Client Results, Complex / Catastrophic, Firm News, Indiana, Johnson & Bell, Transportation

Hearn Scuttles Plaintiff’s Attempt to Expand Monetary Damages, Liability

August 22, 2019

Johnson & Bell Shareholder, Edward W. Hearn, obtained partial judgment on the pleadings in favor of his transportation client.  The Court’s ruling will have positive effects for defendants in the future, by eliminating one of the trial tactics that plaintiffs use to expend liability and inflate compensatory damages.  In addition, the Court’s ruling eliminates future exhaustive discovery requests, which in turn reduces the risk that potentially prejudicial evidence regarding training, company policies and procedures, employment files, or prior bad acts involving this specific driver or other owner-operators for the company.

This case arises out of an October 2017 collision between Defendant’s truck and the driver of an automobile.  The truck’s driver is also being defended by Johnson & Bell.  After cresting a hill, the semi-truck driver veered into Plaintiff’s lane, colliding with Plaintiff’s vehicle.  Plaintiff filed a three-count Complaint, 1) against the truck driver, 2) against the transportation company, and 3) against an acquired, affiliated trucking entity.  The count against the transportation company presented two alternative theories of liability: vicarious liability under respondeat superior; and an independent negligence claim against the company (negligent supervision and negligent training).  Johnson & Bell filed an answer on behalf of its clients admitting the driver was negligent and 100% at fault for this collision; that the driver was operating under the transportation company’s DOT authority at the time of the accident; and that the transportation company would be vicariously liable for the driver’s conduct should Plaintiff succeed in proving damages.

Johnson & Bell filed a Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings arguing that in light of the transportation company’s admission that it was vicariously responsible for any negligence on behalf of the driver, applicable Indiana substantive law held that Plaintiff’s negligent training and negligent supervision claims were duplicative and superfluous.  Plaintiff argued that the transportation company never admitted that the driver was an employee or agent acting within the scope of his employment, thus the transportation company’s admission is inconsistent with case law.  While the applicable federal law considers the driver a statutory employee because it eliminates the distinction between independent contractors and employees for purposes of injury claims made by third-parties, state law only dealt with an employer being vicariously liable upon admission that an employee/agent was acting within the scope of his employment.

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