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Graciano v. Blue Sky Logistics LLC

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

September 13, 2019




         Plaintiff Casimiro Graciano seeks recovery for personal injuries suffered in a traffic accident. Plaintiff was operating a tractor-trailer on March 1, 2016, in Surry County, North Carolina, and was hit from behind by a tractor-trailer operated by Defendant Michael Walker Daniels (“Daniels”), who worked for Defendant Blue Sky Logistics LLC (“Blue Sky”). On July 16, 2019, this court held a bench trial. Plaintiff, Plaintiff's counsel, and Defendants' counsel were present at trial. Neither Defendant appeared for trial despite notice from this court.

         This court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law regarding liability in open court following the trial, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a). This court found in Plaintiff's favor as to liability, determining that Daniels negligently operated a tractor-trailer by failing to reduce speed to avoid an accident and, as a result, crashed into the rear of Plaintiff's tractor-trailer on March 1, 2016. This court will briefly make additional findings of fact as to liability and then proceed to damages.

         These written findings of fact and conclusions of law are issued pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a). For the following reasons, this court finds that Defendants are liable for negligence and that Plaintiff is entitled to recover damages in a total amount of $116, 897.91.

         I. PARTIES

         Plaintiff was a citizen and resident of Texas at the time of filing. (Complaint (“Compl.”) (Doc. 1) ¶ 1.) Blue Sky is a Utah corporation headquartered in Utah and Daniels is a citizen of Nevada. (Id. ¶¶ 2-3.) The amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.00. (Id. ¶ 4.) Venue is proper in the Middle District of North Carolina because the accident occurred within the district. See 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(2).

         Plaintiff alleges that Blue Sky is responsible for Daniels' actions under the doctrine of respondeat superior. (Id. ¶¶ 41, 43, 60-62.) Defendants admit that Blue Sky employed Daniels as a driver at the time of the accident. (Pl.'s Ex. 12 ¶¶ 2, 4.)[1]


         Jurisdiction is based upon diversity of citizenship. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332. A federal court sitting in diversity jurisdiction applies state substantive law and federal procedural law. See Hanna v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460, 465-66 (1965); Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 72-73, 79-80 (1938). A federal court sitting in North Carolina must use North Carolina conflict of law rules. See, e.g., Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496-97 (1941).

         North Carolina courts have consistently held “that matters affecting the substantial rights of the parties are determined by lex loci, the law of the situs of the claim . . . . For actions sounding in tort, the state where the injury occurred is considered the situs of the claim.” Boudreau v. Baughman, 322 N.C. 331, 335, 368 S.E.2d 849, 853-54 (1988). Because damages are a substantive issue, they must also be determined under the law of the state of injury. See Tenn. Carolina Transp., Inc. v. Strick Corp., 283 N.C. 423, 440, 196 S.E.2d 711, 722 (1973); Stetser v. TAP Pharm. Prods., Inc., 165 N.C.App. 1, 15-16, 598 S.E.2d 570, 580-81 (2004).

         The vehicle accident and alleged injuries occurred in North Carolina. Therefore, this court will apply North Carolina law to determine both liability and damages.

         Additionally, the Federal Rules of Evidence provide that “[i]n a civil case, state law governs the effect of a presumption regarding a claim or defense for which state law supplies the rule of decision.” Fed.R.Evid. 302. The Fourth Circuit has recognized that some evidentiary rules straddle the line between procedure and substance and “that a state procedural rule must be followed in a diversity case if it is intimately bound up with the state right or obligation.” DiAntonio v. Northampton-Accomack Mem'l Hosp., 628 F.2d 287, 291 (4th Cir. 1980) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Hottle v. Beech Aircraft Corp., 47 F.3d 106, 109-10 (4th Cir. 1995). Any North Carolina-specific evidentiary presumptions that bear upon substantive state policy decisions apply to this case.


