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Riley v. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division

October 21, 2019




         THIS CAUSE is before the Court on The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company's [Corrected] Dispositive Motion for Summary Judgment and Incorporated Memorandum of Law (Doc. 40; Motion), filed on July 5, 2019.[1] Plaintiff Valeria Riley filed a response in opposition to the Motion on July 19, 2019. See Plaintiff's Memorandum in Opposition to Defendant The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company's Corrected Dispositive Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 43; Response). With leave of Court, see Order (Doc. 46), Goodyear filed a reply in support of its Motion on August 26, 2019. See Defendant's Reply to Plaintiff's Memorandum in Opposition to Goodyear's Dispositive Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 49; Reply). Accordingly, this matter is ripe for review.

         I. Standard of Review

         Under Rule 56, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Rule(s)), “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Rule 56(a). The record to be considered on a motion for summary judgment may include “depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Rule 56(c)(1)(A).[2] An issue is genuine when the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the nonmovant. Mize v. Jefferson City Bd. of Educ., 93 F.3d 739, 742 (11th Cir. 1996) (quoting Hairston v. Gainesville Sun Publ'g Co., 9 F.3d 913, 919 (11th Cir. 1993)). “[A] mere scintilla of evidence in support of the non-moving party's position is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment.” Kesinger ex rel. Estate of Kesinger v. Herrington, 381 F.3d 1243, 1247 (11th Cir. 2004) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating to the court, by reference to the record, that there are no genuine issues of material fact to be determined at trial. See Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). “When a moving party has discharged its burden, the non-moving party must then go beyond the pleadings, and by its own affidavits, or by depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Jeffery v. Sarasota White Sox, Inc., 64 F.3d 590, 593-94 (11th Cir. 1995) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Substantive law determines the materiality of facts, and “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court “must view all evidence and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the party opposing summary judgment.” Haves v. City of Miami, 52 F.3d 918, 921 (11th Cir. 1995) (citing Dibrell Bros. Int'l, S.A. v. Banca Nazionale Del Lavoro, 38 F.3d 1571, 1578 (11th Cir. 1994)).

         II. Background Facts

         This case arises out of a single-car accident which occurred on July 5, 2013, when the driver's-side front wheel of Riley's 2005 Nissan Murano suddenly detached from the vehicle while Riley was driving. Six days prior to the accident, on June 29, 2013, Riley had taken her car to a Goodyear Auto Service Center and had three new tires installed. See Response, Ex. C: January 19, 2018 Deposition of Valeria Riley (Docs. 40-3, 40-4; Riley Dep.) at 149-50, 157; see also Motion, Ex. C. Goodyear service technician Seth James performed the service, replacing three of Riley's tires, including the driver's-side front tire. See Motion, Ex. C; Response, Ex. A: Deposition of William Hoffstetter (Doc. 43-1; Hoffstetter Dep.) at 41-44; see also Response, Ex. B at Interrog. No. 6. Although the fourth tire on Riley's vehicle was also worn and in need of replacement, Riley could not afford to purchase a fourth new tire at that time. See Riley Dep. at 150, 153-54; Hoffstetter Dep. at 41-42. James signed a Vehicle Inspection Report, stating that he had properly secured the wheels on the vehicle. Se Motion, Ex. C. In addition, as required by Goodyear's “Good-to-Go” policy, Goodyear service manager Houston Crumbley also executed the Vehicle Inspection Report certifying that he had reviewed James' work and confirming that the lug nuts were torqued to the proper specification. Id., Exs. C, D; Hoffstetter Dep. at 41-42, 44. Riley's son Antonio Bell picked up the vehicle from Goodyear and drove it to and from work that same day. See Motion, Ex. F: January 7, 2019 Deposition of Antonio Bell (Bell Dep.) at 18-19. Bell did not notice anything wrong with the vehicle. Id. at 19.

         The next day, Riley drove the vehicle and noticed a slight vibration. See Riley Dep. at 141, 164. Believing that the one tire she had not replaced was the cause of the vibration, and unable to afford a fourth “new” tire at that time, Riley attempted to take her vehicle to a “used tire” shop for a replacement tire. See id. at 141-42, 164-67. However, the “used tire” shop was closed that day. Id. at 164. Riley continued to drive her vehicle the remainder of the week and would hear “a little vibrating” but “it wasn't that bad.” Id. at 164-68. Riley could not recall at her January 19, 2018 deposition how often she drove the car that week, testifying: “It wasn't-it wasn't that much. I don't know. I don't know.” Id. at 168. Riley describes driving the car “around in the neighborhood, going to the store, go to Walmart on 103rd or get groceries, different areas around the area so that-I didn't ever drive far, me myself. I always just go where I had to go at.” Id. at 168. Riley also maintains that she was the only person who drove her car in the week that followed the service appointment at Goodyear. Id. at 167. When defense counsel asked Riley's son if he drove the vehicle again after picking it up from Goodyear, Bell answered “I'm pretty sure I have. Probably back to work the next day. I don't know. I'm just guessing.” See Bell Dep. at 19. When asked how often he used the car that week, Bell testified “If I use it, it would be just going to work.” Id. at 21. Bell further testified that it was “possibl[e]” his other siblings or someone else drove the vehicle that week, but “[f]or sure, I can't tell you. I don't know.” Id. at 22-23. Notably, documentation of the car's odometer reading from the service visit and post-accident repairs indicate that the vehicle traveled 735 miles in the six days before the accident. See Motion, Exs. C and H.

