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Aidoo v. Cela

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 7, 2018

LINDA AIDOO, et al. Plaintiffs,
v.
ERALD CELA, et al. Defendants.

          RULING AND ORDER ON PENDING MOTIONS

          VICTOR A. BOLDEN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This case arises from a nighttime vehicle accident on Interstate 95 (“I-95”). Am Compl., ECF No. 17, ¶¶ 1, 4, 21; Pls. Local Rule 56(a)(2) Stmt. Mat. Facts (“Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts”), ECF No. 87, ¶¶ 1, 3; Defs. Local Rule 56(a)(1) Stmt. Mat. Facts (“Defs. 56(a)(1) Facts”), ECF No. 75, ¶¶ 1-3. Pennsylvania resident Erald Cela (“Defendant-driver”) allegedly drove a truck owned by Carlisle Carrier Corporation (“Defendant-owner”), [1] a Pennsylvania corporation, into Linda Aidoo's (“Plaintiff-driver”) allegedly stopped and disabled Toyota Corolla (“Toyota” or “Corolla”). Am. Compl. Linda's sister, Nana Aidoo, allegedly was a passenger (“Plaintiff-passenger”) in the car. Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts ¶¶ 1, 3.

         Six motions are now pending: (1) Defendants' motion for summary judgment, Defs. Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 74; (2) Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment on Defendants' counterclaim of intentional spoliation, Pls. Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 80; (3) Defendants' motion for sanctions for Plaintiffs' alleged spoliation of evidence, Defs. Mot. for Sanctions, ECF No. 60; (4) Plaintiffs' motion to preclude certain opinions of Steven Rickard and request for a Daubert hearing. Mot. in Limine to Preclude Certain Opinions of Steven W. Rickard and Request for Daubert Hearing, ECF No. 90; (5) Defendants' motion to preclude the report and testimony of rebuttal expert Kristopher Seluga. Defs. Mot. in Limine to Preclude Rebuttal Expert Report and Test. of Kristopher Seluga, ECF No. 65; and (6) Defendants' motion to preclude the expert testimony of John Myer, Defs. Mot. in Limine to Preclude Purported Expert Test. of Trooper John Myer, ECF No. 69.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Defendants' motion for summary judgment, Defs. Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 74, and DENIES as moot Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment on Defendants' counterclaim of intentional spoliation, Answer, ECF No. 16.

         The Court also DENIES Defendants' motion for sanctions for Plaintiffs' alleged spoliation of evidence, Defs. Mot. for Sanctions, ECF No. 60.

         Finally, with respect to the various motions to preclude expert testimony, the Court DENIES without prejudice to renewal before or at trial Plaintiff's motion to preclude certain opinions of Steven Rickard and DENIES Plaintiffs' request for a Daubert hearing, Mot. in Limine to Preclude Certain Opinions of Steven W. Rickard and Request for Daubert Hearing, ECF No. 90, DENIES without prejudice to renewal before or at trial Defendants' motion to preclude the report and testimony of Kristopher Seluga, Defs. Mot. in Limine to Preclude Rebuttal Expert Report and Test. of Kristopher Seluga, ECF No. 65, and DENIES without prejudice to renewal before or at trial Defendants' motion to preclude the expert testimony of John Myer, Defs. Mot. in Limine to Preclude Purported Expert Test. of Trooper John Myer, ECF No. 69.

         This case is now scheduled for trial; jury selection will be conducted on March 25, 2019, with trial to begin on March 26, 2019.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[2]

         A. Factual Allegations

         1. The Car Accident

         On August 18, 2015, at roughly 3:00 a.m., Linda Aidoo and Nana Aidoo were allegedly stuck in traffic on I-95 southbound near Stratford, Connecticut. Am Compl. ¶¶ 1, 4, 21; Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts ¶¶ 1, 3; Defs. 56(a)(1) Facts ¶¶ 1-3. Linda Aidoo's Toyota was allegedly at a complete stop for about five minutes. Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 4 [Dep. of Nana Aidoo (June 16, 2017)] at 26-27.