         This court adopts and incorporates herein its findings made in open court following the bench trial. This court found that Daniels was negligent by failing to reduce speed to avoid a collision. A negligence claim has four elements: “[1] defendants owed plaintiff a duty of care, [2] defendants' conduct breached that duty; [3] the breach was the actual and proximate cause of plaintiff's injury; and [4] damages resulted from the injury.” Lamm v. Bissette Realty, Inc., 327 N.C. 412, 416, 395 S.E.2d 112, 115 (1990). In summary, Daniels was negligent in that he owed Plaintiff a duty of reasonable care while operating his tractor-trailer; he breached that duty by failing to reduce speed to avoid an accident; and his negligence was the actual and proximate cause of injury to Plaintiff resulting in damages. Blue Sky admits that it employed Daniels at the time of the crash and that Daniels was acting in the scope of his employment. (Pl.'s Ex. 12 ¶¶ 2, 4.) An employer is liable under respondeat superior for an employee's tortious act “(1) when expressly authorized; (2) when committed within the scope of his employment and in furtherance of his master's business - when the act comes within his implied authority; (3) when ratified by the principal.” Snow v. De Butts, 212 N.C. 120, 193 S.E. 224, 226 (1937); see also Hogan v. Forsyth Country Club Co., 79 N.C.App. 483, 491, 340 S.E.2d 116, 121-22 (1986). At the time of the accident, Daniels was working in the scope of his employment, in furtherance of Blue Sky's business, and within his implied authority to drive trucks.

         Blue Sky and Daniels are jointly and severally liable for Plaintiff's injuries arising from the March 1, 2016 accident.

         IV. DAMAGES

         The principle dispute between the parties relates to damages. Plaintiff contends that he is entitled to recover damages of $360, 000.00.[2] Defendants argue that they are liable for, at most, $55, 000.00.

         A. Legal Framework

         In North Carolina, a plaintiff bears the burden of proving “both that the medical attention [the plaintiff] received was reasonably necessary for proper treatment of [plaintiff's] injuries and that the charges made were reasonable in amount.” Ward v. Wentz, 20 N.C.App. 229, 232, 201 S.E.2d 194, 197 (1973); see also Jacobsen v. McMillan, 124 N.C.App. 128, 134- 35, 476 S.E.2d 368, 372 (1996). The plaintiff must also “show that the medical records at issue reflect treatment of an injury that was causally related to the alleged negligence of the defendant.” Daniels v. Hetrick, 164 N.C.App. 197, 201, 595 S.E.2d 700, 703 (2004); see also Gillikin v. Burbage, 263 N.C. 317, 324, 139 S.E.2d 753, 759 (1965) (“To hold a defendant responsible for a plaintiff's injuries, defendant's negligence must have been a substantial factor, that is, a proximate cause of the particular injuries for which plaintiff seeks recovery.”). A doctor may demonstrate the causal connection of medical bills “by his own opinion, or by testifying that he either relied on [certain] documents for his diagnosis or that the documents reflect the work of another medical professional to whom the plaintiff was referred by him.” Daniels, 164 N.C.App. at 201, 595 S.E.2d at 703.

          N.C. Gen. Stat. § 8-58.1 establishes a rebuttable presumption that the amount of medical expenses is reasonable when the injured party testifies regarding medical bills.[3]However, the statute requires that “records or copies of such charges showing the amount paid or required to be paid in full satisfaction of such charges accompany such testimony.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 8-58.1(a). The statute also “establishes a permissive presumption that [any] services provided were reasonably necessary.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 8-58.1(c). But “no presumption is established that the services provided were necessary because of injuries caused by the acts or omissions of an alleged tortfeasor.” Id. While lay testimony is permitted to establish causation in simple cases, “where the exact nature and probable genesis of a particular type of injury involves complicated medical questions . . ., only an expert can give competent opinion evidence as to the cause of the injury.” Click v. Pilot Freight Carriers, Inc., 300 N.C. 164, 167, 265 S.E.2d 389, 391 (1980); accord Peagler v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 138 N.C.App. 593, 598-601, 532 S.E.2d 207, 210-12 (2000) (finding that expert testimony was required to show a connection between the plaintiff's work accident and herniated disk).

         B. Undisputed Facts

         Two damage categories are not in dispute. Plaintiff and Defendants agree that Plaintiff is entitled to recover lost wages of $16, 000.00. Further, Defendants concede that Plaintiff is entitled to recover expenses associated with the decompression surgery performed by Dr. Jose Dones-Vazquez (“Dr. Dones”) on January 31, 2017, in the amount of $13, 540.00. This court agrees that Plaintiff should recover at least $29, 540.00 for lost wages and past medical expenses. The remaining issues are disputed, in whole or in part.

         C. Findings of Fact

         This court begins its analysis with relevant findings of fact and will then proceed to legal analysis, ...

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