         On Friday, July 5, 2013, the day of the accident, Riley was driving the car on the expressway when she decided to exit because the vibrations had increased and the vehicle was “shaking real bad” such that she “had to have two hands on the steering wheel.” See Riley Dep. at 164, 177-79, 187. After exiting the expressway, Riley made an initial turn and heard a squealing noise. See id. at 181-82. As she proceeded to navigate home on back roads, driving about 15-20 miles per hour, Riley made a right turn, heard a boom, and the car went down. Id. at 181-84. According to Riley, “when it went down and it made that boom, like, that's when my car-there wasn't no tire on there-the car hit the pavement--. . . .” Id. at 182-83. Riley's driver's-side front wheel had separated from the vehicle, causing the side of the vehicle to drop and slide to a halt, digging into the pavement. Id. at 144, 169, 185, 192-93. According to Riley, she looked in the mirror and saw her tire flying through the air and into the woods. Id. at 196-97. Riley contacted the Goodyear store and told them what happened. Id. at 207. Two Goodyear employees came to the scene and one of them retrieved the tire from the woods. Id. at 144, 211-13. According to Riley, “[t]here wasn't nothing wrong with the tire. It was just the lug was gone.” Id. at 144. Goodyear sent a tow truck and had the car towed to its store. Id. at 144, 207, 218. The tow truck driver placed the wayward wheel on the tow truck with the car. Id. at 144, 213-14. After the initial tow to the Goodyear service center, Riley's car was later towed elsewhere for repairs and ultimately, her insurance paid for the car's repairs. Id. at 218-19. Riley went to the hospital the morning after the accident and asserts that, as a result of the accident, she suffered a torn muscle in her right shoulder, as well as other injuries to her head, neck, chest, hip, leg. See id. at 231, 235-37, 270-75.

         III. Summary of the Arguments

         In the Motion, Goodyear asserts three arguments in support of summary judgment. First, Goodyear argues that Riley fails to present any evidence “through expert testimony or otherwise, that Goodyear breached its duty of care.” See Motion at 8. Goodyear maintains that Riley cannot establish that Goodyear breached its duty of care because: 1) the accident occurred six days after the tire change, 2) the vehicle traveled 735 miles before the accident, 3) Riley does not explain or provide any details regarding how the vehicle accrued 735 miles in those six days, and 4) Riley fails “to provide any evidence or expert opinion that Goodyear was negligent.” Id. at 8-9. According to Goodyear, “[t]hese factors are sufficient to preclude an inference of negligence against Goodyear in such a way that outweighs all contrary or opposing inferences.” Id. at 9. Second, Goodyear contends that Riley fails to establish that Goodyear's tire change was the proximate cause of the accident. See id. at 10-11. Goodyear argues that the six days and 735 miles traveled between the service appointment and the accident, and the “complete lack of evidence or explanation of what happened to the vehicle during this time, ” breaks the causal connection between “the alleged negligent act and the injury to the plaintiff.” Id. at 11. Goodyear also speculates that “any number of people may have had access to this vehicle during these six days, ” and that it is “unknown what else they may have done with the vehicle after it left the Service Center.” Id. As such, Goodyear asserts that Riley has “failed to show that Goodyear's alleged breach proximately caused her alleged injury.” Id. Last, Goodyear maintains that Riley's case is premised on an impermissible stacking of inferences. Id. at 11-17. According to Goodyear, any inference that Goodyear breached its duty of care is “negated” by the Vehicle Inspection Report which documents that Goodyear's employees complied with the “Good-to-Go” policy when they serviced Riley's vehicle. See id. at 16, Exs. C, D.

         Riley responds that the detachment of the lug nuts and wheel is sufficient evidence of Goodyear's negligence because lug nuts and wheels do not, by their nature, become dislodged if they are properly affixed. See Response at 4. Riley maintains that “Goodyear's removal of the wheel six days before its detachment and [Riley's] normal driving during that time, and in the absence of some sort of foul play not argued to have occurred here, the detachment of the wheel is proof that Goodyear did not property [sic] reattach the wheel . . . .” Id. at 4-5. According to Riley, “there is no other inference as to the cause of the clean detachment of a car wheel fastened by lug nuts other than Goodyear's failure to properly fasten them, ” and “the existence of any such counter inference would merely present a question for the jury at trial.” Id. In addition, Riley asserts that she need not present expert testimony because “the failure of the work-the proper tightening of lugnuts [sic]-is a matter of common sense.” Id. at 5.

         IV. Analysis

         Although Riley's counsel fails to identify the relevant legal doctrine or cite the applicable legal authority, Riley's arguments are plainly premised on the rule of evidence known as res ipsa loquitur, meaning “the thing speaks for itself.” This doctrine “‘permits, but does not compel, an inference of negligence under certain circumstances.'” SeeMcDougald v. Perry, 716 So.2d 783, 785 (Fla. 1998) (quoting ...

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