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MCI Communications Services, Inc. v. MasTec North America, Inc.

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

May 24, 2017

MCI Communications Services, Inc., Plaintiff,
v.
MasTec North America, Inc., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORMAN K. MOON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         An excavator severed a telecommunications company's cable. The telecommunications company sued for trespass and negligence based on diversity-of-citizenship jurisdiction. The excavator has moved to dismiss parts of the Complaint. It argues: (1) the trespass claim should be dismissed; (2) the negligence claim cannot be based on the excavator's allegedly negligent training or supervision of employees; (3) attorneys' fees are not recoverable, and; (4) punitive damages are unavailable. The second and third arguments have merit; the first and fourth do not. Accordingly, the motion to dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part.

         THE ALLEGED FACTS

         Plaintiff MCI Communications Services, Inc. (MCI) is a national telecommunications company that uses underground fiber-optic cable to provide services. (Complaint ¶ 6). MCI has an agreement with the Commonwealth of Virginia giving MCI “the right to construct, operate, maintain and reinstall a fiber-optic cable system in the right-of-way of certain railroads of” the Virginia Department of Transportation. (Id. ¶ 7). Under that agreement, MCI installed such a cable in a right-of-way near Lovingston, Virginia. (Id.).

         On July 12, 2012, defendant MasTec North America, Inc. (Mastec) used excavation equipment near Lovingston. (Complaint ¶ 9). During the operation, “MasTec severed MCI's fiber-optic cable, ” which “was buried completely within VDOT's property pursuant to MCI's agreement with VDOT.” (Id. ¶ 10). The severed cable interfered with MCI's possessory rights and, obviously, caused the loss of use of the cable. (Id. ¶ 11). MCI alleges that MasTec's negligent acts or conduct included, inter alia, failing to train its employees on the relevant regulatory and safety standards, and failing to supervise its employees to ensure they comply with those standards. (Id. ¶¶ 15G-H).

         MCI alleges that “MasTec's actions were intentional, grossly negligent and/or reckless, and exhibited a wanton disregard of MCI's rights and a conscious indifference to the consequences.” (Id. ¶ 17).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When evaluating a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the Court must accept as true all well-pled allegations. See Vitol, S.A. v. Primerose Shipping Co., 708 F.3d 527, 539 (4th Cir. 2013); see also Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). “While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Stated differently, in order to survive a motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). The Court disregards the Complaint's legal conclusions and arguments. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 578-79.

         ANALYSIS

         I. The Trespass Claim

         A. Chattels

         MasTec contends the Complaint cannot support a trespass to chattels claim, arguing only briefly that the claim fails because MasTec did not act intentionally. (Dkt. 8 at 3). In MasTec's view, the requisite intent is that MasTec dug with the intent of severing MCI's cable, rather than that MasTec intentionally dug but just so happened to sever the cable. (See id.). In support of its argument, MasTec cites only American Online, Inc. v. IMS, 24 F.Supp.2d 548 (E.D. Va. 1998). Although IMS states that “trespass to chattels occurs when one party intentionally uses or intermeddles with personal property in rightful possession of another without authorization, ” it cited the Restatement of Torts rather than Virginia law, which is binding in this diversity case. Id. at 550.

         Virginia state courts have held that the unpermitted use of personal property is sufficient to establish a trespass to chattels, for which the offender “is liable to its rightful possessor for actual damages suffered by reason of loss of its use.” Vines v. Branch, 244 Va. 185, 190 (Va. 1992); see DPR Inc. of Virginia v. Dinsmore, 82 Va. Cir. 451 (Fairfax Cty. Cir. Ct. 2011) (observing that when “the personal property of another is used without authorization, but the conversion is not complete, ” there is trespass to chattels). All that is needed is an “unauthorized invasion of one's interest in personal property.” Level 3 Comm''ns, LLC v. William T. Cantrell, Inc., No. 3:12CV081-HEH, 2012 WL 1580468, at *2 (E.D. Va. May 4, 2012); see also id. at *3 (finding that, even under an intentionality standard, severance of underground cable causing damages suffices for trespass claim). Here, it is alleged that MasTec severed MCI's cable without MCI's permission, and that such action impaired MCI's use of the cable. MCI has thus stated a claim for trespass to chattels, and MasTec's motion thus fails in this regard.[1]

         B. ...


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