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Boyle v. RJW Transport

June 20, 2008

MICHAEL BOYLE, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS INDEPENDENT EXECUTOR OF THE ESTATE OF MARY MICHELLE BOYLE, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF KATIE BOYLE, DECEASED, AND AS FATHER AND NEXT FRIEND OF SHANNON BOYLE, A MINOR, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
RJW TRANSPORT, INC., SKF USA, INC., AND LESLIE D. BROCKETT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Matthew F. Kennelly, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Defendant SKF USA, Inc., whose shipment defendant Leslie Brockett was hauling when his tractor-trailer struck plaintiffs' vehicle in a 2004 freeway accident, has moved for summary judgment on plaintiffs' claims of vicarious liability and to strike the proffered report of plaintiff's expert. Plaintiffs argue that SKF's business arrangement with RJW Transport, Inc., the trucking firm for which Brockett was an authorized driver, was such that RJW and Brockett were agents for whose torts SKF may be held liable. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants SKF's motions.

Background

This case stems from a vehicle collision that occurred on Interstate 70 in Effingham County, Illinois on July 2, 2004. A tractor-trailer driver by defendant Leslie Brockett, an authorized driver for defendant RJW Transport, struck the rear of a minivan driven by plaintiff Michael Boyle in which his wife and two daughters were passengers. Boyle and his daughter Shannon were injured but survived the accident. Boyle's wife and their daughter Katie did not. Boyle, both individually and on behalf of his late wife and daughter and surviving daughter, has asserted a variety of tort claims against Brockett, RJW, and SKF USA, Inc., whose shipment of rubber seals was part of the load Brockett was carrying when he struck the Boyle family vehicle. The Court has jurisdiction over this suit under 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

RJW admitted early in this litigation that Brockett was its agent. In February of this year, after the close of fact discovery, Brockett and RJW filed an amended answer in which they admit that Brockett's negligence caused the accident.

By contrast, SKF has resisted Boyle's characterization of its relationship with RJW (and thus with Brockett) as that of a principal and an agent such that SKF is vicariously liable for the conduct of RJW and Brockett. SKF has now moved for summary judgment on the ground that no principal-agent relationship existed between it and RJW.

Because the contours of SKF's business relationship with RJW bear directly on the issue raised by this motion for summary judgment, the Court begins by sketching certain salient details of that relationship.

At the time of the accident, SKF and RJW's dealings were governed by a contract titled "Transportation Agreement." Def. Statement of Facts, Ex. H. The agreement required RJW to "dedicate equipment, [an] on-site manager and drivers" specifically to SKF, id. ¶ 6.1.2, which made the agreement what is known in the trucking industry as a dedicated carriage contract. Under the agreement, RJW "acknowledge[d] that [SKF's] strategic goal is [RJW] provides 100 percent on-time service." Id. ¶ 6. The agreement required RJW to submit to SKF monthly reports on the transit time of shipments it handled for SKF and on any late shipments; in relation to the latter, RJW agreed to "take corrective action as needed to assure adequate performance." Id. ¶ 6.1.1. Another provision called for quarterly assessments that covered, among other things, RJW's "profitability for transporting [SKF's] products," ways RJW might cut costs (notably fuel costs), and ways SKF and RJW could communicate better. Id. ¶ 6.1.3.

The agreement also stated that RJW's status was that of an independent contractor, saying this status "shall govern the relationships between the parties hereto [i.e., SKF and RJW] and third parties." Id. ¶ 12.1. It further provided that RJW "shall have exclusive control and direction of any person operating the tractors or otherwise engaged in providing transaction or logistics services" to SKF. Id. ¶ 12.2.

An appendix to the agreement contains lists of "metrics"-which appear to the Court to be somewhat detailed conditions-the parties agreed would be met at the start of the contract period and continuously thereafter. These "metrics" include the following items: "All personnel, (local and road drivers and on site project manager), hired, trained and processed through the [SKF] orientation program prior to" the start date of contract period; "All PC Hardware, Networking and Telecommunications equipment needs . . . are to be secured and operational prior to the start-up date"; "Operational plans to be 100% on time without delay"; "Establish monthly 'Steering Committee Meetings.'" Id., Appx. C.

