United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
E. JOHNSTON, CHIEF JUDGE
before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss
Plaintiff's Allegations of Punitive Damages and Reckless
Conduct Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 6.) For the
reasons discussed herein, the Court DENIES
the motion. (ECF No. 6.)
case arises out of a motor vehicle accident that occurred on
November 4, 2015, in Parkersburg, West Virginia, between
Plaintiff Edward Harris (“Harris”) and Defendant
Charles Smith (“Smith”). (See ECF No.
1-1 at 3-4, ¶¶ 9-11.) Harris alleges that he was
the front-seat passenger in a vehicle that was proceeding
through the intersection of Pike Street and the Interstate 77
exit ramp when a tractor-trailer driven by Smith drove
through a red light and struck the vehicle. (Id. at
4, ¶¶ 10-12.) Harris further alleges that Defendant
Transport Service, LLC (“Transport”), Defendant
The Kenan Advantage Group, Inc. (“KAG”), and/or
Defendant Valden Transport, Inc. (“Valden”) were
the authorized motor carriers for the load being hauled by
Smith and that Smith was acting within the scope of his
employment with the above Defendants at the time of the
accident. (See Id. ¶¶ 13-15.)
2, 2018, Harris filed the present action in the Circuit Court
of Wood County, West Virginia. (See Id. at 1.) In
his Complaint, Harris alleges
Negligence/Recklessness/Vicarious Liability against KAG,
Transport, and Valden (Count I) and Prima Facie Negligence
against Smith (Count II). (See ECF No. 1-1 at 2-5.)
Harris further requests punitive damages, “to the
extent that the conduct of any or all of the Defendants
warrant such damages.” (Id. at 6.)
subsequently removed the case to this Court on August 28,
2018, invoking the Court's diversity jurisdiction. (ECF
No. 1.) On August 29, 2018, Defendants filed the present
motion to dismiss Harris's allegations of punitive
damages and reckless conduct. (ECF No. 6.) Harris timely
responded to the motion, (ECF No. 8), and Defendants timely
replied. (ECF No. 9.) As such, the motion is fully briefed
and ripe for adjudication.
to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a), a complaint need
only contain “a short and plain statement of the claim
showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.”
See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007).
The rule requires the plaintiff to allege sufficient facts,
which, if proven, would entitle him to relief under a
cognizable legal claim. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly,
550 U.S. 544, 554-55 (2007). “Consequently, this Court
will only dismiss Plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages
if ‘it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can
prove no set of facts in support of [his] claim which would
entitle [him] to relief.'” Graham v. A.T.S.
Specialized, Inc., No. 5:06-cv-00243, 2007 WL 148999, at
*1 (S.D. W.Va. Jan. 17, 2007) (quoting Byrd v. Gate
Petroleum Co., 845 F.2d 86, 87 (4th Cir. 1988)).
motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint, and
the factual allegations must be taken as true and construed
in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Randall
v. United States, 30 F.3d 518, 522 (4th Cir. 1994).
“Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to
relief above the speculative level[, ]” and if a
plaintiff does not “nudge” his claim
“across the line from conceivable to plausible[,
]” then the complaint should be dismissed. Id.
at 555, 570. “Conclusory allegations in a complaint, if
they stand alone, are a danger sign that the plaintiff is
engaged in a fishing expedition.” Migdal v. Rowe
Price-Fleming Int'l Inc., 248 F.3d 321, 325 (4th
Cir. 2001) (citing DM Research v. Coll. of Am.
Pathologists, 170 F.3d 53, 55 (1st Cir. 1999)).
their motion to dismiss, Defendants argue that Harris has not
stated a plausible claim for recklessness and, thus, Harris
cannot state a plausible claim for punitive damages.
(See ECF No. 7 at 4.) Specifically, Defendants
assert that Harris's allegation that Smith
“recklessly drove his tractor-trailer through the red
traffic control signal” is a legal conclusion that is
not sufficient to support a claim for punitive damages.
(See Id. at 5.) Harris, however, argues that he has
alleged sufficient facts to state a plausible claim that
Smith acted recklessly and, thus, he has stated a plausible
claim for punitive damages. (See ECF No. 8 at 4-5.)
West Virginia law, punitive damages “may be awarded
‘in actions of tort, where gross fraud, malice,
oppression, or wanton, willful, or reckless conduct or
criminal indifference to civil obligations affecting the
rights of others appear.'” Lawson Heirs Inc. v.
Skyway Towers, LLC, No. 2:17-cv-2198, 2018 WL 3381411
(S.D. W.Va. July 11, 2018) (citing Syl. Pt. 4, Mayer v.
Frobe, 22 S.E. 58 ( W.Va. 1895)). Further, in defining
willful, wanton, and reckless conduct, the Supreme Court of
Appeals of West Virginia has stated that such conduct occurs
when “the actor has intentionally done an act of an
unreasonable character in disregard of a risk known to him or
so obvious that he must be taken to be aware of it, and so
great as to make it highly probable that harm would
follow.” Holsten v. Massey, 490 S.E.2d 864,
877 ( W.Va.1997).
Harris has demonstrated a sufficient factual basis for a
claim for recklessness. In his Complaint, Harris alleges that
Smith acted recklessly when Smith ran a red light while
operating a tractor-trailer, which resulted in Smith striking
the vehicle Harris was in. (See ECF No. 1-1 at 4,
¶¶ 10-12.) Were the Court to strike the word
recklessly as a legal conclusion, the Court would still be
left with the allegation that Smith drove through an
intersection in a tractor-trailer in spite of a red traffic
signal. Surely, this is an obvious risk with a high
probability of causing harm. See Holsten, 490 S.E.2d
at 877. Thus, contrary to Defendants' assertions, Harris
has done more than simply state a legal conclusion. Harris
has provided sufficient facts to support a claim for
recklessness and, thus, punitive damages. See
Graham, 2007 WL 148999, at *2 (finding that, under West
Virginia law, the plaintiff's complaint sufficiently
alleged punitive damages where the risk alleged was one that
made it highly probable harm would occur).
this District and its sister district have found a claim for
recklessness, and thus punitive damages, was sufficiently
pled where, similar to here, the plaintiff alleged facts that
the defendant tractor-trailer driver acted in a way that
violated traffic rules and subsequently caused an accident.
See, e.g., Shulin v. Werner Enters., Inc.,
No. 1:15-cv-95, 2015 WL 4730064, at *4 (N.D. W.Va. Aug. 10,
2015) (finding that the plaintiff sufficiently stated a
plausible claim for punitive damages where the plaintiff
alleged that the defendant tractor-trailer driver, who was
using a cellular device, saw a vehicle stopped on the
shoulder of the interstate but, nonetheless, took his
attention off the road and hit two people standing outside
the parked car and then swerved into another lane);
Hartung v. Yelverton, No. 2:13-cv-4178, 2013 WL
2484517, at *3 (S.D. W.Va. June 10, 2013) (finding that the
plaintiff's allegation that the defendant tractor-trailer
driver drove on a major interstate with a ...