         When traffic started to move again, the car allegedly would not. Id. at 27. Nana Aidoo recalls asking her sister if the car was in drive, and Linda Aidoo allegedly assured her that it was. Id. Nana Aidoo allegedly suggested that Linda Aidoo “put [the car] in neutral to see if it . . . will accelerate, but it didn't.” Id. She allegedly put the car in park and then in drive again; the car allegedly just rolled backward. Id. As Nana Aidoo remembers, the engine was running and the interior lights were working, but the car would not move forward. Id. at 27-28. Nana Aidoo recalls telling Linda Aidoo “to put the hazard lights on.” Id. at 28.

         At some point, a fellow motorist allegedly called 911 to report “a car double parked . . . in the middle . . . on I-95 South” with “its hazards on.” Id.; Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts ¶ 4, 7; Ex. 1 [Audio recording of third-party 911 caller.]. Nana Aidoo also called 911, twice. Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 2, ECF No. 87-2.

         Nana Aidoo allegedly first called 911 to report being “stuck in the middle of the road.” Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 2, ECF No. 87-2; Pls. Memo. in Opp. to Defs. Mot. for Summ. J. at 2. The 911 operator allegedly advised Plaintiffs to move the car to the shoulder, but Nana Aidoo allegedly said “we cannot move the car because every time we move it, we are backing up [.]” Id. Nana Aidoo finished that call, and later allegedly called 911 a second time to ask if someone was coming to help. Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 2; Ex. 3 [Dep. of Linda Aidoo (June 16, 2017)] at 70.

         After her second 911 call, Nana Aidoo allegedly called the Aidoo sisters' parents. Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 4 [Dep. of Nana Aidoo] at 21. Nana Aidoo recalls her father suggesting that they try to shift right or left; Nana Aidoo allegedly told him “we can't do that because the car is not moving forward or to the left or right [.]” Id. at 22. At 3:08 a.m., while Nana Aidoo allegedly was still on the phone with her father, Erald Cela allegedly drove a truck owned by Carlise into the back of the Toyota. Id. at 21; Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts ¶ 1. Nana Aidoo said that she did not see Mr. Cela's approaching vehicle or realize that a collision was imminent. Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 4 [Dep. of Nana Aidoo] at 32-33. Following the collision, Nana Aidoo allegedly unbuckled her seatbelt and got out of the car. Id. at 33.

         Linda Aidoo does not remember the period after the collision. Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 3 [Dep. of Linda Aidoo] at 77. She remembers Nana Aidoo speaking with their father before the collision and then waking up in the intensive care unit. Id. The state trooper who responded to the crash, John Myer, recorded that both Linda and Nana Aidoo “complained of chest pain and were transported to Bridgeport Hospital.” Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 7 at 2 [Connecticut Uniform Police Crash Report (Aug. 18, 2015) (duplicated at Pls. Obj. to Defs. Mot. in Limine Regarding Test. of Trooper John Myer, ECF No. 85, Ex. A, ECF No. 85-1)]. Linda Aidoo does not remember speaking to Trooper Myer at the scene of the accident. Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 3 [Dep. of Linda Aidoo] at 78.

         In his police report, Trooper Myer noted that the weather was clear and dry, and that the road was straight and dark but lighted. Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 7 at 1, 3. He further noted that the collision happened near an entrance/exit ramp and that a “work zone” or “power train” issue with the Aidoo car could have been contributing circumstances. Id. at 1, 3. Trooper Myer reported “no indications of braking . . . in the roadway.” Id. at 10.

