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Christopher v. Greyhound Lines, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

March 30, 2018




         This matter is before the court on defendant's motion for partial summary judgment (DE 37). The motion has been fully briefed, and in this posture the issues presented are ripe for ruling. For reasons noted, the motion is granted.


         On December 24, 2014, defendant J.L. Robinson (“Robinson”) was driving a passenger bus in the course of his employment with defendant Greyhound Lines, Inc. (“Greyhound”) along the route from Atlanta, Georgia, through Raleigh, North Carolina, to Richmond, Virginia. On the same day, plaintiff David Christopher Justice (“David”) was working as a North Carolina Highway Patrol trooper in the area of Interstate 40/85 (“I-40/85”) near Mebane, North Carolina and near mile marker 155. David was called to that area to respond to a traffic accident, and, in the course of his response, David parked his marked Chevrolet Tahoe in the eastbound lane of I-40/85. Just after 10:00 a.m., the bus Robinson was driving crashed into David's Tahoe, injuring David.

         Plaintiffs initiated this action in the General Court of Justice, Superior Court Division for Wake County, North Carolina February 17, 2016. Defendants removed the action to this court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction March 28, 2016. In the first claim for relief, plaintiff David seeks compensation for his injuries. In the second claim for relief, plaintiff Lisa Justice (“Lisa”), David's wife, seeks compensation for loss of consortium. In the third claim for relief, hinged upon plaintiffs first and second claims, and as repeated in paragraph three of the prayer for relief, plaintiffs seek punitive damages premised upon allegation that actions of either or both defendants were willful or wanton. Plaintiffs seek recovery on all claims against both defendants.

         After a period of discovery, defendants filed the instant motion for partial summary judgment directed against plaintiffs' asserted entitlement to punitive damages. In support, defendants rely upon depositions of plaintiff David, defendant Robinson, Michael Maddox, and Ernest Warren (“Warren”); Rule 30(b)(6) deposition of defendant Greyhound given via Paulette Banks and Alan Smith; and training materials used by Greyhound including Greyhound's 2014 Fall “Stay Sharp” classroom materials, Greyhound safety bulletins, and “Prepared for Work” policy. In opposition, plaintiffs rely upon the same evidence, and, in addition, Robinson's daily logs and calculation of driving hours; a vehicle examination report created by the North Carolina State Highway Patrol; expert report of William Kluge; an affidavit executed by Warren; excerpts from Robinson's personnel file; an onboard video captured by cameras mounted in the bus; and a transcript of Robinson's guilty plea in a related criminal matter to charges of failure to reduce speed, reckless driving to endanger, and failure to move over for a stopped emergency vehicle causing injury.


         The undisputed facts viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs may be summarized as follows. On December 24, 2014, a series of traffic accidents occurred on eastbound I-40/85, which required emergency assistance. (Defs.' Ans., DE 7 ¶ 10). On that day, plaintiff David arrived at the scene in his marked North Carolina State Highway Patrol Chevrolet Tahoe. (DE 39 ¶ 1). David parked his Tahoe in the far right lane. (Id. ¶ 2).

         That same morning, defendant Robinson, in the course of his employment with defendant Greyhound, was driving a Greyhound bus on the route from Atlanta, Georgia, through Raleigh, North Carolina, to Richmond, Virginia. (DE 7 ¶ 17). Just after 10:00 a.m., as the bus neared Mebane, North Carolina, Robinson was traveling in the far right lane of eastbound I-40/85, and crashed into David's Tahoe. (Id. ¶ 25).

         The posted speed limit at the accident scene was 65 miles per hour. (DE 7 ¶ 26). At the time of accident, defendant Robinson was speeding by driving with cruise control set to 68 miles per hour. (Banks Dep., DE 44-2 at 57:21). In its internal review of the accident, defendant Greyhound assessed that the accident was preventible, and that factors including road conditions, weather, speed, and other distractions contributed to the accident. (Id. at 50:22-24). In adverse weather conditions, Greyhound's “standard is to decrease speed by 25 percent” relative to the posted speed limit. (DE 44-3 at 36:16-21).

         Although defendants concede that weather conditions contributed to the accident, defendants do not concede specifically that it was raining nor that defendant Robinson was driving too fast for conditions. Upon the court's review of the dash cam video, which captures the moment of accident itself and approximately 10 seconds before and after, it is readily apparent from observable total cloud cover and obvious presence of water droplets on the camera lens that it was raining either at the time of accident or shortly before, but the video's resolution is limited and the camera partially is obfuscated by water droplets. (See DE 44-15). Although Banks states at deposition that defendant Robinson informed her of “heavy rains[, ]” Banks's discussion of Robinson's account of the weather does not disclose any specific admission by Robinson that it was raining at the time and location of accident. (DE 44-2 at 50:14-17). No discussion of rain appears in excerpts of Robinson's deposition testimony presented to the court. (See Robinson Dep., DE 40-4; 44-4).

         At the time of accident, defendant Robinson was driving in violation of a rule promulgated under the Federal Motor Vehicle Carrier Act (“FMCA”) limiting driving time for a commercial bus driver to no more than 70 hours in any eight-day period (“70-hour rule”). (DE 39 ¶ 5). Robinson's violation of the 70-hour rule is traceable to a mathematical error entered on Robinson time log December 4, 2014, whereby Robinson failed to record 3.75 hours of driving. (Id. ¶¶ 6, 7). Robinson was not in violation of another rule promulgated under the FMCA regulating the number of driving hours allowable in a single day. (DE 43 ¶ 10).

         Finally, defendant Greyhound requires all drivers to undergo fatigue management training at least every two years, and Greyhound maintains a program called “Stay Sharp” that addresses driver fatigue. (DE 43 ¶ 12). Greyhound has prepared a “Prepared for Work” policy and issues safety bulletins to its drivers that also address fatigue issues. (Id. ¶ 14). Defendant Robinson had undergone his bi-annual “Stay Sharp” training in October or November of 2014. (Id. ¶ 15). Greyhound receives periodic reports on the rate of accuracy of its driver's logs, which disclose consistently that more than 99 percent of driver logs accurately reflect a driver's hours. (Id. ¶ 16).


         A. ...

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