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Schmidt v. United States

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 11, 2018

STEVEN SCHMIDT, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Steven Schmidt (hereinafter “Plaintiff”) brings this negligence action under the Federal Tort Claims Act (hereinafter “FTCA”) against Defendants the United States of America (hereinafter “the United States”) and John Does 1-20 (fictious names)[1] as a result of injuries sustained by Plaintiff while he was making a delivery to a warehouse facility outside the fence of the Federal Correctional Institution, Fort Dix (hereinafter “FCI Fort Dix”). (See Amended Complaint [Docket Item 16].) Plaintiff, a commercial truck driver, alleges he was injured while making a delivery to a warehouse facility at FCI Fort Dix when he was struck by a forklift operated by FCI Fort Dix worker/inmate Anthony Hopson, under the direction and in the presence of Bureau of Prisons (hereinafter “BOP”) supervisor Michael Murray. This matter comes before the Court by way of a motion filed by the United States[2] seeking summary judgment as to Counts Three through Six of the Amended Complaint. (See Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket Item 39].) Plaintiff has filed a brief opposing the United States' motion. (See Plaintiff's Brief in Opposition (hereinafter “Pl.'s Opp'n”) [Docket Item 43].) The United States has filed a reply brief. (See Reply Brief [Docket Item 49].) The principal issues to be decided are whether the “discretionary function exception” to the FTCA, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2680(a), bars any of Plaintiff's claims, and whether any of Plaintiff's claims are barred due to Plaintiff's alleged failure to exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing this suit. (See United States' Br. [Docket Item 39-1].) For the reasons set forth below, the United States' motion for summary judgment [Docket Item 39] will be granted with respect to certain portions of Count Six of the Amended Complaint; Counts Two, Five, and Six of the Amended Complaint will be dismissed; Count Seven of the Amended Complaint will be dismissed without prejudice; and the remainder of the United States' motion will be denied. The Court finds as follows:[3]

         1. Factual and Procedural Background. The factual and procedural background of this case was previously detailed in the Court's Memorandum Opinion of September 26, 2018, and shall not be repeated herein, except as necessary for the determination of the present motion. See Schmidt v. Fed. Corr. Inst., Fort Dix, No. 15-3789, 2018 WL 4620672, at *1-2 (D.N.J. Sept. 26, 2018).

         2. Federal Defendants originally filed a prior motion for summary judgment, arguing that they were entitled to judgment in their favor as to Count One of the Amended Complaint, because the FTCA does not act as a waiver of sovereign immunity with respect to the negligent actions of federal inmates engaged in an inmate work program, such as Mr. Hopson. (See Fed. Defs.' Br. [Docket Item 33-1], 13-23.) In response, Plaintiff filed a cross-motion for summary judgment as to Count One, seeking partial summary judgment for a determination, as a matter of law, that Defendant Hopson is regarded as an employee of the government under the statutory definition of “[e]mployee of the government” in the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2671. (See Pl.'s Mot. [Docket Item 37].) On September 26, 2018, the Court denied Defendants' earlier motion for summary judgment [Docket Item 33], except insofar as it sought to dismiss Defendant FCI Fort Dix, and granted Plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment [Docket Item 37] “to determine only, as a matter of law, that [Mr.] Hopson was operating his [Federal Bureau of Prisons] forklift unloading a commercial delivery from Plaintiff's truck at the time of the incident as an ‘employee of the government' for the purposes of the [Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2671].” (See Memorandum Opinion [Docket Item 47], 16.)

         3. On November 6, 2018, Mr. Hopson, who was previously individually named as a defendant in this case, was voluntarily dismissed, since the United States is the sole proper defendant in an action arising from the negligence of its employee or agent acting within the scope of his or her duties. See 28 U.S.C. § 2679(c)-(d); Order [Docket Item 54].

         4. Thereafter, the United States filed the present motion for summary judgment as to Counts 3, 4, 5, and 6. (See Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket Item 39].) The pending motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition. The Court held oral argument on November 7, 2018.

