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Ferguson v. National Freight, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

June 15, 2016

MICHAEL STEVEN FERGUSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NATIONAL FREIGHT, INC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge

         On March 31, 2016, a jury found in favor of plaintiff Michael Steven Ferguson on his claim of negligence against defendants National Freight, Inc. ("NFI") and Manuel Torres. The case is presently before the court on defendants' renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, a new trial, as well as their motion to stay execution of the judgment pursuant to Rule 62(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the following reasons, defendants' motions will be denied.

         Factual Background

         On or about the evening of July 30, 2013, a 2000 Oldsmobile containing six passengers was traveling northbound on Interstate 81 ("1-81") in Botetourt County, Virginia. After the vehicle suffered a flat tire, the driver pulled over into the right shoulder lane. One of the passengers then called Ferguson, a citizen of Virginia, and asked if he could tow the vehicle on his rollback. Ferguson arrived thereafter to assist. Ferguson's mother, Sandra Ferguson, also arrived at the scene in an SUV in order to pick up some of the remaining passengers. Mrs. Ferguson parked the SUV in front of the rollback. Ferguson then loaded the disabled vehicle onto the rollback.

         Both Ferguson and the SUV began to accelerate in the right shoulder lane. At trial, Ferguson testified that the lights on top of the rollback were activated. He claimed that he reached a speed of between 55 and 60 miles per hour ("MPH") before moving into the right travel lane. The rollback then merged into the right travel lane and passed the SUV, which was still in the in shoulder lane. At trial, Ferguson testified that he checked his rear-view mirrors before merging into the right travel lane and did not see any vehicles or lights approaching. One of the passengers in Ferguson's rollback, Tamara Lynskey, also testified that she did not see defendant Torres' tractor-trailer prior to impact. Soon thereafter, the SUV merged into the right travel lane.

         Defendant Torres, a citizen of Florida, was driving a commercial tractor-trailer owned by NFI, a New Jersey corporation, northbound on 1-81 in the right travel lane. At trial, the evidence revealed that Torres was driving between 61 and 62 MPH, which was below the posted speed limit of 70 MPH. As the tractor-trailer approached, the SUV moved out of the right traffic lane and back into the right shoulder lane. Torres then struck the back of Ferguson's rollback, causing him to suffer bodily injuries and property damage.

         Procedural History

         Ferguson filed this diversity action on December 22, 2014, asserting two counts of negligence against defendants. Specifically, Ferguson alleged that Torres was negligent in failing to keep a proper lookout to avoid a collision, and that NFI was negligent by virtue of respondeat superior.

         The court denied Ferguson's motion for a partial summary judgment on the issue of defendants' liability on March 22, 2016. On March 30-31, 2016, a bifurcated jury trial was conducted on Ferguson's negligence claims against defendants. At the close of Ferguson's evidence and again before the case was submitted to the jury, defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law. The court denied defendants' motions, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ferguson, finding that Torres was negligent and that Ferguson was not contributorily negligent. After the jury returned its liability verdict, the parties presented evidence as to the amount of damages that should be awarded to Ferguson. The jury awarded Ferguson damages in the amount of $300, 000.00, including pre-judgment interest on the full amount at a rate of 6.25% from July 30, 2013.[1]

         The case is now before the court on defendants' renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, a new trial, as well as their motion to stay execution of the judgment while the court considers the post-trial motion. The court held a hearing on the motions on May 19, 2016. The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition.

         Discussion

         I. Defendants' Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Defendants have again moved for judgment as a matter of law on both Ferguson's negligence claim and their claim that Ferguson was contributorily negligent. Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a party to renew its motion for judgment as a matter of law following the jury's verdict. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). The court may grant such motion only if it finds that "a reasonable jury would not have had a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the [non-moving] party on [a particular] issue." Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). The court must view the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Lack v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 240 F.3d 255, 259 (4th Cir. 2001). It cannot substitute its judgment for that of the jury by reweighing the evidence or making credibility determinations. Price v. City of Charlotte, 93 F.3d 1241, 1250 (4th Cir. 1996). The court should "accord utmost respect to jury verdicts and tread gingerly in reviewing them." Id. Thus, when a jury has deliberated and returned a verdict in favor of the non-movant,

a court may set aside the verdict only if there exists such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's findings could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or the evidence in favor of the movant is so overwhelming that ...

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