         Mr. Cela told Trooper Myer that he never saw the car before hitting it. Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 5 [Dep. of Erald Cela (Jan. 29, 2018)] at 55, Ex. 7 at 2. Later, Mr. Cela struggled to remember whether he saw the vehicle in the moments before the collision or not. Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 5 [Dep. of Erald Cela] at 51-55 (Q: “Is it true that you never saw [the Toyota] before you hit it with your truck? A: Yes . . . . I saw that car in the last moments [.] Is it true that you told the policeman that you never saw [the Toyota] before you hit it? A: Yeah, it's true [.] Q: So you saw - is it fair to say that you saw my client's vehicle just a second or two before you hit it? Is that fair? A: I don't know. I don't know. I don't - I don't remember that moment.”). Mr. Cela also told Trooper Myer that the Toyota had “no lights on.” Id. at 57. Mr. Cela later suggested that he could not remember whether the lights or flashers were on. Id. Trooper Myer reported Mr. Cela's condition at the crash scene as “apparently normal” (i.e., as opposed to physically impaired, emotional, ill, asleep or fatigued, or under the influence). Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 7 at 1, 7.

         Trooper Myer reported that Linda Aidoo's Toyota sustained “disabling damage.” Id. at 3; see also Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 9 [Photos of Linda Aidoo's vehicle following the accident, taken by Anthony Aidoo (father) on Aug. 26, 2015.]. Following the accident, emergency medical staff took Linda and Nana Aidoo to the hospital. Id. at 8-9. As a result of the accident, Linda and Nana Aidoo allege a host of physical injuries, medical costs, and future harms. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 14-17, 34-37; Linda Aidoo also claims lost income. Am. Compl. ¶ 18. They both seek monetary damages under theories of negligence and vicarious liability. Am. Compl.

         Defendants also seek monetary relief and assert the affirmative defenses of sudden emergency and comparative negligence. Answer.

         2. Alleged Spoliation of Evidence

         Defendants initially alleged counterclaims for spoliation of evidence. Answer pp. 9-13. Defendants seek sanctions against Plaintiffs for their alleged spoliation of evidence. Defs. Mot. for Sanctions, ECF No. 60. The spoliation counterclaim and motion for sanctions arise from Plaintiffs' purported loss or destruction of the Toyota during discovery. Id.

         After the accident, Linda Aidoo's vehicle was taken to a holding lot at Copart, “an auto salvage and auction yard located in Hartford.” Pls. Obj. and Mem. in Opp'n. to Mot. for Sanctions at 3, Ex. F [Copart Lot Display Log], Mar. 25, 2016. Nationwide, which insured Linda Aidoo's vehicle, id. at 3, began requesting that she release the hold on the Toyota as early as September 23, 2015. Pls. Obj. and Mem. in Opp'n. to Mot. for Sanctions, Ex. M [E-mail from Christina Feeney, Plaintiffs' paralegal, to Joseph D'Amico, Associate Claims Specialist for Nationwide (Sept. 23, 2015, 10:45a.m. EST)]. On October 8, 2015, Nationwide took title of Ms. Aidoo's Toyota. Id. at 3, Ex. F at 13 [Showing “Pass Through Title” on 10/08/15]. The Copart record of the title transfer notes that Nationwide planned to sell the car on December 22, 2015 at a live auction. Id.[3]

         On October 9, 2015, Defendants agreed to release the hold on the vehicle so long as they could have Plaintiffs' “‘experts' photos of the Aidoo vehicle.” Pls. Obj. and Mem. in Opp'n. to Mot. for Sanctions, Ex. O [E-mails between Jim Decinti, Defendants' attorney, and Christina Feeney, Plaintiffs' paralegal (Oct. 8, 2015)]. Nationwide did not dispose of the vehicle that month. Id., Ex. F at 13 [Showing “Pass Through Title” on 10/08/15].

         On December 2, 2015, Joseph D'Amico, a Nationwide Associate Claims Specialist, called Copart to set up a third-party inspection of the vehicle for December 3, 2015. Id., Ex. F at 6. That inspection took place and included both Plaintiffs' and Defendants' experts. Pls. Obj. and Mem. in Opp'n. to Mot. for Sanctions at 5.

         On December 9, 2015 at 9:16 a.m., Nationwide informed Plaintiffs that it was “going to release the hold on Ms. Aidoo's vehicle.” Id., Ex. Q [E-mails between Christina Feeney, Plaintiffs' paralegal, and Joseph D'Amico, Associate Claims Specialist for Nationwide (Dec. 9, 2015)]. Before releasing the hold, Joseph D'Amico wrote to Christina Feeney, a senior paralegal at Carter Mario Injury Lawyers (i.e., representing Plaintiffs): “I wanted to make sure that you got everything you needed with your most recent inspection. Please confirm whether it is OK to release the hold.” Id.