A separate appendix to the agreement set out a series of "assumptions" underlying the precise shipping charges contemplated by the agreement. One of these "assumptions" concerns the RJW manager who was required to work from SKF's Elgin, Illinois facility-a job filled by Richard Jarvis. The text reads in relevant part as follows:

The Project manager is to report to [an SKF-]provided office by 7:30 AM central time. The individual will be responsible for but not limited too, [sic] the daily fleet operation and related activities. . . . Supervisor will interact between suppliers and customers making appointment pick-ups and deliveries as required, communicate between outside suppliers . . . directing those suppliers to provide services as required and act in a transportation supervisory capacity reporting to [RJW] as well as [SKF] management.

Id., Appx. D.

As noted, the thrust of Boyle's claim against SKF is that the Transportation Agreement made RJW SKF's agent, which in turn would justify the imposition of vicarious liability for Brockett's admittedly negligent conduct.

Discussion

Summary judgment is appropriate if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). For purposes of the motion, the Court reads the evidentiary record in the light most favorable to the non-movant and draws all reasonable inferences in the non-movant's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Lesch v. Crown Cork & Seal Co., 282 F.3d 467, 471 (7th Cir. 2002).

I. Admissibility of Plaintiffs' Expert Williams's Report

The Court will address first SKF's challenge, under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, to the admissibility of a report written by plaintiffs' expert, Michael J. Williams. Williams's proffered report is part of the materials on which plaintiffs rely in their opposition to summary judgment. Although Williams likely would also give live testimony at trial were this case to reach that stage, the immediate aim of SKF's motion is to keep his report out of the record on summary judgment on the ground that is inadmissible. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(1) ("[a] supporting or opposing affidavit must . . . set out facts that would be admissible in evidence").

Williams, who works as a truck driver and a litigation expert in trucking-safety cases, opines in his proffered report that the SKF-RJW agreement "made them equal partners in the operation of a dedicated fleet . . . and made the carrier a direct agent of the shipper through specific tasks not normally required of a dedicated motor carrier." Def. Mot. to Exclude, Ex. A at 4. He further opines that the same agreement made Brockett SKF's agent.

The primary-and dispositive-problem with Williams's proffered report is that it offers a legal conclusion that would determine the outcome of the case with regard to SKF, something expert testimony may not do. See Good Shepherd Manor Found. v. City of Momence, 323 F.3d 557, 564 (7th Cir. 2003) (citing United States v. Sinclair, 74 F.3d 753, 757 n.1 (7th Cir. 1996)); RJCLS Enters., Inc. v. Prof'l Benefit Trust Multiple Employer Welfare Benefit Plan & Trust, 487 F.3d 494, 498 (7th Cir. 2007) (citing Bammerlin v. Navistar Int'l Transp. Corp., 30 F.3d 898, 901 (7th Cir. 1994)) ("expert" opinion that offers legal conclusions that belong in a legal brief is subject to exclusion). Williams's conclusion that RJW was SKF's "direct agent" and that Brockett, whom the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations made RJW's employee, was thus also SKF's agent, is precisely the legal theory on which Boyle's claim against SKF hinges. Its admission as expert testimony would contravene Rule 702. See Reginald Martin Agency, Inc. v. Conseco Med. Ins. Co., No. 04-C-1587, 2007 WL 831613, at *3 (S.D. Ind. Mar. 5, 2007) (excluding proffered report in which defense expert opined that parties' relationship "was strictly that of an independent contractor" because this opinion "[went] to the heart of Plaintiffs' breach of fiduciary duty and constructive fraud claims" in violation of Rule 702).

In response to SKF's motion to exclude Williams's proffered report, Boyle argues that Williams's use of the legal terms "agent" and "partnership" (an arrangement that also implicates agency principles, see Gilpin v. Lev, 70 Ill. App. 2d 66, 75, 217 N.E.2d 477, 481 (1966)) was "merely coincidental" and that Williams did not understand the legal import of these terms in relation to vicarious liability, a concept Williams also purportedly does not understand. Pl. Resp. to Mot. to Exclude at 7. Boyle also contends that, in any event, Williams did not intend to opine about SKF's liability.

The record shows otherwise. Williams initially testified in his deposition that he did not understand the term "vicarious liability," but then immediately indicated he did when SKF's counsel related this ...


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