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Munoz v. Vazquez-Cifuentez

Superior Court of Delaware

February 18, 2019

Munoz, et al.
v.
Vazquez-Cifuentez, et al.

          Submitted: February 1, 2019

          Scott E. Chambers, Esq. Schmittinger & Rodriguez, P.A.

          Thomas J. Gerard, Esq. Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin Dover

          NOEL EASON PRIMOS JUDGE.

         Dear Mr. Chambers and Mr. Gerard:

         Before the Court is the motion of Defendant Elizabeth Paz Villafuerte (hereinafter "Villafuerte"), to dismiss the Complaint asserted by Plaintiffs Raymond O. Munoz and Amneris N. Munoz (hereinafter "Plaintiffs"). In their Complaint, Plaintiffs brought claims against Villafuerte for (1) Vicarious Liability and (2) Negligent Entrustment. Oral argument was held on February 1, 2019. For the reasons stated herein, Villafuerte's Motion to Dismiss will be deferred to allow limited jurisdictional discovery as further explained below.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         The facts recited here are those as admitted or alleged by Plaintiffs in their Complaint.[1]

         Plaintiffs Raymond Munoz and Amneris Munoz are husband and wife and reside in Milford, Delaware. Defendant Isai Vazquez-Cifuentez is a resident of Maryland, as is Defendant Elizabeth Villafuerte.

         On July 22, 2018, Plaintiff Raymond Munoz was struck by a vehicle driven by Defendant Vazquez-Cifuentez (hereinafter "Vazquez-Cifuentez") on County Seat Highway, U.S. 9, near Georgetown, Delaware. The vehicle, a 2005 Chevrolet van, was owned and registered to Villafuerte. Plaintiff alleges that his tow truck had become disabled and that he was lawfully walking on the shoulder of U.S. Route 9, in order to obtain assistance, before being struck by the vehicle. Vazquez-Cifuentez then allegedly fled the scene of the accident.

         Plaintiffs filed the instant action on September 8, 2018. Plaintiffs' Complaint alleges negligence against Vazquez-Cifuentez, as well as vicarious liability and negligent entrustment against Villafuerte. Plaintiffs allege that the accident was proximately caused by Vazquez-Cifuentez. As to the vicarious liability claim, Plaintiffs allege that Vazquez-Cifuentez was "acting as the agent, servant or employee of Villafuerte." As to the negligent entrustment claim, Plaintiffs allege that Vazquez-Cifuentez was operating Villafuerte's vehicle "with her full knowledge and consent" and that "Villafuerte knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, that [Vazquez-Cifuentez] was so reckless or incompetent that his use of her vehicle would be dangerous."

         In support of her Motion, Villafuerte has submitted an undated, un-notarized "Vehicle Theft Affidavit," claiming that her "significant other," Marco Antonio Padilla, took her vehicle to a friend's house, became involved in drinking, and left the van and the keys there, from which Vazquez-Cifuentez took the van without permission and became involved in the accident in question. Villafuerte has also submitted a copy of a criminal complaint filed by her with the District Court of Maryland against Vazquez-Cifuentez on September 6, 2018, several weeks after the accident, containing similar allegations. Villafuerte asserts that Vazquez-Cifuentez did not have permission to drive or operate her vehicle and that she does not possess the requisite "minimum contacts" in order to anticipate being haled into court in Delaware. Villafuerte argues that Plaintiffs have not alleged any facts to establish that she conducted any activity within the State of Delaware or any facts to establish that Vazquez-Cifuentez was acting as her agent, servant or employee. Thus, Villafuerte argues that the motion must be dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(2).

         Villafuerte's motion raises two questions: (1) have the Plaintiffs established personal jurisdiction over Villafuerte and (2) if the Plaintiffs have not done so, should this Court, nevertheless, allow the Plaintiffs limited jurisdictional discovery in order to help them establish a basis for jurisdiction? This Court answers the first question in the negative and the second question in the affirmative.

         Discussion

         On a motion to dismiss, the moving party bears the burden of demonstrating that "there are no material issues of fact and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."[2] Upon this Court's review of a motion to dismiss, "(i) all well-pleaded factual allegations are accepted as true; (ii) even vague allegations are well-pleaded if they give the opposing party notice of the claim; (iii) the Court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party; and (iv) dismissal is inappropriate unless the plaintiff would not be entitled to recover under any reasonably conceivable set of circumstances susceptible of proof."[3]

         As a general rule, when, prior to discovery, a non-resident defendant files a motion to dismiss a complaint based upon lack of personal jurisdiction under Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(2), it is the plaintiffs burden to demonstrate that there is a basis for the court to exercise jurisdiction over the non-resident defendant.[4] This burden, however, is met by a threshold prima facie showing that jurisdiction is conferred by statute.[5] In assessing whether this Court can exercise personal jurisdiction in a motion to dismiss, the Court may consider extra-pleading material, such as affidavits and briefs of the parties, to supplement the Complaint and aid in establishing jurisdiction.[6] "All allegations of fact concerning personal jurisdiction are presumed true unless contradicted by affidavit."[7] The record is to be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.[8]

         The existence of personal jurisdiction depends upon the application of two independent considerations: (1) whether Delaware's long-arm statute, 10 Del. C. § 3104(c), is applicable, and (2) whether the exercise of jurisdiction would violate constitutional due process.[9]

         A. 10 Del. C. § 3104(c), Delaware's Long-Arm Statute

         Looking to Delaware's long-arm statute first, a court may exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-resident who:

(1) Transacts any business or performs any character of work or ...

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