         That afternoon, at 2:46 p.m., Ms. Feeney wrote to Plaintiffs' expert and Defendants' attorney to ask if the December 3, 2015 inspection had taken place and the vehicle could be released. Id., Ex. R [E-mails between Christina Feeney, Plaintiffs' paralegal, Gregory Witte, Plaintiffs' expert, and Jim Decinti, Defendants' attorney (Oct. 8, 2015)]. At 2:52 p.m., Plaintiffs' expert replied “Yes. We should be all set.” Id. Six minutes later, Plaintiffs' paralegal wrote to Mr. D'Amico, “You are OK to release the hold on Ms. Aidoo's vehicle.” Id., Ex. Q.

         The next day, at 2:01 p.m., Defendants' attorney authorized the release of the vehicle, id., Ex. T [E-mail from Jim Decinti, Defendants' attorney, to Christina Feeney, Plaintiffs' paralegal (Dec. 10, 2015 at 02:01 EST)], but changed his mind less than an half an hour later and suggested that Defendants might want to purchase the vehicle. Id., Ex. U [E-mails between Jim Decinti, Defendants' attorney and Gregory Witte, Plaintiffs' expert (Dec. 10, 2015)]; see also Defs. Mot. for Sanctions at 5.

         Plaintiffs then claimed to have attempted to regain a hold on the vehicle. See Pls. Obj. and Mem. in Opp'n. to Mot. for Sanctions, Ex. V [E-mails between Jim Decinti, Defendants' attorney, and Carla Minniefield, Plaintiffs' attorney (Dec. 10, 2015)]; id., Ex. W [E-mail from Christina Feeney, Plaintiffs' paralegal to Joseph D'Amico, Associate Claims Specialist for Nationwide (Dec. 10, 2015, 2:46 p.m. EST)]; id., Ex. X [Call log for call to Copart, vehicle hold facility, (Dec. 16, 2015, 12:39 p.m. EST)]; id., Ex. Y [E-mail from Alison Gillotti, Plaintiffs' paralegal, to Jim Decinti, Defendants' attorney, Jan. 1, 2016 8:55 a.m. EST]). Nevertheless, Nationwide sold the car at a December 22, 2015 auction.

         3. Proposed Experts of the Parties

         a. Steven Rickard

         Mr. Rickard is President of Steven W. Rickard and Associates, Inc. Mem. of Law in Supp. of Mot. in Limine to Preclude Certain Opinions of Steven W. Rickard and Request for Daubert hearing, ECF No. 91; id., Ex. B, ECF No. 91-2. From 1970-1992, he served as a Pennsylvania state trooper. Id. He earned an Associate Degree in Police Science and Administration from Harrisburg Area Community College in 1974. Id., Ex. B. Mr. Rickard has attended more than two dozen seminars, ranging from 8-100 hours each, on various aspects of accident reconstruction. Id.

         Mr. Rickard submitted a crash investigation report to Defendants in December 2017. Id. The report contains Mr. Rickard's analysis of the Connecticut state police accident report and scene diagrams, photographs of Plaintiffs' vehicle, and the depositions of Plaintiffs and Trooper Myer. Id. at 1.

         b. Kristopher Seluga

         Kristopher Seluga is a Forensic Engineer employed by Technology Associates, who earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 2000 and a Master of Science in 2001, both from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Defs. Mot. in Limine to Preclude Rebuttal Expert Report and Test. of Kristopher Seluga, ECF 65-3 [Kristopher J. Seluga Resume, n.d.].

