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Mendonca v. Winckler

United States District Court, Eighth Circuit

December 11, 2013

SHELLY MENDONCA, as Personal Representative of the Estate of TRISHA MENDONCA, Plaintiff,


VERONICA L. DUFFY, Magistrate Judge.


Shelly Mendonca, the mother of Trisha Mendonca and personal representative of Trisha's estate, brings this diversity action alleging a cause of action for wrongful death on behalf of the estate of Trisha arising out of a one-car accident in which Trisha was a passenger and defendant, Jordan Thomas Winckler, was the driver of a motor vehicle rented to him by defendant Corpat, Inc. doing business as Alamo/National Car Rental (hereinafter "Corpat"). See Docket No. 19. Corpat has now filed a motion seeking the entry of summary judgment in its favor. See Docket No. 30. The district court, the Honorable Jeffrey L. Viken, Chief Judge, referred Corpat's motion to this magistrate judge for a recommended disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).


The parties largely agree upon the facts, which are as follows as reflected in the source materials filed by the parties as well as in the parties' statements of material fact. Disagreements, where applicable, are noted.

On July 28, 2011, defendant Jordan Winckler and Trisha Mendonca arrived at the Corpat car rental desk in the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, airport. See Docket No. 33-2, at 10, 36 (Deposition of Dakotah Dayton); Docket No. 33-3, at 21-22 (Deposition of Jordan Winckler).[1] They intended to rent a car to travel to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to attend a family reunion on Mr. Winckler's side of the family. See Docket No. 33-3, at 21. On the way out to the airport, Mr. Winckler and Ms. Mendonca shared a small full joint of marijuana. See Docket No. 33-3, at 24-25. At the time, both Mr. Winckler and Ms. Mendonca were residents of Wyoming. See Docket No. 33-3, at 30; Docket No. 33-4, at 4.

On July 28, 2011, Mr. Winckler's right hand was in a removable splint as he had previously fallen on glass and severed three tendons in his wrist that affected his pinky, ring, and middle fingers on his right hand. See Docket No. 33-3, at 27-28. Mr. Winckler had recently had surgery to repair the damage to his finger nerves, but he was still recovering. Id . In Mr. Winckler's own words, he could use his fingers on his right hand, but he could not do anything "too crazy" with them.[2] Id . Mr. Winckler drove to the Jackson Hole airport himself. See Docket No. 33-2, at 33; Docket No. 33-3, at 24. His right hand was in the splint during this drive. See Docket No. 33-3, at 27-28.

The attendant at the Corpat desk who assisted Mr. Winckler was Dakotah Dayton. See Docket No. 33-2, at 36-37; Docket No. 33-3, at 21. Mr. Dayton had worked for Corpat for fourteen years since he dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade, starting out washing cars. See Docket No. 33-2, at 9-11. On July 28, 2011, Mr. Dayton was the manager of the Jackson Hole Corpat office. See Docket No. 33-2, at 9.

About a week prior to his arrival at the Corpat desk on July 28, 2011, Mr. Winckler had telephoned Mr. Dayton. See Docket No. 33-2, at 19-20. The two men were previously acquainted because they had played on the same flag football team together, although the two were not friends and did not socialize with each other aside from playing football together. See Docket No. 33-2, at 12-13, 16, 18-9.[3] The purpose of Mr. Winckler's phone call was to inquire whether Mr. Dayton could give him a "good price" on a car rental. Id. at 19-20.

Upon Mr. Winckler's presentation at the Corpat desk, Mr. Dayton observed nothing unusual about Mr. Winckler's appearance or demeanor, in spite of his recent ingestion of marijuana. See Docket No. 33-2, at 38-40. Mr. Winckler did not display bloodshot or glassy eyes. Id. at 39. His behavior was normal. Id . Mr. Dayton had no knowledge, nor observed anything to indicate, that Mr. Winckler had ingested marijuana immediately prior to arriving at the Corpat desk. See id.; Docket No. 33-3, at 26-26. Moreover, Mr. Dayton did not know Mr. Winckler used marijuana in general. Docket No. 33-2, at 19. Mr. Dayton testified that if he had known that Mr. Winckler was impaired, he would not have rented a vehicle to him. See Docket No. 33-2, at 39. Mr. Dayton was familiar with the effects of marijuana on its users. Id. at 18-19.

Although Mr. Dayton did observe the removable splint on Mr. Winckler's right hand, he did not make inquiry of Mr. Winckler to ascertain how he had injured his hand or what the functionality of his hand was at the time of the car rental. See Docket No. 33-2, at 37. Mr. Dayton testified that he knew Mr. Winckler had driven himself out to the airport with the splint on, so Mr. Dayton assumed that Mr. Winckler was capable of driving despite the apparent injury to his right hand. Id. at 38. The Corpat car was rented to Mr. Winckler. See Docket No. 33-2, at 22, 31, 44; Docket No. 33-3, at 22.

