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Pitts v. Leone Industries

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 4, 2015

LEWIS PITTS, Plaintiff,
v.
LEONE INDUSTRIES, et al., Defendants.

OPINION

JOSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Defendant ARAMARK Uniform & Career Apparel, LLC (f/k/a ARAMARK Uniform Services, Inc. and ARAMARK Uniform & Career Apparel, Inc.) [62] and Plaintiff Lewis Pitts [66]. The Court heard oral argument on the motions on February 19, 2015 and the record of that proceeding is incorporated here. For the reasons placed on the record that day, and those set forth below, ARAMARK's motion for summary judgment will be granted and Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment will be denied.

Background

This case involves claims arising from a workplace accident which occurred on February 8, 2012 when Plaintiff Lewis Pitts was operating a bottle manufacturing machine during the course of his employment at Leone Industries, Inc. As against moving Defendant ARAMARK, Plaintiff has asserted claims of negligence (Count VIII) and violation of the New Jersey Products Liability Act ("NJPLA"), N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:58C-2 (Count VII), relating to ARAMARK's rental of uniform shirts to Leone Industries for use by its employees. Plaintiff has alleged that while he was working, his shirt came into contact with hot bottles on a conveyor, ignited, and burst into flames, causing him serious injury. (Fourth Am. Compl., ¶61.) He contends that the uniform shirt was a defective product negligently sold and/or distributed for use near or over machines and bottles which emitted extremely high temperatures.[1] ( Id., ¶64, 69.)

ARAMARK has moved for summary judgment on both claims against it, arguing that it had no duty to require Plaintiff's employer to rent only fire resistant apparel for its employees who worked in the area of the factory subject to high temperatures. Plaintiff's cross-motion argues that because ARAMARK knew that Leone employees were using untreated 100% cotton shirts in the "hot end" of the factory, ARAMARK's product should be deemed defective as a matter of law due to Leone's foreseeable misuse.

Summary Judgment Standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) generally provides that the "court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact" such that the movant is "entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Such a showing must be supported by "citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations... admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 (c)(1)(A).

A "genuine" dispute of "material" fact exists where a reasonable jury's review of the evidence could result in "a verdict for the non-moving party" or where such fact might otherwise affect the disposition of the litigation. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts, however, will fail to preclude the entry of summary judgment. Id.

In evaluating a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and must provide that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Halsey v. Pfeiffer, 750 F.3d 273, 287 (3d Cir. 2014). Any such inferences "must flow directly from admissible evidence[, ]" because "an inference based upon [ ] speculation or conjecture does not create a material factual dispute sufficient to defeat summary judgment.'" Halsey, 750 F.3d at 287 (quoting Robertson v. Allied Signal, Inc., 914 F.2d 360, 382 n.12 (3d Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255)).

Accordingly, the moving party initially has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party has met this burden, the non-moving party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id .; Maidenbaum v. Bally's Park Place, Inc., 870 F.Supp. 1254, 1258 (D.N.J. 1994). Again, to withstand a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must identify specific facts and affirmative evidence that contradict those offered by the moving party. Andersen, 477 U.S. at 256-57. "A nonmoving party may not rest upon mere allegations, general denials or... vague statements....'" Trap Rock Indus., Inc. v. Local 825, Int'l Union of Operating Eng'rs, 982 F.2d 884, 890 (3d Cir. 1992) (quoting Quiroga v. Hasbro, Inc., 934 F.2d 497, 500 (3d Cir. 1991)). Indeed,

the plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.

Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. The movant can support the assertion that a fact cannot be genuinely disputed by showing that "an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the [alleged dispute of] fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(B); accord Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2).

In deciding the merits of a party's motion for summary judgment, the court's role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). Credibility determinations are the province of the factfinder. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992). Finally, "[t]he standard by which the court decides a summary judgment motion does not change when the parties file cross-motions." United States v. Kramer, 644 F.Supp.2d 479, 488 (D.N.J. 2008). Consequently, the court's evaluation of the pending motions remains unaltered: "the court must consider the motions independently and view the evidence on each motion in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Id . (citation omitted).

The New Jersey Products Liability Act

A manufacturer or seller of a product shall be liable in a product liability action only if the claimant proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the product causing the harm was not reasonably fit, suitable or safe for its intended purpose because it: a. deviated from the design specifications, formulae, or performance standards of the manufacturer or from otherwise identical units manufactured to the same manufacturing specifications or formulae, or b. failed to contain adequate warnings or instructions, or c. was designed in a defective manner. N.J.S.A. § 2A:58C-2. Three causes of action are established under the Act: claims for design defect, manufacturing defect, or warnings defect. Roberts v. Rich Foods, Inc., 654 A.2d 1365, 1380 (N.J. 1995).

A successful design defect claim under the NJPLA requires that the product was defective, that the defect existed when the product left the defendant's control, and that the defect caused injury to a reasonably foreseeable user. Jurado v. Western Gear Works, 619 A.2d 1312, 1317 (N.J. 1993). "Whether a product is defective depends on whether it is not reasonably fit, suitable and safe for its intended or reasonably foreseeable purposes.'" McGarvey v. G.I. Joe Septic Serv., Inc., 679 A.2d 733, 740 (N.J.Super. Ct. A.D. 1996) (quoting Jurado, 619 A.2d at 1317). To establish a design defect at the summary judgment stage, a plaintiff must provide sufficient evidence such that a reasonable jury could find "either that the product's risks outweighed its utility or that the product could have been designed in an alternative manner so as to minimize or eliminate the risk of harm." Lewis v. American Cyanamid Co., 715 A.2d 967, 980 (N.J. 1998). The plaintiff thus bears a burden to demonstrate "under a riskutility analysis the existence of an alternative design that is both practical and feasible." Id.[2]

Analysis

OSHA imposes a non-delegable duty on employers regarding personal protective equipment. 29 C.F.R. 1910.132(d)(1). Plaintiff has argued that because an ARAMARK sales representative[3] was aware of Leone Industries' business operations, ARAMARK had a duty to insist upon only fire resistant uniforms.

Q: Did you have the opportunity to look at their facility?
A: Yes.
Q: Did you go inside and take a look at the machines that they were operating and what they do?
A: Yes.
Q: Were you familiar that they made glass jars and bottles?
A: Yes.
Q: Did you have the opportunity to look at the machines that were in their facility, the types of machines they were running?
A: Just walking by peripherally. I didn't know what they were.
Q: Bottle making machines though, right?
A: Right.
Q: Are you aware that the materials that they make require that the glass be heated up and the ...

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