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James v. Williams

Superior Court of Delaware

November 30, 2017

ROBERT A. JAMES, JR. and DAWN M. JAMES, Plaintiffs,
ROBERT WILLIAMS, PETE STORE-DELAWARE, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company, and PETE STORE-SEAFORD, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company, Defendants.

          Submitted: November 17, 2017

         Upon the Defendant Pete Store Delaware, LLC's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment - GRANTED

          Scott E. Chambers, Esquire & Gary E. Junge, Esquire, SCHMITTINGER & RODRIGUEZ, P.A., Dover, Delaware, Attorneys for Plaintiffs.

          Thomas P. Leff, Esquire, CASARINO, CHRISTMAN, SHALK, RANSOM & DOSS, P. A., Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Defendant Robert Williams.

          Benjamin C. Wetzel, III, Esquire, WETZEL & ASSOCIATES, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for the Defendants, Pete Store-Delaware, LLC & Pete Store-Seaford, LLC.



         Defendant Pete Store Delaware, LLC (hereinafter "Pete Store" or the "Company") moves for partial summary judgment regarding Plaintiff Robert A. James, Jr's (hereinafter "Mr. James'") claim against it for punitive damages. Mr. James sues Pete Store and its employee, Defendant Robert Williams (hereinafter "Mr. Williams") for automobile accident related injuries allegedly caused by Mr. Williams' negligence and recklessness. Mr. James alleges that Pete Store is vicariously liable for both compensatory and punitive damages. The Company's potential liability for punitive damages is at issue. Although such a claim is generally decided as one of fact, in this case, the factual record does not generate a triable issue of fact that would permit a reasonable jury to hold the tortfeasor's employer vicariously liable for punitive damages. For that reason and those outlined herein, Pete Store's motion for partial summary judgment is GRANTED.

         I. Factual Background

         Discovery in this case has concluded. The facts recited herein are those of record, and are viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Pete Store is a Peterbuilt truck dealer in Seaford, Delaware where Mr. Williams was employed as a service manager. The extent of the record regarding Mr. William's duties evidences that he was to make sure work was performed in a timely manner and that he collected payment from customers.[1] In an affidavit submitted in support of the motion, Douglas Cole (hereinafter "Mr. Cole"), the Vice President of Finance for Pete Store, described Mr. Williams duties as "supervising the service department and collecting payments from customers in the service department".[2] However, according to Mr. Cole, Mr. Williams was not considered a principal or managerial agent of Pete Store.[3] The same affidavit provided that Mr. Williams reported to a Regional Service Manager, who reported to a Vice President and General Manager, who in turn reported to the President and CEO.[4]

         On or about April 21, 2016, Mr. James arrived at Pete Store to pick up his son's truck after repairs. The repair cost was $17, 298.52. After a test drive, Mr. James provided Mr. Williams with a check for the cost of the repairs. Pete Store alleges that Mr. James was unhappy with how long it took the repairs to be completed. Based on the parties' history, Mr. Williams was eager to get Mr. James out of the shop as quickly as possible. At some point, Mr. James became irritated that his check was taking a long time to process. He accordingly left the store and took the truck. Mr. James alleges that he informed Mr. Williams that he was leaving with the truck and to call him if there were any problems.

         After Mr. James took his son's truck, Pete Store's check guarantee center advised Mr. Williams that the check could not be certified. Mr. Williams then left the Pete Store in his personal vehicle to chase Mr. James. After Mr. Williams caught up with Mr. James, Mr. James pulled onto a median on the highway. Despite demand, Mr. James refused to return to the store because he needed to return the truck to his son. Mr. James told Mr. Williams that he could call him if there were any problems with his check because he had more than sufficient funds in his account to cover the check.

         At that point, in an apparent attempt to force Mr. Jones to return to the store, Mr. Williams reached into Mr. James' vehicle, grabbed his cell phone, and returned to his car. Mr. James then approached Mr. Williams car to recover his cell phone. While the facts about what happened next remain in dispute, for the purposes of summary judgment, as Mr. James reached into Mr. Williams vehicle to retrieve his phone, Mr. Williams recklessly pulled away with Mr. James caught on the outside of the vehicle. Mr. James suffered injuries as a result.

         II. Discussion

         Summary judgment may only be granted if the record shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[5] The Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.[6] The burden of proof is initially on the moving party.[7] However, if the movant meets his or her initial burden, then the burden shifts to a non-moving party to demonstrate the existence of material issues of fact.[8] If the non-moving party is the party who will bear the burden of proof at trial, then to survive summary judgment, that party is obliged to point to facts in the record that will support its prima facie case at trial.[9] The non-movant's evidence of material facts in dispute must be sufficient to withstand a motion for judgment as a matter of law and must support the verdict of a rational jury.[10] The non-movant may not simply rest on his on her allegation that there are genuine issues of material fact without referencing such facts in the record.[11]

         Delaware courts consistently look to the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 909 (1979) to determine whether a jury may award punitive damages against an employer for the act of an employee.[12] The Restatement (Second) of Torts provides that:

[p]unitive damages can properly be awarded against a master or other principal because of an act by agent if, but only if:
(a)The principal or a managerial agent authorized the doing and the manner of the act, or
(b)The agent was unfit and the principal or a managerial agent was reckless in employing or retaining him, or
(c)The agent was employed in a managerial capacity and was acting the scope of his employment, or (d) The principal of a managerial agent of the principal ratified or approved the act.[13]

         Comment b. to this same provision provides that "[a]lthough there has been no fault on the part of a corporation or other employer, if a person acting in a managerial capacity either does an outrageous act or approves of the act by a subordinate, the imposition of punitive damages upon the employer serves as a deterrent to the employment of unfit persons for important positions."

         Mr. James primarily argues that Pete Store is liable for punitive damages arising from Mr. Williams' tortious acts pursuant to Restatement (Second) of Torts § 909(c). Namely, he argues that Mr. Williams was employed in a managerial capacity and that he was acting in the scope of his employment when he injured Mr. James.[14] While the main dispute focuses on whether Mr. Williams was acting in a managerial capacity, the Restatement ...

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