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Craig v. Norton

August 4, 2008

MICHAEL S. CRAIG, ET AL., PLAINTIFF,
v.
DAVID T. NORTON, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joel A. Pisano United States District Judge

OPINION

Presently before the Court are motions for summary judgment by (1) Defendants Lehigh Valley Fleet Maintenance Ltd. and David DePue (together, "Lehigh Valley"); and (2) Defendant Austin Fleet Maintenance, Inc. ("Austin"). Defendants David T. Norton, J. Ross, and J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc. (collectively, "J.B. Hunt") and Plaintiffs Michael and Billie Craig have filed opposition. The Court heard oral argument on July 28, 2008. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motions are granted.

I. BACKGROUND

This action arises out of a motor vehicle accident that occurred on September 16, 2005, on Interstate 78 in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Defendant David Norton was operating a tractor trailer owned by defendant J.B. Hunt on westbound Interstate 78 when the left rear tandem wheels separated from the fifth axle of the trailer. These wheels traveled into the center median and struck the vehicle of Plaintiff Michael Craig, a New Jersey state trooper at the time. Craig was parked in the center median seated in the drivers side of his state police cruiser monitoring traffic. Craig allegedly suffered injuries as a result of the accident.

A subsequent state police investigation of the left rear tandem wheels that had separated concluded that the inner wheel assembly had "blown out." Lehigh Valley's Certification of Exhibits, Ex E. (Deposition Transcript of John Knerr) at 54. The left rear trailer tire wheels had completely separated from the fifth axle of the vehicle. However, the nuts, screwsets, lock washers and bearings that would have been attached to the inner wheel assembly of the left side wheel were never recovered.

An examination by the state police of the right rear tandem wheels was performed. These had not separated and were still attached to the fifth axle. The investigation also revealed tool markings on the jam nut of the wheel assembly on the fifth right rear axle, indicating the likelihood that improper tools were used on that side. Id. at 47. Further, the "fourth right rear U bolt" was loose and the and the setscrew was missing. Id. at 50, 52. The "left fifth axle brake pads and the right fifth axle brake drums" were permeated with grease. Id. at 54.

Repairs Performed by Defendant Lehigh Valley

On July 12, 2005, Defendant David DePue, a mechanic and president of Lehigh Valley, performed work on the trailer involved in the accident in this case. DePue fixed a broken airline spring, replaced the marker lights, and replaced the plastic hubcaps on the trailer with aluminum ones. According to DePue, he did not perform an inspection to determine if there was a wheel leak seal because he was not asked to do so by J.B. Hunt. Ex. F (Deposition of David DePue) at 46. He also did not check the bearing end play or nut torque of the wheel assembly for the same reason. Id. at 47. DePue testified that it was not the policy of J.B. Hunt vendors to do such inspections every time a hubcap is replaced. Id. at 52.

Repairs Performed by Defendant Austin

On March 11, 2003, two and one-half years prior to the accident, Austin replaced the left real hub assembly of the trailer and repacked the remaining three wheel bearings with grease. Austin's Statement of Undisputed Facts ("AUF") ¶ 14. In the two and one half years from the date of this repair until September 16, 2005, the date of the accident, records show that the trailer logged over 110,000 miles. Id. at ¶ 15.

Other Maintenance and Repairs on the Trailer

Between March 12, 2003 and early 2005, it appears that no maintenance was done on the trailer. Id. at 16. On January 5, 2005, Lehigh Valley completed a mandatory bi-annual inspection of the trailer. Id. at 18. A second inspection was conducted by J.B. Hunt on July 2, 2005. Id. at 19. These inspections apparently included inspection of the trailer's wheel assemblies, and no problems with the wheel bearings or suspension hardware were noted. Id. at 21-22.

Between June 23, 2005 and July 4, 2005, J.B. Hunt performed maintenance on the trailer that included, among other things, replacement of the left rear wheel drum and ...


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