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Benedict v. Hankook Tire Company Ltd.

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

February 6, 2018

ROBERT BENEDICT, Plaintiff,
v.
HANKOOK TIRE COMPANY LIMITED, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROBERT E. PAYNE, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Robert Benedict's MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (ECF No. 52) . The motion was granted by ORDER (ECF No. 221) dated November 27, 2017. This Memorandum Opinion sets out the reasoning for having done so.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In this products liability action, Robert Benedict sues Hankook Tire Company Limited ("HTCL") and Hankook Tire America Corporation ("HTAC") for the production and distribution of an allegedly defective tire. Benedict seeks summary judgment as to Defendants' affirmative defense of contributory negligence.

         A. Undisputed Relevant Facts

         On the morning of November 14, 2014, Benedict set out on his route delivering cement for his employer, Essex Concrete ("Essex"), in a fully-loaded cement mixer truck. Benedict was authorized to operate the truck because he maintained a valid Commercial Driver's License ("CDL").

         While driving in the right-hand lane along Highway 288 in Colonial Heights, VA on his way to the first delivery of the day, Benedict heard a loud "boom." The tread on the front right tire (the "subject tire") separated (the "tread separation"), resulting in a sudden loss of all air pressure. Benedict was caught completely off guard by this event and, indeed, was uncertain as to whether a tire failure had occurred. He had not noticed any items of concern during his pre-trip inspection of the subject tire. And, although he had experienced five to seven tire disablements in the past, all had involved rear tandem tires and none had resulted in a loud noise.

         At some point after Benedict perceived the boom, his truck veered to the right and struck an embankment on the side of the road. The truck then rolled once and came to rest upright. Benedict estimates that the total time between the boom and the collision with the embankment was "at most, 2-3 seconds." Before the tire failure, Benedict was driving normally and at a lawful speed. The incident was investigated by a Virginia State Trooper, who concluded that Benedict took no improper action in response to the disablement.

         At the time of the accident, the 2014 Virginia Commercial Driver's License Manual (the "CDL Manual"), published by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, was in effect. It apprises commercial drivers of "important information that [they] must know to operate [their] vehicle[s] in a safe and professional manner." Pl's Br. Ex. I Introduction. It advises drivers facing a tire failure to:

Hold the steering wheel firmly. If a front tire fails, it can twist the steering wheel out of your hand. Keep a firm grip on the steering wheel with both hands at all times.
Stay off the brakes. Braking when a tire has failed could cause you to lose control. Unless you are about to run into something, stay off the brake until the vehicle has slowed down. Then, brake gently and pull off the road.
Check the tires. Even if the vehicle seems to be handling normally. Many times you won't know that a dual tire is flat unless you look at it.

Pl.'s Br. Ex. I 34.

         The subject tire was a Hankook Aurora TH08 Radial 425/65 R22.5 manufactured by HTCL in South Korea in 2005 and distributed by HTAC.

         Two cuts extending to the belts have been found on the subject tire. Federal regulations require removing tires from service if they suffer cuts of a specified level of severity.

         B. Procedural History

         Benedict initially asserted three claims: (1) products liability negligence (including manufacturing defect, design defect, and failure to warn); (2) breach of the implied warranty of merchantability; and (3) breach of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. First Am. Compl. 5-11. He is now pursuing only the negligent manufacturing and implied warranty of merchantability claims. Nov. 20, 2017 Hr'g Tr. 4.

         Defendants raised several affirmative defenses in response, including contributory negligence. HTCL's Answer to First Am. Compl. 9; HTAC's Answer to First Am. Compl. 9.

         Both sides then moved for summary judgment. Benedict sought partial summary judgment to bar Defendants' contributory negligence defense. Defendants sought summary judgment as to Benedict's active claims. Related to their motion, Defendants also moved the Court to exclude the testimony of Benedict's tire expert, David Southwell. The Court ruled on these three motions during a hearing held on November 20, 2017, Nov. 20, 2017 Hr'g Tr. 152, and issued an ORDER (ECF No. 221) on November 27, 2017 formalizing its decision. This Opinion is thus one of three detailing the Court's reasoning in this matter. (ECF Nos. 341-43).

         II. GOVERNING LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Summary Judgment

         Motions for summary judgment are governed by the following well-established principles:

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) instructs that a court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine issue of material fact exists under Rule 56 "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).
When evaluating a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56, any disputed "facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). In general, the "party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion" and "demonstrating] the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. " Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

United States v. Woody, 220 F.Supp.3d 682, 685-86 (E.D. Va. 2016). "Once the moving party properly files and supports its motion for summary judgment, the opposing party must show that a genuine issue of fact exists." Milbourne v. JRK Residential Am., LLC, 92 F.Supp.3d 425, 427 (E.D. Va. 2015).

         B. Contributory Negligence

         Virginia is a contributory negligence jurisdiction, and, therefore, a plaintiff's own negligence may be "a complete bar to an action based on negligence." See Jones v. Meat Packers Equip. Co., 723 F.2d 370, 373 (4th Cir. 1983).[1] Contributory negligence is thus available as an affirmative defense if "the plaintiff failed to act as a reasonable person would have acted for his own safety under the circumstances." Jenkins v. Pyles, 611 S.E.2d 404, 407 (Va. 2005). To prevail, the defense must establish "the independent elements of negligence and proximate causation." See Rascher v. Friend, 689 S.E.2d 661, 664-65 (Va. 2010).

         The standards governing the negligence prong of this framework are familiar. A party must "show the existence of a legal duty" and "a breach of the duty." See Atrium Unit Owners Ass'n v. King, 585 S.E.2d 545, 548 (Va. 2003) . Compliance with a legal duty is measured against the relevant "standard of care, " which can be "established by the common law or by statute, " among other things. See Ex ...


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