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Bridges v. Morris

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

September 17, 2014

JEFFREY A. BRIDGES, Plaintiff,
v.
MELISSA MORRIS, ET. AL., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION [Doc. No. 67]

JOEL SCHNEIDER, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the "Motion for Summary Judgment" [Doc. No. 67] filed by defendant Cellco Partnership d/b/a Verizon Wireless ("Verizon"). The Court received the response in opposition from plaintiff Jeffrey A. Bridges ("Bridges") [Doc. No. 79] which is joined by defendant State Farm Insurance ("State Farm") [Doc. No. 81].[1] Verizon has also submitted a Reply. [Doc. No. 82]. The Court exercises its discretion to decide Verizon's motion without oral argument. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 78; L. Civ. R. 78.1. For the reasons to be discussed, Verizon's motion is GRANTED.

BACKGROUND

The key facts germane to Verizon's motion are not in dispute. This action arises from an automobile accident on August 16, 2010, in which defendant Melissa Morris struck plaintiff's vehicle from behind on the New Jersey Turnpike. See Compl. ¶ 6. Defendant Morris was driving a vehicle owned by Verizon, her employer, but was not authorized to be operating the vehicle when the accident occurred. See Verizon's Statement of Uncontested Facts ¶ 22. At the time of the accident, Morris was an administrative assistant to Verizon Wireless' Networks Operations Director for the State of Georgia, Jim Blake. See Dep. of Jim Blake ("Blake Dep.") T5:13-6:17. As part of her job responsibilities out of her Alpharetta, Georgia office, Morris was a fleet coordinator for Verizon vehicles. See Dep. of Melissa Morris ("Morris Dep.") T6:19-25. In this role, Morris managed vehicle registrations and licensing, orders for new vehicles and periodically drove the Verizon vehicles to receive regular maintenance. Id . T6:23-7:11.

Of particular importance to this case is what steps a Verizon employee was required to take in order to sign out a "pool" or "pull" vehicle - a standby vehicle within the fleet that was not assigned to any particular employee. According to the record, first an employee must be placed on an "Approved List, " which required participation in an online tutorial, fulfillment of a defensive driving course, a valid driver's license, completion of an application which states that the employee has read the company's vehicle policies[2] and manager approval. Morris Dep. T32:6-33:20; Blake Dep. T10:8-17. Once placed on the approved list, an employee could sign out the vehicle with a third-party security officer in the fleet lot who controlled the keys and the security log. Morris Dep. T136:7-20. The security log contained a column for explaining the purpose of obtaining the vehicle. Id . T36:19-24. Morris testified that "some people didn't write anything" in this column and that sometimes she wrote "general" or left the space blank when signing out a vehicle. Id . T36:22-23, T147:24-148:1. Morris then presented these security logs to her supervisor but it is unclear whether these logs were reviewed and by whom. Id . T148:12-23.

On Friday, August 13, 2010, three days before the car accident involving plaintiff, Morris requested bereavement time from her supervisor, Jim Blake, to attend her grandmother's funeral in Connecticut. See Termination Form at 1. Though Morris originally requested to leave work at 3:30 p.m. that day, at 11:53 a.m. she emailed Blake to inform him that she had to leave for the airport at noon (7 minutes later) because her original flight was cancelled. See Email from Morris to Blake of Aug. 13, 2010.

At some point that day, Morris instead took a Verizon pool vehicle and drove it to Connecticut. Morris Dep. T110:16-111:5. Three days later, on Monday, August 16, 2010, Blake received a voicemail[3] from Morris indicating that she had taken a Verizon vehicle and had been involved in a car accident on the New Jersey Turnpike. Morris Dep. T121:11-122:1. Later, when Blake asked Morris why she did not fly to Connecticut as she previously represented, Morris stated that she did not have enough money for her flight and did not use her personal vehicle because her insurance was cancelled. See Termination Form at 1-2. As a result of this incident, Morris was terminated from her employment and Verizon additionally pursued a criminal complaint against Morris for theft by conversion. Morris Dep. T63:14-23.

In his second amended complaint, plaintiff alleges Verizon is liable under respondeat superior and negligent entrustment theories, and was negligent in the "control of the [Verizon] vehicle[s]." See Second Am. Compl. ¶¶ 16-18 [Doc. No. 42]. Verizon contends that it is not liable under a respondeat superior or negligent entrustment theory, and should not be held to owe a duty to third parties for an employee's use of a company vehicle outside the scope of employment. See generally Def.'s Reply. Br.

DISCUSSION[4]

Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, summary judgment is appropriate where the court is satisfied that "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any... demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal citations omitted). Summary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is "genuine, " that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The materiality of a fact turns on whether under the governing substantive law, a dispute over the fact might have an effect on the outcome of the suit. Id . The court must view all evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Startzell v. City of Philadelphia, 533 F.3d 183, 192 (3d Cir. 2008).

The moving party bears the initial burden of informing the court of the basis for its motion and demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Once the burden is met, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to "set forth specific facts showing that there [are].... genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. The party opposing summary judgment may not "rest upon mere allegation[s] or denials of his pleading, " but must set forth specific facts and present affirmative evidence demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 256-57.

Verizon asserts it is entitled to summary judgment because it is not liable under a respondeat superior theory, a negligent entrustment theory, or under a theory that Verizon had a "duty to properly oversee and control the use of its fleet vehicles and prevent the misuse of the same". Pl's Opp. Br. at 2. Each theory of liability is addressed in turn.[5]

Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, "an employer can be found liable for the negligence of an employee causing injuries to third parties, if, at the time of the occurrence, the employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment." Carter v. Reynolds, 175 N.J. 402, 408-09 (2003) (citing Lehmann v. Toys R' Us, Inc., 132 N.J. 587 (1993)). "To establish a master's liability for the acts of his servant, a plaintiff must prove (1) that a master-servant relationship existed and (2) that the tortious act of the servant occurred within the scope of that employment." Id . "Generally, an employer is not liable for harm caused by an employee in the use of a vehicle owned by the employer when the use is not within the employee's scope of employment." Pfender v. Torres, 336 N.J.Super. 379, 393 (App. Div. 2001) (citing Gilborges v. Wallace, 78 N.J. 342, 351 (1978)). "Liability for the employer is only appropriate if the vehicle is being used by the employee for the purpose of advancing the employer's business or interests, as distinguished from the private affairs of the [employee].'" Id.

Here, while Verizon acknowledges that a master-servant relationship existed between Verizon and Morris (Def.'s Br. at 15), plaintiff does not dispute that Morris was acting outside the course and scope of her employment when the accident occurred. See Pl.'s Opp. Br. at 16. Thus, no facts are in dispute and the respondeat superior ...


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