Failure to Name Correct Defendant Fatal to Claim

Where plaintiff brought suit against a trucking company based on injuries he received while operating a forklift inside a trailer at the distribution center at which he was employed, summary judgment was appropriate where the defendant trucking company produced records showing that the truck plaintiff was injured in did not belong to it.

In Hashi v. Parkway Xpress, LLC, No. M2018-01469-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 23, 2019), plaintiff was a forklift operator employed by a distribution center. While plaintiff was operating a forklift inside the trailer of a tractor-trailer truck, the truck suddenly moved, causing plaintiff to fall to the ground. Plaintiff brought this suit for the injuries he sustained, naming as defendants the trucking company that he alleged owned the truck in question, the freight broker, and the unnamed truck driver.

The trial court granted summary judgment to both the trucking company and the freight broker, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Defendant trucking company “argued that summary judgment was appropriate because it was not the owner or operator of the tractor-trailer in which [plaintiff] was working when he was injured.” Defendant trucking company submitted an affidavit from its president stating that the driver in question was not their employee, and that the company’s truck was at the distribution center from 6:00 am to 7:08 am, while the injury occurred at 1:20 in the afternoon. The trucking company also submitted a bill of lading to support its alleged time-frame, as well as incident reports identifying the driver of the truck causing the injury. Based on this evidence the trial court granted summary judgment.

On appeal, plaintiff argued that the company president’s affidavit should not have been considered because the “statement that he has personal knowledge of the facts in the affidavit is mere boilerplate language” and because he was biased. The Court of Appeals rejected these arguments, finding that the president’s “personal knowledge of who [defendant] employed could be reasonably inferred based on his position as president of the company.” Further, the Court noted that credibility issues that might derail a summary judgment motion “must rise to a level higher than the normal credibility that arise whenever a witness testifies.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). Here, plaintiff “made only a generalized attack on [the president’s] credibility,” which was not enough to create an issue of fact. Because the trucking company presented evidence that they did not employ the driver or own the truck involved in the accident, summary judgment was affirmed.

Regarding summary judgment for defendant freight broker, the broker argued that it merely “arrange[d] for the transportation of freight at the request of customers needing such services,” and that it “did not employ, control, select or hire” the relevant driver. Defendant freight broker submitted an affidavit from its risk manager supporting these allegations. Plaintiff argued that the freight broker was liable because the trucking company was acting as an agent of the freight broker, but the Court noted that the party alleging an agency relationship has the burden of proving its existence. (internal citation omitted). Here, defendant broker offered evidence in the form of the affidavit that it had an independent contractor relationship with the trucking company, that it “did not control the means of [the trucking company’s] delivery to [the distribution center],” and that it “used reasonable care in contracting with [the trucking company] as a motor carrier.” Plaintiff offered no evidence in response to these assertions, instead only alleging a generalized credibility issue with the affiant. The Court again rejected the credibility challenge, and summary judgment was also affirmed as to the freight broker.

This case reminds plaintiffs of the importance of a sufficient investigation before filing suit and naming defendants. Plaintiff may have had a valid case against the proper parties, but the defendants named here were not responsible for the incident.

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