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Holcombe v. Helena Chemical Co.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

February 23, 2017

Jody Holcombe, Plaintiff,
Helena Chemical Co., Defendant.


          PATRICK MICHAEL DUFFY United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Helena Chemical Co.'s motion for partial[1]summary judgment (ECF No. 42). At this time, the Court also addresses Plaintiff Jody Holcombe's motion to determine the sufficiency of Helena Chemical's objection to one of his requests for admission (ECF No. 33). For the reasons stated herein, the Court grants in part and denies in part Helena Chemical's motion for partial summary judgment, and it denies Holcombe's sufficiency motion.


         This negligence action arises out of a 2012 collision between a tractor-trailer driven by Holcombe and another driven by Helena Chemical employee Michael Rogers. The collision occurred on Long Point Road, a four-lane road in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Rogers was making a delivery to a landscaping store that, as he headed westward in the left-hand lane, was located off the road to his right. Thus, to make the delivery, Rogers needed to make a right-hand turn. Rather than move into the right lane to begin the right-hand turn, Rogers steered his rig left onto the paved median and then turned back sharply to the right across both westward lanes of Long Point Road. As Rogers crossed into the westward right-hand lane, he collided with Holcombe, who had been driving in that lane a short distance behind Rogers. Holcombe alleges he has sustained substantial injuries from the collision.

         The turn Rogers made is known as the jug-handle maneuver. Materials in the record indicate that the maneuver is unsafe and that tractor-trailer drivers should instead make right-hand turns from the right lane, using what is called the button-hook maneuver. Rogers has said he learned the jug-handle maneuver during his on-the-job training with Helena Chemical. According to Rogers, another Helena Chemical driver taught him to perform the maneuver on Long Point Road and did so for the specific purpose of showing Rogers how to make deliveries to the landscaping store.

         Holcombe has sued Helena Chemical for his personal injuries. He asserts a variety of negligence theories, including that Helena Chemical failed to enact rules and policies to properly investigate truck driver applicants; failed to enact rules and policies regarding the hiring, training, and supervision of drivers; and negligently hired, trained, and supervised Rogers. Helena Chemical denies all of Holcombe's negligence allegations and asserts he is at fault for the collision.


         Helena Chemical seeks summary judgment on several specific portions of Holcombe's negligence cause of action. As explained below, the Court is dismissing Holcombe's negligent hiring theory, but others survive Helena Chemical's motion. As the Court also explains, the dismissal of that one theory affects the disposition of Holcombe's sufficiency motion.

         I. Helena Chemical's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

         Holcombe's sole cause of action is one for negligence. His complaint divides that claim into seventeen subparts, in which he asserts theories of respondeat superior liability for Rogers' conduct as well as the direct-liability theories of negligent hiring, supervision, and training. Helena Chemical seeks summary judgment on those direct-liability theories and on several of the respondeat superior theories.

         Summary judgment is an important mechanism for weeding out “claims and defenses [that] have no factual basis.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986). To grant a motion for summary judgment, a court must find that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The judge may not weigh the evidence but rather must determine if there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). All evidence should be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Perini Corp. v. Perini Constr., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 124 (4th Cir. 1990). “[I]t is ultimately the nonmovant's burden to persuade [the court] that there is indeed a dispute of material fact. It must provide more than a scintilla of evidence-and not merely conclusory allegations or speculation-upon which a jury could properly find in its favor.” CoreTel Va., LLC v. Verizon Va., LLC, 752 F.3d 364, 370 (4th Cir. 2014) (citations omitted). “[W]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, disposition by summary judgment is appropriate.” Teamsters Joint Council No. 83 v. Centra, Inc., 947 F.2d 115, 119 (4th Cir. 1991).

         A. Negligent Hiring

         Helena Chemical first seeks summary judgment on Holcombe's claim that it negligently hired Rogers. “[W]here an employer knew or should have known that its employment of a specific person created an undue risk of harm to the public, a plaintiff may claim that the employer was itself negligent in hiring . . . the employee.” James v. Kelly Trucking Co., 661 S.E.2d 329, 330 (S.C. 2008).[2] “Negligent hiring cases ‘generally turn on two fundamental elements-knowledge of the employer and foreseeability of harm to third parties.'” Kase v. Ebert, 707 S.E.2d 456, 459 (S.C. Ct. App. 2011) (quoting Doe v. ATC, Inc., 624 S.E.2d 447, 450 (S.C. Ct. App. 2005)); see also Williams v. Preiss-Wal Pat III, LLC, 17 F.Supp.3d 528, 538 (D.S.C. 2014) (“The issue of an employer's knowledge concerns the employer's awareness that the employment of a specific individual created a risk of harm to the public.” (citing Kase, 707 S.E.2d at 459)). In Doe, the South Carolina Court of Appeals explained that these two elements

are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as a fact bearing on one element may also impact resolution of the other element. From a practical standpoint, these elements are analyzed in terms of the number and nature of prior acts of wrongdoing by the employee, and the nexus or similarity between the prior acts and the ultimate harm caused. Such factual considerations-especially questions related to proximate cause inherent in the concept of foreseeability-will ordinarily be determined by the factfinder, and not as a matter of law. Nevertheless, the court should dispose of the matter on a dispositive motion when no reasonable factfinder could find the risk foreseeable or the employer's conduct to have fallen below the acceptable standard.

624 S.E.2d at 450 (citations omitted).

         The record before the Court lacks information about Rogers' pre-hiring driving history. It reveals only that one of Rogers' prior jobs involved driving pick-up trucks in rural settings and that he may have lacked prior experience driving tractor-trailers in high-traffic areas. The record contains no evidence of any pre-hiring acts of wrongdoing by Rogers, let alone acts that might be similar to the incident here. That scant evidence of Rogers' past is not sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to conclude that Helena Chemical should have foreseen the risk Rogers posed.

         Holcombe maintains Helena Chemical was negligent in hiring someone who lacked the training and experience needed to safely operate a tractor-trailer. As part of that theory, Holcombe faults Helena Chemical for not adequately investigating Rogers' driving experience and qualifications before it hired him. Holcombe has provided some evidence that Helena Chemical failed to thoroughly vet Rogers and that, in so failing, it may have violated its own hiring policies and at least one federal regulation relating to the hiring of tractor-trailer drivers. However, nothing in the record shows how that failure proximately caused Holcombe's injuries. See Peterson v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 618 S.E.2d 903, 908 (S.C. 2005) (affirming summary judgment for defendants due to lack of evidence that defendants' failure to comply with their internal safety policies caused plaintiffs' injuries); Seals ex rel. Causey v. Winburn, 445 S.E.2d 94, 96 (S.C. Ct. App. 1994) (per curiam) (“The violation of a statute, while negligence per se, will not support a recovery for damages unless such violation proximately caused or contributed to the injury complained of.”). Rather, as Holcombe has stressed throughout this case, a Helena Chemical driver taught Rogers the jug-handle maneuver-the act that Holcombe asserts directly caused his injuries-as part of his post-hire training. Helena Chemical cannot be liable for negligent hiring based on something it taught Rogers after it hired him.

         Because Holcombe has not provided evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to find Helena Chemical liable for negligent hiring, the Court grants ...

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