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Berkan v. Penske Truck Leasing Canada

February 19, 2008

MARY BERKAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS THE EXECUTRIX PLAINTIFF,
v.
PENSKE TRUCK LEASING CANADA, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
HELEN PETROLAWICZ, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF VINCENT JOHN PETROLAWICZ, JR., A/K/A VINCENT J. PETROLAWICZ, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
P &W INTERMODAL, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
ROBERT SCHMIDT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
P&W INTERMODAL, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs, an individual injured in a motor vehicle accident and administrators of the estates of two of his companions who were killed as a result of the same collision, commenced these actions for personal injury, wrongful death and negligence. The accident took place on June 30, 2004, when a tractor trailer leased by defendant P&W Intermodal, Inc. ("P&W") from defendant Penske Truck Leasing Canada, Inc. ("Penske"), and operated by P&W employee Ronald LeFor ("LeFor"), collided with a vehicle driven by Kenneth Berkan ("Berkan") and occupied by passengers Vincent J. Petrolawicz, Jr. ("Petrolawicz"), and Robert Schmidt ("Schmidt"). Berkan and Petrolawicz were killed, and Schmidt sustained injuries.

An administrator for Berkan's estate commenced an action on his behalf in New York State Supreme Court, Steuben County, on January 20, 2006 against Penske, LeFor and P&W. Schmidt, and an administrator for Petrolawicz's estate, commenced their actions in New York State Supreme Court, Steuben County, on March 16, 2006 against Penske, LeFor, P&W, and P&W's parent and/or sister corporations, Transforce, Inc., Transforce Income Fund, and Transforce N.J.N., Inc. d/b/a/ Transpel and P&W Intermodal. All three actions were subsequently removed to this Court.

LeFor was dismissed from each action by stipulation in January 2008.*fn1 Plaintiffs Petrolawicz and Schmidt have moved for partial summary judgment against the remaining defendants on the issue of negligence, (Petrolawicz Dkt. #38, Schmidt Dkt.#38), and Penske has moved and cross-moved in each case for summary judgment dismissing all claims against it (Berkan Dkt. #56, Petrolawicz Dkt. #46 (styled as joint motion encompassing both Petrolawicz and Schmidt actions)). For the reasons that follow, Penske's motions are granted, and Petrolawicz and Schmidt's' motions are granted with respect to the remaining defendants.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On April 15, 2004, P&W leased a 2003 Freightliner tractor from Penske, a motor vehicle leasing company, in the province of Alberta, Canada. Approximately two months later, the accident at issue occurred.

On the afternoon of June 30, 2004, LeFor was operating the tractor and was towing a trailer. As LeFor approached a lighted intersection in the town of Geneseo, New York, he observed that a vehicle driven by Berkan and occupied by Berkan, Petrolawicz and Schmidt, was stopped in traffic in front of him, the last of several vehicles waiting at the intersection. LeFor violently rear-ended and overran the Berkan vehicle, which was crushed beneath the tractor and pushed against the vehicle in front of it. In all, four vehicles in front of the tractor trailer were rear-ended and sustained damage from the force of the initial collision. Both Berkan and Petrolawicz were killed, and Schmidt sustained serious injuries.

The accident was investigated by local law enforcement. Pursuant to the accident report filed with the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, the collision was attributed solely to driver error on the part of LeFor in combination with the gross overloading of the trailer. LeFor was issued citations for operating the tractor trailer unsafely, and operating an overweight vehicle.

Although LeFor provided a self serving statement to investigators indicating that the brakes had not responded properly when he attempted to stop, the tractor was inspected by the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration ("FMCSA") following the accident and it was found to be mechanically sound, with the brakes operating within an acceptable range. The FMCSA also determined that LeFor had been following the Berkan vehicle too closely and failed to slow or stop to avoid the collision, and that the trailer was overweight by 5,650 pounds.

DISCUSSION

I. Summary Judgment Standard

Rule 56(c) provides that a moving party is entitled to summary judgment "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). The Court's role in determining a motion for summary judgment is not "to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. When considering a motion for summary judgment, the Court must draw inferences from underlying facts "in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986), quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962).

I. Penske's Motion For Summary Judgment

Penske has moved for summary judgment dismissing the claims against it on the grounds that liability issues in this matter are to be decided under New York state and federal law, not Canadian law, rendering it exempt from liability pursuant to a ...


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