“Cancellation Rule” Leads to Dismissal of Case

Where plaintiffs could not prove that a trucking company owned the tractor that caused an accident, and instead offered directly contradictory evidence on the issue, summary judgment for defendants was affirmed.

In Affainie v. Heartland Express Maintenance Services, Inc., No. M2019-01277-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April. 1, 2020), plaintiffs were the driver and passenger of a car involved in a hit-and-run car accident when a tractor-trailer truck allegedly crossed into plaintiffs’ lane. Plaintiffs filed suit against defendant Heartland Express, whom they alleged owned the truck in question, as well as defendant State Farm under their uninsured motorist insurance policy.

Defendant Heartland Express filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that plaintiffs “had no competent evidence to establish that it owned the tractor (the power unit of a tractor-trailer) that struck Plaintiffs’ car.” In support of its motion, defendant attached portions of both plaintiffs’ depositions wherein they testified that “they did not see any identifying information on the tractor.” They also attached a portion of Plaintiff Affainie’s testimony in which he stated that he saw Heartland Express on the rear of the trailer, but that he saw “no information” on the tractor. Defendant also relied on an affidavit from one of its risk management employees which stated that Heartland Express “regularly interchanged its trailers with other carriers,” and that multiple carriers could have been hauling a trailer bearing Heartland Express’s name such that seeing Heartland Express on the trailer did not mean that a Heartland Express tractor was pulling it.

In response to the motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs submitted an affidavit from plaintiff Affainie now stating that he saw Heartland Express on the door of the tractor. He also alleged that the truck that hit them drove towards Atlanta, and that Heartland Express “caused Heartland Express trailer #25471 to be taken to a facility in Atlanta, Georgia” four days after the accident for inspection.

Based on the evidence presented by both parties, the trial court ruled that there was no genuine issue of material fact and that plaintiffs could not show that defendant owned the tractor that caused the accident. The trial court granted summary judgment to both defendants, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Regarding plaintiff Affainie’s testimony, the Court noted that “contradictory statements of a witness in connection with the same fact have the result of cancelling each other out.” (internal citation omitted). Here, plaintiff’s deposition testimony that he did not see anything on the tractor and only saw Heartland Express on the trailer was directly contradictory to his affidavit stating that he saw Heartland Express on the door of the truck. Accordingly, the Court ruled that his “contradictory testimony could not create a genuine dispute as to whether Heartland Express owned the tractor.”

Plaintiffs argued that they also presented evidence that a trailer owned by Heartland Express was taken in for inspection in Atlanta shortly after the accident. The Court reasoned, however, that “while a reasonable trier of fact may infer that the trailer being serviced in Atlanta was part of the truck that collided with Plaintiffs, this fact alone does not lead to an inference that Heartland Express owned the tractor pulling the trailer at the time of the accident.” The Court also noted that the record allegedly showing the work on the trailer was not admitted into evidence.

Because plaintiffs did not create an issue of fact as to ownership of the tractor, summary judgment was affirmed.

The Court also affirmed summary judgment for the uninsured motorist insurance carrier. “[A] plaintiff who fails to establish legal liability against a defendant tortfeasor cannot impose liability upon her uninsured motorist carrier for the acts of the same tortfeasor,” so because “Plaintiffs’ claims against Heartland Express as the only tortfeasor in this matter [were] summarily dismissed, Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim against State Farm on which relief can be granted.” (internal citation omitted).

This case illustrates the difficulty you can face when your client gives damaging testimony in a deposition.  Attempting to correct deposition testimony by affidavit to avoid summary judgment is a problem.

NOTE: this opinion was released one month after oral argument.

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