On November 27, 2017, Douglas C. Houck was operating his vehicle northbound on State Route 220 when it left the roadway and struck a guide wire from a utility pole. Mr. Houck sustained severe facial injuries, and later that day was pronounced dead. State Police located a ratchet binder/winch under the rear passenger seat of Houck’s vehicle.
Just north of the accident site, video surveillance recorded approximately multiple vehicles heading south on State Route 220, including several other flatbed trucks, within 15 minutes of the time of the accident. Zachery Smith was driving one of the flatbed vehicles identified in the video surveillance for WLX, LLC. Smith's driver log for November 27, 2017 indicates that he drove 350 miles that day. Examination of the WLX trailer revealed that its winch stops were in place. State Trooper Jeffrey Price, who is not an accident reconstructionist, found grooves in the roadway, which he believed to have been caused by a wench falling off the back of a trailer. Trooper Price ultimately concluded that the accident involving Mr. Houck occurred in the following manner:
The WLX truck was traveling southbound. Mr. Houck's vehicle was traveling northbound. The ratchet fell off of the WLX truck, bounced down the road. After the last bounce it bounced up high enough to impact Mr. Houck's vehicle. He was — he was killed by the ratchet that came through the windshield and the vehicle continued and veered off the road until final rest.
Plaintiff Randy Houck (son) filed suit against WLX, LLC, docketed at Houck v. WLX, LLC, No. 3:19-CV-275 (M.D. Pa. March 10, 2022), asserting Wrongful Death and Survival actions based on theories of vicarious liability and negligence, arising from Douglas Houck's death on November 27, 2017. Houck claimed that WLX failed to properly secure the ratchet binder/winch on the trailer, causing it to fall off of the trailer and smash through his father’s vehicle’s windshield and into his father’s face, resulting in his death. WLX denied liability for the incident and also denied that the ratchet binder at issue came from its trailer.
During discovery, plaintiff developed evidence that there may have been extra ratchets on the trailer on the day of the accident, and that the trailer may have undergone repair from the time of the accident to the time of the inspection. After discovery was completed, WLX filed a Motion for Summary Judgment asserting that it was entitled to judgment in its favor because there is no genuine issue of material fact that establishes that the winch at issue came from its vehicle. More specifically, WLX argues that plaintiff has no evidence as to the cause of the accident where there are no known witnesses to the accident, no person observed the winch come off the WLX trailer, no conditions were present on the trailer to suggest the winch may have come off the trailer, "[e]very person who examined the trailer, both before and after the incident, confirmed that its winch stops were in place and would prevent a winch from coming off the trailer", and "no evidence connects the winch found in the decedent's vehicle to Smith's tractor-trailer."
“The mere occurrence of an accident does not establish negligent conduct." See Iavaroni v. Woodloch Pines Resort, 2016 WL 796057, at *5 (M.D. Pa. 2016). Instead, the plaintiff must "prove causation by direct or circumstantial evidence." Eisenberry v. Shaw Bros., LLC, 2010 WL 235108, at *4 (M.D. Pa. 2010). Although "a party may prove its case with circumstantial evidence, `there is a limit to the inferences that the jury may reasonably draw from such circumstantial evidence.'... Specifically, `while the jury may draw reasonable inferences, it may not be permitted to reach its verdict merely on the basis of speculation or conjecture, but ... there must be evidence upon which logically its conclusion may be based.'" Cmty. Preschool & Nursery of E. Liberty, LLC v. Tri-State Realty, Inc., 430 F.App'x 125, 127 (3d Cir. 2011) See also, Fedorczyk v. Caribbean Cruise Lines, Ltd., 82 F.3d 69, 74 (3d Cir. 1996) ("It is axiomatic that the mere showing of an accident causing injuries is not sufficient from which to infer negligence. Negligence is a fact which must be proved; it will not be presumed. The plaintiff must introduce evidence which provides a reasonable basis for the conclusion that it was more likely than not that the negligent conduct of the defendant was a cause in fact of the injury."); Churilla v. Barner, 409 A.2d 83, 85 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1979).
"Circumstantial evidence when used to prove negligence must be distinguished from the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur combines circumstantial evidence with a presumption on the burden of proof." Fedorczyk, 82 F.3d at 74. The doctrine provides that "in certain cases the circumstantial evidence is sufficient for negligence to be presumed, and the burden of proof shifts to the defendant to rebut some element of the case." Id. However, application of res ipsa loquitur "must be carefully limited." Simpson v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 2005 WL 2387631, *6 (M.D. Pa. 2005).
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has adopted the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 328D titled Res Ipsa Loquitur, as the law of the Commonwealth. See Gilbert v. Korvette, Inc., 327 A.2d 94 (Pa. 1974); Section 328D provides as follows:
(1) It may be inferred that harm suffered by the plaintiff is caused by negligence of the defendant when
(a) the event is of a kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence;
(b) other responsible causes, including the conduct of the plaintiff and third persons, are sufficiently eliminated by the evidence; and
(c) the indicated negligence is within the scope of the defendant's duty to the plaintiff.
(2) It is the function of the court to determine whether the inference may reasonably be drawn by the jury, or whether it must necessarily be drawn.
(3) It is the function of the jury to determine whether the inference is to be drawn in any case where different conclusions may reasonably be reached.
Restatement (Second) of Torts § 328D (1965).
WLX argued that plaintiff cannot establish that other responsible causes, including the conduct of the plaintiff and third persons, are sufficiently eliminated by the evidence. Specifically, WLX asserted that the evidence: (1) does not sufficiently eliminate the other flatbed vehicles known to be in the area of the accident at or about the time of the accident; and (2) does not support the claim that the winch found in decedent's vehicle bounced in the road and then struck his windshield.
The court concluded that the evidence in the record could reasonably lead a jury to find that Smith's vehicle and Houck's vehicle were in close proximity to each other immediately prior to the time of the accident, and that, despite the undisputed evidence that there were other trucks/vehicles in the area which had winches/ratchet binders, those vehicles were not in the immediate area sufficiently close to the time the accident occurred so as to be the source of the winch at issue. It is also for a jury to determine whether the grooves found by Trooper Price on Route 220 were caused by a winch falling off a trailer on November 27, 2017, and can further be attributed to the winch recovered in Mr. Houck's vehicle.