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Seekins v. Dolgencorp, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

April 3, 2019

Nickolas Seekins, Plaintiff,
v.
Dolgencorp, LLC d/b/a Dollar General, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Hon. Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge

         On November 10, 2017, Plaintiff Nickolas Seekins filed a Complaint against Dolgencorp, LLC d/b/a Dollar General (“Dollar General”) in Marion Superior Court related to injuries he sustained while operating an allegedly defective double pallet jack (the “SJ4”) at the Dollar General Distribution Center in Marion, Indiana as part of his duties as an employee of LMS Intellibound, LLC d/b/a Capstone Logistics (“Capstone”). [Filing No. 1-1 at 6.] On November 29, 2017, Dollar General removed the case to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1441, and 1446. [Filing No. 1 at 1-2.]

         Between the time of the incident and the commencement of this action, Dollar General replaced a part of the SJ4-the control handle. Mr. Seekins has filed a Motion for Finding of Spoliation of Evidence and Request for Sanctions (“Motion for Sanctions”), [Filing No. 44], arguing that Dollar General intentionally destroyed or concealed the machine part to prevent Mr. Seekins from testing the handle. That motion is ripe for the Court's decision.

         Also before the Court is Dollar General's Motion for Summary Judgment, [Filing No. 51], in which Dollar General argues that it is entitled to judgment in its favor on Mr. Seekins' negligence claim against it. In his response to Dollar General's Motion for Summary Judgment, Mr. Seekins filed a Cross-Motion for Partial Summary Judgment related to the issue of whether Dollar General owed a duty to Mr. Seekins. [Filing No. 59.] The parties have filed briefs in support and in opposition to these motions, and both motions are ripe for the Court's decision.

         For the reasons outlined below, the Court DENIES Mr. Seekins' Motion for Sanctions, GRANTS Mr. Seekins' Cross-Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, and GRANTS Dollar General's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I.

         Factual Background

         The following factual background is set forth pursuant to the standards outlined in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, detailed in Section III below. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The facts stated are not necessarily objectively true, but as the summary judgment standard requires, the undisputed facts and the disputed evidence are presented in the light most favorable to “the party against whom the motion under consideration is made.” Premcor USA, Inc. v. American Home Assurance Co., 400 F.3d 523, 526-27 (7th Cir. 2005). The facts set forth below also apply to the Court's consideration of the issue of spoliation raised in Mr. Seekins' Motion for Sanctions.

         1. Dollar General's Equipment Maintenance Procedures

         Dollar General owns and stores certain equipment inside the Dollar General Distribution Center in Marion, Indiana, including the SJ4. [Filing No. 52-3 at 2.] Many of the functions of the Distribution Center were performed by Capstone employees, such as Mr. Seekins. Capstone employees regularly used the SJ4. [Filing No. 52-3 at 2.] Equipment stored at the Distribution Center is subject to routine preventative maintenance checks at regular intervals occurring approximately four times per year. [Filing No. 52-3 at 2.] During a preventative maintenance check, Dollar General's mechanics inspect the machines to confirm that the equipment is working in accordance with the manufacturer specifications. [Filing No. 52-3 at 3.] The mechanics go through a list of parts and functions they must check during preventative maintenance, including testing the brakes and the brake allowance to see how far the machine will continue to move after the stopping function is triggered while traveling at full speed. [Filing No. 52-4 at 20-21.] At the end of the preventative maintenance check, the mechanic conducts a test ride on the machine, lasting approximately fifteen minutes, which allows the mechanic to test the machine twice in that time period. [Filing No. 52-4 at 22-23.]