         5. Standard of Review. At summary judgment, the moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating that there is 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); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the burden shifts to the non-moving party, who must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court is required to examine the evidence in light most favorable to the non-moving party and resolve all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Halsey v. Pfeiffer, 750 F.3d 273, 287 (3d Cir. 2014).

         6. A factual dispute is material when it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, ” and genuine when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The non-moving party “need not match, item for item, each piece of evidence proffered by the movant, ” but must present more than a “mere scintilla” of evidence on which a jury could reasonably find for the non-moving party. Boyle v. Cnty. of Allegheny, Pa., 139 F.3d 386, 393 (3d Cir. 1998) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         7. Discussion.

         In the present motion, the United States seeks summary judgment in its favor with regard to Counts Three, Four, Five, and Six of the Amended Complaint. (See Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket Item 39].)

         a. Count Two - Negligent Operation of the Forklift.

         Plaintiff brings suit in Count Two against Mr. Hopson for injuries sustained by Plaintiff as a result of Mr. Hopson's allegedly negligent operation of the forklift at issue in this case. (Amended Complaint [Docket Item 16], Count Two ¶ 4-7.) However, at oral argument, Plaintiff conceded that he would consent to dismiss Count Two, as he believes that is repetitive of the allegations set forth in Count One of the Amended Complaint and because Mr. Hopson, deemed an employee of the United States for purposes of FTCA liability, cannot be individually sued for negligence within the scope of his federal employment. As such, the Court shall dismiss Count Two, while recognizing that Mr. Hopson's negligence in the operation of the forklift is attributable to the United States by operation of the FTCA, and as alleged in Count One.

         b. Count Three - Negligent Operation of FCI Fort Dix.

          Plaintiff brings suit in Count Three against the United States for injuries sustained by Plaintiff as a result of the allegedly negligent operation of FCI Fort Dix, including:

a. negligently failing to establish and implement policies and procedures sufficient for the safe operation of the loading and unloading at its facility;
b. negligently failing to reasonably train its forklift operators, including the forklift operator on the date of the accident;
c. negligently failing to reasonably supervise its forklift operators, including the forklift operator on the date of the accident
d. negligently failing to operate and supervise the loading dock;
e. negligently creating and operating a program using prisoners as operators of mechanical equipment without creating reasonable and adequate procedures for the safety of visitors, including Plaintiff, and/or f. otherwise acting negligently.

(Amended Complaint [Docket Item 16], Count Three ¶ 4.) The United States asserts that it is entitled to summary judgment as to Count Three because the discretionary function exception bars any claims regarding the United States' negligent supervision or negligent training of Mr. Hopson, and regarding the United States' “fail[ure] to establish and implement policies and procedures sufficient for the safe operation of the loading and unloading at its facility.” (United States' Br. [Docket Item 39-1], 16-18, 25-26.) However, at oral argument, Plaintiff conceded that he would withdraw any arguments regarding the propriety of the policy of using prisoners to operate forklifts in general, or regarding negligent training or supervision of Mr. Hopson in particular. Plaintiff further asserted at oral argument that in Count Three he is only pursuing claims regarding Mr. Murray's personal negligence as a BOP employee at the time of the accident. Additionally, Plaintiff argues that the discretionary function exception does not shield the United States from liability for Mr. Murray negligently putting Plaintiff in harm's way, since Mr. Murray knew of the layout and potential dangers of the loading area. (Pl.'s Opp'n [Docket Item 43], 22-31.) Plaintiff also argues that the discretionary function exception does not shield the United States from liability for Murray's negligent actions related to “loading dock operational activities” or supervision at the time in question. (Id.)

         The United States responds that there is no evidence that Mr. Murray “directed” Plaintiff into the forklift's path. (United States' Reply [Docket Item 46], 2-6.) However, Plaintiff need not show that he was specifically “directed” into the forklift's path by Mr. Murray in order to succeed on this count. Plaintiff alleges that Mr. Murray was talking with him and failed to warn him even as the forklift backed into him and struck him. The United States also fails to show that there is no genuine dispute of material fact as to Mr. Murray's alleged breach of this duty. As such, the United States has failed to meet its burden to establish that it is entitled to ...


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