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Jones v. Century Oil U.S.A.

filed: February 21, 1992.

DONALD JONES, LOT 8-MAPLE ESTATES POCONO LAKE, PA 18348, LISA ANNE JONES, LOT 8-MAPLE ESTATES POCONO LAKE, PA 18348
v.
CENTURY OIL U.S.A., INC., 111 CLIFTON AVENUE, CLIFTON, NJ 07013, CENTURY OIL U.S.A., INC., THIRD PARTY PLAINTIFF V. GARY A. FLEMING, D/B/A HOUSE SCENE, INC., THIRD PARTY DEFENDANT DONALD JONES AND LISA ANNE JONES, APPELLANTS



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 90-00902)

Before: Greenberg, Alito and Higginbotham, Circuit Judges.

Author: Higginbotham

Opinion OF THE COURT

A. LEON HIGGINBOTHAM, JR., Circuit Judge.

Appellants Donald and Lisa Jones, citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and residents of Pocono Lake, brought this action against Century Oil U.S.A., Inc., ("Century") a New Jersey corporation, in the district court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania pursuant to federal diversity jurisdiction. Jones, the owner and operator of D & L Locksmithing, suffered injuries on the premises of a service station located in Brodheadsville, Pennsylvania in December 1989 shortly after Century leased the property to Gary Fleming. Following an altercation with Fleming in which he was hurt, Jones filed a suit claiming that Century was liable for his injuries on the grounds that Fleming was Century's agent or employee or, in the alternative, that Century was negligent for failing to supervise its contractor Fleming sufficiently to protect Jones from harm.

A jury trial began on March 18, 1991. On March 19, 1991 at the close of plaintiff's evidence on liability, Century moved orally pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a) for a directed verdict that the trial Judge granted from the bench. The ruling was subsequently affirmed in a written order on April 2, 1991. The written order merely stated that "the court concluded that plaintiffs failed in establishing a master-servant relationship or agency relationship to warrant recovery against the defendant Century Oil, U.S.A., Inc." Jones v. Century Oil, U.S.A.,Inc., C.A. No. 90-0902, (M.D.Pa. April 2, 1991).

Appellants asked this Court to vacate the district court order and to remand the case for a new trial.

We exercise plenary review of the grant of a directed verdict, and we apply the same standard as would the district court in passing on the motion originally. Gay v. Petsock, 917 F.2d 768, 771 (3d Cir. 1990). A verdict may be directed for a defendant only when there is insufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably find for the opponent, the court viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the opponent and giving him the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference. Laskaris v. Thornburgh, 733 F.2d 260, 264 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 886, 105 S. Ct. 260, 83 L. Ed. 2d 196 (1984). If there is conflicting evidence that could reasonably lead to inconsistent inferences, a verdict may not be directed. Id. Viewing all the evidence introduced in the light most favorable to Jones, we cannot conclude that a jury could not have drawn inferences from the facts presented sufficient to support a verdict in appellants' favor. We will vacate the judgment of the district court and remand the case for trial.

I. Background

We review the facts of this case in the light most favorable to Jones.

On November 20, 1989, Century Oil executed an agreement with Gary Fleming to take over the operation of its Brodheadsville Texaco gas station. Century's regional manager, Jay Marshall, obtained the name of Donald Jones' locksmith company from the phone book and called Jones a few days prior to November 20. Marshall advised him that Century was changing dealers at its station and wanted to put in new locks. Jones agreed to do the work with the understanding that he would be paid on the day the work was performed.

On November 20, 1989, Jones went to the station, but only Gary Fleming, the new dealer, was at the premises. Contrary to the understanding Jones had reached in his telephone conversation, Marshall, who had agreed to pay him that day for his work, was not there. Jones did, however, speak to Marshall by phone that day, and Marshall asked him to leave the bill with Fleming, promising that he would be paid the following week. Jones installed the new locks.

However, Jones was not paid the following week. After several telephone conversations with Century's headquarters, and several promises that he would be paid, Jones threatened to remove his locks from the gas station. On December 6, 1989, he drove to the gas station to take the locks out. That day Marshall and Fleming were both there. After some Discussion with Marshall and Fleming, Jones started to remove the locks he had installed in the doors. Fleming became verbally abusive and threatening, and ordered him off the premises. Jones refused to leave. While Jones was crouched around the door unscrewing the locks, Fleming walked up to him and, in full view of Marshall, he "slammed" Jones in the shoulder and back.

As a result of being hit in his back, Jones alleges that he suffered herniated discs in his spine, had to undergo surgery, and subsequently became ...


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