         Mr. Seluga submitted a crash investigation report to Plaintiffs in March 2018, id., before the deadline for disclosure of rebuttal experts. Pls. Obj. to Defs. Mot. in Limine to Preclude Rebuttal Expert Report and Test. of Kristopher Seluga at 1; Amended Scheduling Order, ECF No. 52. The introduction to the report states:

Beginning in January 2018, I investigated a motor vehicle crash that occurred on August 18, 2015 . . . . when a tractor-trailer driven by Mr. Erald Cela rear ended a Toyota Corolla that was disabled and stopped in a travel lane of I-95. [] This report contains the details of my investigation, research and analysis regarding this incident. In addition, it contains my conclusions and opinions regarding the circumstances and causes of the crash and in particular, my review of the report provided by Mr. Steven Rickard and his assumptions, analysis and opinions.

Id. at 4.

         c. Trooper John Myer

         John Myer has been a Connecticut state trooper for over 13 years. Pls. Obj. to Defs. Mot. in Limine Regarding Test. of Trooper John Myer, ECF No. 85, at 1. He earned a high school diploma in 1996 and has completed “various college classes.” Defs. Mot. in Limine to Preclude Purported Expert Test. of Trooper John Myer, Ex. C, ECF No. 69-3 [Dep. of Trooper John Myer (June 16, 2017)] at 7 [Dep. at 23]. “One of [Mr. Myer's] primary responsibilities as a Trooper is to investigate motor vehicle accidents on Connecticut highways including I-95 where this collision occurred.” Id. at 1-2.

         Mr. Myer investigated this car accident. Id. at 2. His investigation involved observing lighting and weather conditions, and talking with Linda and Nana Aidoo and Erald Cela. Id.; Ex. A, ECF 85-1 [Connecticut Uniform Police Crash Report (Aug. 18, 2015) (duplicated at Pls. 56(a)(2) Facts, Ex. 7.)]. Mr. Myer produced a 10-page “Crash Report” following the collision. Id., Ex. A [Connecticut Uniform Police Crash Report (Aug. 18, 2015)].

         On February 21, 2018, several months after the deadline for Plaintiff's disclosure of experts, Plaintiffs disclosed their intention to call Mr. Myer as an expert to Defendants. Pls. Supp. Non-retained Expert Disclosure, ECF No. 85-2; Order Modifying Scheduling, ECF No. 46. Before this disclosure, both parties had deposed Mr. Myer and “questioned him at length regarding his opinions and facts set forth in his police report [.]” Pls. Obj. to Defs. Mot. in Limine Regarding Test. of Trooper John Myer at 10.

         B. Procedural Background

         On February 1, 2016, Defendants removed the case from Connecticut Superior Court to this Court. ECF No. 1. On March 30, 2016, Defendants filed an Answer and Counterclaim. Answer & Countercl., ECF No. 16. On April 11, 2016, Plaintiffs amended their Complaint. ECF No. 17. On April 27, 2016, Defendants filed an Answer and Counterclaim to the Amended Complaint. Answer & Countercl. to Am. Compl. (“Defs. Answer & Countercl.”), ECF No. 18. On May 11, 2016, Plaintiffs filed a Response. Pls. Resp., ECF No. 19.

         Discovery began in March 2016, ECF No. 14, but the parties modified their Rule 26(f) report in February 2017 and the Court issued a new scheduling order. ECF Nos. 31, 34. In April 2018, Defendants moved for sanctions for spoliation of evidence, ECF No. 60-63, and summary judgment. ECF No. 74-77. That same month, Plaintiff moved for summary judgment on the Defendants' counterclaim of intentional spoliation. ECF No. 80-82.

         On December 5, 2018, the Court held a hearing on all pending motions. Minute Entry, ECF No. 100.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Three standards of review govern the motions before the Court: (1) the standard for summary judgment, (2) the standard for sanctions for spoliation, and (3) the standards for the admission or preclusion of expert witnesses and reports at trial.

         A. Summary Judgment

         In a motion for summary judgment, the burden is on the moving party to establish that no genuine issues of material fact remain in dispute and that it is thus “entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law” and a factual issue is “genuine” if “a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party” based on it. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In reviewing the record, a court must “construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving ...


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