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Soto v. Swift Transportation Services, LLC

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

May 14, 2018

Ricardo Gaytan Soto and Marisol Gaytan Soto, Plaintiffs,
v.
Swift Transportation Services, LLC, and Anthony Shealey, Defendants.

          Brian E. Wojtalewicz, Wojtalewicz Law Firm, Ltd., counsel for plaintiffs

          Brian A. Wood, Matthew D. Sloneker, Michael Thomas Burke, William L. Davidson, Lind Jensen Sullivan & Peterson, counsel for defendants

          ORDER

          Katherine Menendez United States Magistrate Judge.

         This case arises out of a traffic accident involving the plaintiff, Richard Gaytan Soto, and a semi-truck operated by defendant Anthony Shealey for Swift Transportation Services, LLC. Mr. Gaytan Soto and his wife, Marisol Gaytan Soto, allege that on the night of November 15, 2016, Mr. Gaytan Soto was driving his sedan on an interstate highway in Minnesota when he crashed into the trailer of Mr. Shealey's overturned semi-truck, which was blocking the roadway. Just before the accident, Mr. Shealey lost control of the semi-truck when he encountered a herd of deer in the roadway, attempted to avoid hitting them, drove into a ditch, and tried to return to the road. At that point, Mr. Shealey's vehicle overturned and the trailer completely blocked oncoming westbound traffic. [Am. Compl. ¶¶ 24-25.] The plaintiffs assert that Mr. Shealey is liable for negligence and that Swift is vicariously liable because he was acting as Swift's agent at the time of the accident. [Id. ¶¶ 26-35, 44-48.] The plaintiffs also allege that Swift is liable for negligently hiring, training, supervising, and retaining Mr. Shealey as a driver.[1] [Id. ¶¶ 36-43.]

         MOTION TO AMEND[2]

         The plaintiffs have moved to amend their complaint to add claims for punitive damages. [ECF No. 85.] Through their Proposed Second Amended Complaint, the plaintiffs would add requests for punitive damages against Mr. Shealey personally and against Swift. [ECF No. 94.] Generally speaking, the plaintiffs argue that: (1) Mr. Shealey deliberately disregarded appropriate training for a professional driver of a commercial motor vehicle who encounters deer in the roadway and otherwise showed indifference to the safety of others; and (2) Swift hired Mr. Shealey and kept him employed as a driver despite knowing that he posed a high likelihood of danger to others' safety.

         Factual Assertions Regarding M r. Shealey

         Mr. Shealey was an independent driver who had been contract-driving for Swift for about five months at the time of the accident. The plaintiffs assert that he showed an indifference to the safety of others because he referred to drivers of ordinary passenger vehicles with disdain, calling them “asshats.” They assert that Mr. Shealey was not aware of Swift's training materials advising professional drivers never to swerve to avoid deer on a highway. Although his semi-truck carried a full load, the plaintiffs allege that Mr. Shealey showed deliberate disregard for others' safety because he was driving 68 miles per hour at the time of the incident, which exceeded the speeding policy Swift applied to its employee drivers. The plaintiffs contend that Mr. Shealey ignored commercial driver's license manuals that recommend semi-truck drivers steer their vehicles to the right in an emergency. Further, they allege that Mr. Shealey thought about staying in the ditch when he veered off the road, but instead attempted to turn back on the roadway. Plaintiffs complain that Mr. Shealey refused to agree that the accident was preventable and he did not accept fault for the crash and the rollover. They also emphasize that Mr. Shealey claimed that he never heard Mr. Gaytan Soto's vehicle crash into his truck, and he recalled, allegedly incorrectly, that there was no shoulder between the left lane and the grassy median. According to the plaintiffs, Mr. Shealey's improper conduct is further demonstrated by the fact that he did not attempt to warn oncoming vehicles of an emergency immediately after his vehicle came to rest on its side. Finally, the plaintiffs argue that amending their complaint to seek punitive damages is proper because Mr. Shealey testified that he might make the same decisions if confronted with multiple deer on the highway again.

         Allegations Against Swift

         In their negligent hiring, supervision, training, and retention claims against Swift, the plaintiffs argue that the company ignored Mr. Shealey's prior trucking violations and didn't inquire about why he left a prior trucking job after only a few months of employment. Swift also allegedly ignored evidence that Mr. Shealey suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the plaintiffs assert that the company should have responded differently to evidence showing that Mr. Shealey was unemployed for several years. Swift also allegedly ignored Mr. Shealey's criminal history, which involved one assault and one trespass charge, even though Swift's safety manager considers temperament and judgment relevant factors for a truck driver.

         The plaintiffs also point to conduct of Mr. Shealey during his Swift employment that they claim the company should have handled differently. The plaintiffs argue that Swift ignored the fact that Mr. Shealey had an incident involving failure to control a semi-truck during his training that took place a few months before the crash at issue. They also point to the fact that Mr. Shealey got a speeding ticket in October of 2016, and assert that Swift did respond appropriately.

         Finally, the plaintiffs allege that Swift didn't adequately train Mr. Shealey. The plaintiffs argue that Mr. Shealey and his wife, Christina Shealey, who was in the truck with him on the night of the incident, stated that they were not trained by Swift on what to do upon encountering deer on the highway or how to operate the semi-truck upon going off the road. The plaintiffs further argue that amending the pleadings to seek punitive damages from Swift is appropriate because Mr. Shealey had not heard of “outrunning his headlights” as a safety concept and Swift allegedly does not require trainees or drivers to read the company's safety manual, which includes warnings relating to encountering deer on the roadway.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Under Minnesota law, punitive damages are available when a plaintiff shows by clear and convincing evidence “that the acts of the defendant show deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others.” Minn. Stat. § 549.20, subd. 1(a). A ...


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