Mr. Dayton verified that Mr. Winckler had a valid driver's license. See Docket No. 33-2, at 22; Docket No. 33-3, at 22. In filling out the rental car agreement, Mr. Winckler represented to Mr. Dayton that he had his own automobile liability insurance. See Docket No. 33-2, at 25-26. Mr. Dayton offered Mr. Winckler insurance coverage through Corpat, but Mr. Winckler declined the Corpat insurance. Id . Mr. Dayton did not ask Mr. Winckler to show him proof of his personal automobile liability insurance. Id . It was Corpat's policy not to require renters to show proof of insurance. Id . In fact, Mr. Winckler did not have automobile liability insurance at the time he rented the Corpat vehicle. See Docket No. 33-2, at 25-27; Docket No. 33-3, at 22.

The vehicle Mr. Dayton rented to Mr. Winckler was a 2011 Chevrolet Impala, which was almost brand new. See Docket No. 33-1; Docket No. 33-2, at 41; Docket No. 33-5, at 1. The Impala had approximately 3, 200 miles on it at the time of the rental. See Docket No. 33-2, at 41.

After renting the Corpat vehicle, Mr. Winckler and Trisha Mendonca left Jackson Hole at approximately 5:00 p.m. en route to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. See Docket No. 33-3, at 23. The two stopped at least once on the trip to sleep for a few hours. Id. at 23-24. At approximately 6:00 a.m. on July 29, 2011, just east of Rapid City near Exit 67A on the Interstate 90 exit for Liberty Boulevard at the Ellsworth Air Force Base, Mr. Winckler lost control of the Corpat rental car. Id. at 37-38. He testified that he heard a sound like a tire popping immediately before losing control. Id . The highway patrol report on the accident suggested that Mr. Winckler fell asleep at the wheel. See Docket No. 33-7, at 6-7 (South Dakota Highway Patrol Accident Reconstruction Report). Mr. Winckler denies this. See Docket No. 33-3, at 37-38, 43-44. Plaintiff does not suggest that Mr. Winckler lost control of the car due to the injury to his right hand.

The Impala struck a guard rail, became airborne, and then rolled. See Docket No. 33-3, at 38-0. Trisha Mendonca, who was not wearing a seat belt at the time, was thrown from the car and died at the scene of the accident. Id. at 37-39. Sobriety tests were administered to Mr. Winckler immediately after the accident and he was found to be unimpaired, although it was later determined that he did have cannabinoids in his system. Id. at 44-46; see also Docket No. 33-5, at 3 (South Dakota Highway Patrol Accident Report); Docket No. 33-7, at 4. Drug paraphernalia was found in the wrecked Impala. See Docket No. 33-6 (South Dakota Highway Patrol Case Report). Mr. Winckler testified that he did not smoke any additional marijuana after renting the Impala from Corpat. See Docket No. 33-3, at 26.

Shelly Mendonca, Trisha's mother, was appointed by a Wyoming state court to act as the personal representative of Trisha's estate. See Docket No. 19, at ¶ 8. Shelly is a resident of Wyoming. Id. at ¶ 3. Shelly now brings an action for wrongful death against Mr. Winckler, alleging negligence. In addition, she brings a claim of negligent entrustment against Corpat, alleging that it was negligent in renting the vehicle to Mr. Winckler on July 28, 2011, [4] in Wyoming based on Mr. Winckler's ingestion of marijuana and his injured hand.[5] Id. at ¶ 22-28. Corpat now moves for summary judgment in its favor. See Docket No. 30. Both Ms. Mendonca and Mr. Winckler resist, arguing that genuine issues of material fact exist that prevent the issuance of summary judgment in Corpat's favor. See Docket Nos. 34, 38.


A. Summary Judgment Standard

Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party "shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a).

The court must view the facts, and inferences from those facts, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita Elec. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986) (citing United States v. Diebold, Inc. , 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)); Helton v. Southland Racing Corp. , 600 F.3d 954, 957 (8th Cir. 2010) (per curiam). Summary judgment will not lie if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Allison v. Flexway Trucking, Inc. , 28 F.3d 64, 66 (8th Cir. 1994).

The burden is placed on the moving party to establish both the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). Once the movant has met its burden, the nonmoving party may not simply rest on the allegations in the pleadings, but must set forth specific facts, by affidavit or other evidence, showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 256; FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e) (each party must properly support its own assertions of fact and properly address the opposing party's assertions of fact, as required by Rule 56(c)).

The underlying substantive law identifies which facts are "material" for purposes of a motion for summary judgment. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 248. "Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted." Id . (citing 10A CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT, ARTHUR R. MILLER & MARY KAY KANE, FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 2725, at 93-95 (3d ed. 1983)). "[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Id. at 247-48.

Essentially, the availability of summary judgment turns on whether a proper jury question is presented: "The inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is the need for a trial-whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Id. at 250.

B. The Graves Amendment Does Not Preempt Plaintiff's Claim

Corpat argues that the Graves Amendment, 49 U.S.C. § 30106(a), preempts plaintiff's claim against Corpat. The Graves Amendment provides as follows:

An owner of a motor vehicle that rents or leases the vehicle to a person (or an affiliate of the owner) shall not be liable under the law of any State or political subdivision thereof, by reason of being the owner of the vehicle (or an affiliate of the owner), for harm to persons or property that results or arises out of the use, operation, or possession of the vehicle during the period of the rental or lease, if-
(1) the owner (or an affiliate of the owner) is engaged in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles; and
(2) there is no negligence or criminal wrongdoing on the part of the owner (or an ...

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