         In addition to the preventative maintenance described above, Dollar General's equipment undergoes other maintenance as needed, such as when an equipment operator reports that there is a problem with a machine. [Filing No. 52-3 at 2.] If an operator using a piece of equipment experiences a problem with a machine, or if a maintenance employee observes a problem with a machine, they are to report the problem and take the machine immediately and directly to Dollar General's Maintenance Department. [Filing No. 52-3 at 2; Filing No. 52-4 at 19-20.] A “Red Tag” form-which includes the operator's name, date, equipment name, and the alleged problem-is completed and stuck to the piece of equipment using a magnetic clipboard. [Filing No. 52-3 at 2; Filing No. 52-4 at 6-8.] The mechanic in the Maintenance Department inspects the machine and completes his or her portion of the Red Tag form, including his or her name, employee identification number, and the problem and/or remedy. [Filing No. 52-3 at 3.] The Red Tag is only removed upon the Maintenance Department's confirmation that the problem with the machine has been fixed and that the piece of equipment is working in accordance with the manufacturer's specifications. [Filing No. 52-3 at 3.] When the Red Tag is removed, the machine is returned to the floor to be operated again. [Filing No. 52-3 at 3.] The Maintenance Department does not return the equipment to the floor until this procedure outlined above is completed. [Filing No. 52-3 at 3.] Dollar General depends on the operators and maintenance employees to discover any problems with the equipment during the preventative maintenance checks or during use of the machines; otherwise, there is no way for Dollar General to become aware of any problems. [Filing No. 52-3 at 2; Filing No. 52-4 at 19-20.]

         2. Maintenance of the SJ4 Prior to Mr. Seekins' Injury

         The Dollar General Maintenance Department conducted preventative maintenance on the SJ4 on March 21, 2017 and March 22, 2017, and the next preventative maintenance check was scheduled for approximately June 18, 2017. [Filing No. 52-3 at 3; Filing No. 52-3 at 7.]

         Other maintenance work was performed on the SJ4 on the following dates in 2017: March 22, April 1, April 26, April 28, and, May 1. [Filing No. 52-3 at 3-4.] The work performed included: adjusting castors, welding the load rest, replacing the battery, stoning the commutator, repairing wires, cleaning and adjusting the brakes, and, replacing battery wires. [Filing No. 52-3 at 3-4.] After each occasion of maintenance work, Dollar General's Maintenance Department ensured that the machine was working in accordance with manufacturer specifications before it was returned to the floor. [Filing No. 52-3 at 3-4.] These types of repairs and maintenance work- and the frequency with which they are performed-are typical for Dollar General's Maintenance Department. [Filing No. 52-3 at 4.]

         Prior to Mr. Seekins' injury on May 16, 2017, Dollar General's Maintenance Department last performed maintenance work on the SJ4 on May 1, 2017. [Filing No. 52-3 at 4; Filing No. 52-3 at 9.] At the time, the mechanic did not observe any problems with the machine's braking, plugging, or other stopping methods. [Filing No. 52-3 at 4.] The SJ4 was returned to the floor once the Maintenance Department confirmed that the machine was working within the manufacturer specifications. [Filing No. 52-3 at 4.] No. problems with the SJ4 were reported or observed between May 1, 2017 and May 16, 2017, the date of Mr. Seekins' injury. [Filing No. 52-3 at 4.]

         Dollar General purchased the SJ4 in 2006 when the warehouse opened. [Filing No. 60-1 at 6-7.] A machine of the same make and model, the SJ3, was purchased at the same time. [Filing No. 60-2 at 7.] At the time of Mr. Seekins' injury, the SJ3 had been retired from service, with the usable parts removed and retained by the Maintenance Department and the rest of the machine discarded in the dumpster. [Filing No. 60-2 at 45.]

