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Pigott v. Heath

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

December 16, 2019


         SECTION “F”



         Before the Court is the defendants' motion for partial summary judgment to dismiss the plaintiffs' punitive damages claims. For the reasons that follow, the motion is GRANTED.


         This is a car accident case. The defendants' motion presents the question whether Arizona's law of punitive damages applies in a Louisiana lawsuit arising from a Louisiana collision between citizens of Louisiana and Mississippi. It does not.

         The collision occurred in fall 2017. At the time, Kayla Heath was driving an 18-wheeler in the left lane of Highway 21 in Bogalusa, Louisiana. She was working for Swift Transportation, hauling Wal-Mart cargo from Swift's Robert, Louisiana terminal. Kenneth Pigott was driving a sedan in the right lane, and Dehendric Bickham was riding along. Heath's 18-wheeler moved into the right lane and struck Pigott's sedan. This lawsuit followed.

         Pigott and Bickham sued Heath and Swift in state court. They said that Heath's negligence caused the collision and that Swift was vicariously liable. In response, Heath and Swift removed the case based on diversity jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1).

         Pigott and Bickham are citizens of Louisiana. Heath is a citizen of Mississippi. Swift is a limited liability company with one member: a Delaware corporation with a principal place of business in Arizona.

         Once in this Court, Pigott and Bickham moved to amend their complaint to add claims of independent negligence against Swift. Swift originally said it did not oppose. But it soon realized the amendment contained a claim not discussed: a claim for punitive damages under Arizona law. Upon review of that claim, Swift reversed course and opposed the amendment.

         In the proposed amendment, Pigott and Bickham said Swift negligently hired, trained, and supervised Heath. They alleged no facts to support the application of Arizona law to any claim; yet they purported to allege an Arizona-law punitive damages claim:

Due to the high likelihood that the conduct of Swift Transportation Co. of Arizona, L.L.C. would injure Plaintiffs and/or persons in Plaintiffs' position, Plaintiffs herein assert a claim for punitive damages under Arizona law.

         The United States Magistrate Judge allowed the amendment over Swift's objection. Swift appeals that ruling and moves for partial summary judgment dismissing the Arizona-law punitive damages claim. Pigott and Bickham oppose. Because a ruling in favor of Swift on its motion for partial summary judgment would moot its appeal, the Court considers the motion first.


         Summary judgment is proper if the record discloses 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 dispute is “genuine” if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit.” Id. at 248.

         If the non-movant will bear the burden of proof at trial, “the movant may merely point to an absence of evidence, thus shifting to the non-movant the burden of demonstrating by competent summary judgment proof that there is an issue of material fact warranting trial.” In re La. Crawfish Producers, 852 F.3d 456, 462 (5th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted).

         The Court emphasizes that the mere argued existence of a factual dispute does not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. Nor do “[u]nsubstantiated assertions, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation[.]” Brown v. City of Houston, Tex., 337 F.3d 539, 541 (5th Cir. 2003). Ultimately, to avoid summary judgment, the non-movant “must go beyond the pleadings and come forward with specific facts indicating a genuine issue for trial.” LeMaire v. La. Dep't of Transp. & Dev., 480 F.3d 383, 387 (5th Cir. 2007).

         In deciding whether a fact issue exists, the Court views the facts and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-movant. See Midwest Feeders, Inc. v. Bank of Franklin, 886 F.3d 507, 513 (5th Cir. 2018). The Court “resolve[s] factual controversies in favor of the nonmoving party, ” but “only where there is an actual controversy, that is, when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” Antoine v. First Student, Inc., 713 F.3d 824, 830 (5th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted).

         Pigott and Bickham fail to submit “evidence of contradictory facts.” Antoine, 713 F.3d at 830. In fact, they offer no summary-judgment evidence to controvert any of the properly-supported assertions of fact contained in Swift and Heath's Local Civil Rule 56.1 statement.[1] So, Swift and Heath's properly-supported assertions of fact are deemed undisputed for purposes of the motion. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2).


         Before moving to the merits, the Court considers an issue of summary judgment procedure. Pigott and Bickham invoke Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d) and contend that summary judgment is premature because discovery is not complete. They ask the Court to deny or continue summary judgment.


         The Court may deny or continue summary judgment if the parties opposing summary judgment show “by affidavit or declaration that, for specified reasons, [they] cannot present facts essential to justify [their] opposition.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d). The parties opposing summary judgment “may not simply rely on vague assertions that additional discovery will produce needed, but unspecified facts.” Am. Family Life Assur. Co. of Columbus v. Biles, 714 F.3d 887, 894 (5th Cir. 2013). They must instead “set forth a plausible basis for believing that specified facts, susceptible of collection within a ...

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