hyde, telling her that the vehicle had a flat tire. [ECF No. 75 ¶¶ 2-3; ECF No. 89 ¶ 1].[2] Ms. Hyde called a tow truck to assist her. [ECF No. 75 ¶ 3; ECF No. 83 ¶ 18]. Ms. Sarno waited in her vehicle for assistance. See [ECF No. 75 ¶ 6; ECF No. 83 ¶ 14]. Approximately twenty-four vehicles maneuvered past Ms. Sarno's taxicab while she was stopped. [ECF No. 85 ¶ 18; ECF No. 83 ¶ 20].

         Mr. Maldonado was also traveling northbound on the Zakim Bridge that morning, driving a truck in the course of his employment with Defendant M&M Produce. [ECF No. 75 ¶ 5; ECF No. 89 ¶ 5]. Mr. Maldonado's truck struck the taxicab in which Ms. Sarno was sitting from the rear, causing it to burst into flames. [ECF No. 75 ¶ 6; ECF No. 89 ¶ 6]. Ms. Sarno died as a result of the collision. [ECF No. 75 ¶ 7; ECF No. 89 ¶ 7].

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate where the movant demonstrates 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). “A fact is material if its resolution might affect the outcome of the case under the controlling law.” Cochran v. Quest Software, Inc., 328 F.3d 1, 6 (1st Cir. 2003). “A genuine issue exists as to such a fact if there is evidence from which a reasonable trier could decide the fact either way.” Id. When reviewing the record, the court “must take the evidence in the light most flattering to the party opposing summary judgment, indulging all reasonable inferences in that party's favor.” Id. The First Circuit has noted that this standard “is favorable to the nonmoving party, but it does not give him a free pass to trial.” Hannon v. Beard, 645 F.3d 45, 48 (1st Cir. 2011). “The factual conflicts upon which he relies must be both genuine and material, ” Gomez v. Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., 670 F.3d 395, 397 (1st Cir. 2012), and the court may discount “conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation, ” Cochran, 328 F.3d at 6 (quoting Medina-Muñoz v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 896 F.2d 5, 8 (1st Cir. 1990)).

         “To succeed in showing that there is no genuine dispute of material fact, ” the moving party must point to “specific evidence in the record that would be admissible at trial.” Ocasio-Hernandez v. Fortuño-Burset, 777 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 2015). “That is, it must ‘affirmatively produce evidence that negates an essential element of the non-moving party's claim,' or, using ‘evidentiary materials already on file . . . demonstrate that the non-moving party will be unable to carry its burden of persuasion at trial.'” Id. at 4-5 (quoting Carmona v. Toledo, 215 F.3d 124, 132 (1st Cir. 2000)). “One of the principal purposes of the summary judgment rule is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses . . . .” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). Once the movant takes the position that the record fails to make out any trial-worthy question of material fact, “it is the burden of the nonmoving party to proffer facts sufficient to rebut the movant's assertions.” Nansamba v. No. Shore Med. Ctr., Inc., 727 F.3d 33, 40 (1st Cir. 2013).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Comparative Negligence

         Plaintiff seeks summary judgment on Defendants' affirmative defense of comparative negligence, claiming that Defendants have failed to provide sufficient evidence of negligence on the part of Ms. Sarno. [ECF No. 75 at 7]. In response, Defendants argue that there are issues of material fact regarding whether Ms. Sarno exercised reasonable care when faced with car trouble on the Zakim Bridge or whether she violated a Massachusetts regulation regarding highway safety. [ECF No. 89 at 1].

         1. Whether Ms. Sarno Exercised Reasonable Care

         Under Massachusetts law, which provides the basis for Defendants' comparative negligence defense, “[t]he burden of alleging and proving negligence which serves to diminish a plaintiff's damages or bar recovery under this section shall be upon the person who seeks to establish such negligence, and the plaintiff shall be presumed to have been in the exercise of due care.” Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 85. Defendants therefore bear the burden of proving that Ms. Sarno did not exercise reasonable care and that this alleged lapse resulted, at least in part, in her injuries. See id.

         “The question of comparative negligence, like that of breach of duty, is primarily for the factfinder.” Marquez v. Home Depot USA, Inc., 154 F.Supp.2d 152, 156 (D. Mass. 2001) (citing Everett v. Bucky Warren, Inc., 380 N.E.2d 653 (Mass. 1978)). The parties dispute several facts that are relevant to Defendants' burden on the issue of comparative negligence. For example, there are disputed factual issues as to the condition of Ms. Sarno's vehicle. Plaintiff alleges that Ms. Sarno's vehicle had a flat tire, while Defendants dispute this. [ECF No. 75 at 2; ECF No. 89 at 2]. Ms. Sarno made a call to her dispatcher, Ms. Hyde, to report a flat tire, [ECF No. 75 at 2], but Defendants state that Ms. Hyde's testimony regarding Ms. Sarno's representations about the condition of the vehicle are hearsay, and note that there is no evidence of the condition of her vehicle, [ECF No. 89 at 2].[3] The condition of the vehicle's tires and the resulting drivability of the car is relevant to the parties' dispute as to whether Ms. Sarno could have driven to a place of safety, or whether she could have pulled the vehicle closer to the shoulder of the highway. [ECF No. 75 at 3-4; ECF No. 89 at 4-5]. The parties also dispute whether Ms. Sarno should have exited the vehicle while waiting for assistance. [ECF No. 75 at 4-6; ECF No. 89 at 10-11]. Relatedly, the parties dispute whether, if she had moved the vehicle or her person to a position of safety, the accident could have been avoided or its severity minimized. [ECF No. 75 at 5-6; ECF No. 89 at 4-5].

         2. Alleged Violation of a Statute or Regulation

         Defendants also allege that Ms. Sarno violated a Massachusetts highway regulation. [ECF No. 89 at 7]. The Massachusetts statute governing comparative negligence addresses the issue of liability when a plaintiff has violated such a regulation:

The violation of a criminal statute, ordinance or regulation by a plaintiff which contributed to said injury, death or damage, shall be considered as evidence of negligence of that plaintiff, but the violation of said statute, ordinance or regulation shall not as a matter of law ...

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