         3. Mr. Seekins' Injury

         On May 16, 2017, while in the course and scope of his employment with Capstone, Mr. Seekins was injured while operating the SJ4, which was provided by Dollar General at the Dollar General Distribution Center located in Marion, Indiana. [Filing No. 44 at 1.] Before using the SJ4, Mr. Seekins conducted a twelve-point inspection of the machine, and he did not discover any problems with it. [Filing No. 52 at 7; Filing No. 52-6 at 30-32.] Mr. Seekins operated the SJ4 for two hours without incident. [Filing No. 52-6 at 7.] However, at one point, Mr. Seekins thought he felt the machine jerk when he hit the brakes. [Filing No. 52-6 at 14.] After he perceived the jerk, the machine worked fine and there was no indication that there was a problem with the SJ4. [Filing No. 52-6 at 14.] Mr. Seekins did not report this alleged issue to Dollar General's Maintenance Department, and he continued to operate the SJ4. [Filing No. 52-6 at 13-14.] Mr. Seekins then rode the SJ4 through the bays of the Distribution Center toward the office to drop off paperwork. [Filing No. 52-6 at 11.] Mr. Seekins was traveling at full speed as he approached an aisle where he turned left. [Filing No. 52-6 at 15.] Mr. Seekins saw a forklift parked at the end of the aisle and he “went to hit the brakes, ” but the machine “wasn't responding” and failed to slow down. [Filing No. 52-6 at 15; Filing No. 52-6 at 17-18.] He used the emergency brake, but “that didn't stop [the machine] quick enough.” [Filing No. 52-6 at 20.] As the SJ4 continued toward the parked forklift, Mr. Seekins decided to jump backwards off the machine, and his left foot became pinned between the SJ4 and the parked forklift, ultimately resulting in the amputation of his foot. [Filing No. 52-6 at 21-22; Filing No. 52-6 at 24.] According to Mr. Seekins, the SJ4 malfunctioned and Mr. Seekins could not bring the machine to a stop. [Filing No. 44 at 1.]

         4. Events After Mr. Seekins' Injury

         Immediately after the incident occurred, the SJ4 was taken to Dollar General's Maintenance Department and multiple mechanics examined the machine, but they did not find any problems with it. [Filing No. 54 at 1; Filing No. 54-1 at 17-19; Filing No. 54-1 at 30; Filing No. 54-1 at 61.] One mechanic, Jerry Williams, found that the “plugging”-the function that reverses the motor to slow the machine down to a stop-did not work intermittently (i.e., one out of about twenty tries), so he checked the potentiometer, which controls the plugging function. [Filing No. 54-1 at 21-22.] However, upon inspection of the potentiometer, Mr. Williams found that it “was right on the target.” [Filing No. 54-1 at 23.]

         The Maintenance Department contacted Rod Disbro of Associated Integrated Supply Chain Services to examine the machine and double check the Maintenance Department's conclusion that there were no problems with the SJ4. [Filing No. 54-1 at 30; Filing No. 54-1 at 61.] On May 22, 2017, Mr. Disbro inspected the SJ4, test driving it for forty-five minutes. [Filing No. 54-1 at 71.] Mr. Disbro found nothing wrong with the SJ4, noting that he “could not get [the SJ4] to fail and the braking distance was in line with [manufacturer] specifications.” [Filing No. 54-1 at 71.] Mr. Williams asked Mr. Disbro if the Maintenance Department should simply replace the handle on the SJ4 and “see what happens.” [Filing No. 54-1 at 35.] Mr. Disbro advised Mr. Williams that that action “couldn't hurt.” [Filing No. 54-1 at 35.] The maintenance manager gave permission for the replacement of the handle, and the handle was replaced on June 2, 2017. [Filing No. 54-1 at 32.] The old handle was discarded, which is standard procedure for the Maintenance Department for parts that are no longer reusable. [Filing No. 54-1 at 25-26.]

         On May 21, 2017-the day before Mr. Disbro's inspection of the machine-the SJ4 was returned to the Dollar General Maintenance Department and was "Red Tagged." [Filing No. 60-2 at 26.] An image of the of the Red Tag form and its contents are below. Mr. Maggard stated that the machine "wouldn't brake, wouldn't throttle back, [and] couldn't stop." [Filing No. 60-2 at 26.1 [Filing No. 60-2 at 26.]

         (Image Omitted)

         5. Mr. Seekins' Letter Requesting Preservation of the SJ4

         Three days after the accident, Mr. Seekins' counsel sent a letter to the Dollar General Distribution Center, requesting that the SJ4 be preserved. [Filing No. ...


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