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Jones v. Hoosier Energy Rural Electric Cooperative, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Terre Haute Division

July 29, 2019

CONNIE JONES, as Special Administrator of the Estate of KENNETH EUGENE JONES, Plaintiff,



         Defendant Hoosier Energy Rural Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Hoosier Energy) moves for summary judgment on Plaintiff Connie Jones's wrongful death claim-her sole remaining claim-arguing there is not enough evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Hoosier Energy's negligence caused her husband's death. (See Def.'s Br. Supp. Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53.) Hoosier Energy's motion, now fully briefed, should be granted in part and denied in part for the following reasons.

         Legal Standard

          “A district court properly grants summary judgment where there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Giles v. Godinez, 914 F.3d 1040, 1048 (7th Cir. 2019). In considering a motion for summary judgment, the district court “must construe all the facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Monroe v. Ind. Dep't of Transp., 871 F.3d 495, 503 (7th Cir. 2017). However, the district court must also view the evidence “through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden, ” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 254 (1986), and does not draw “inferences that are supported by only speculation or conjecture, ” Singer v. Raemisch, 593 F.3d 529, 533 (7th Cir. 2010). Here, the parties do not dispute the relevant facts; they dispute the inferences a reasonable jury could draw from those facts.


          Plaintiff's late husband, Mr. Kenneth E. Jones, worked as a field services representative for GE Betz, Inc. (which is no longer a party to this action) for ten years. (ECF No. 52-1.) Hoosier Energy contracted GE Betz for water treatment services at its Merom Generating Station, where Mr. Jones worked on temporary assignment. (Compl. ¶ 6, ECF No. 1-1; Harrison Aff. ¶¶ 4-5, ECF No. 52-2.)

         GE Betz's water treatment services included cleaning the condenser tubes by circulating “rockets” (small plastic balls with skirts attached) through the condensers, which release into a hot-water discharge canal. (Harrison Aff. ¶¶ 7-8.) The canal runs 1.25 miles from the generating station and terminates at a waterfall emptying into Turtle Creek Reservoir. (Id. ¶ 8; Landis Aff. ¶ 6, ECF No. 52-5.)

         To prevent the rockets from spilling into the reservoir, GE Betz placed a “boom” system of netting in the canal that funnels the rockets into a submerged cage for collection. (Landis Aff. ¶ 9.) A metal bridge and platform span the canal a few yards downstream of the boom, allowing GE Betz's workers to maintain the structures and retrieve the rockets. (Id.) Mr. Jones performed this work, requiring him to perform various duties from the bridge. (ECF No. 52-1.)

         On September 12, 2016, Mr. Jones was working alone for GE Betz at the Merom Generating Station. (Landis Aff. ¶ 2, ECF No. 52-5.) In the morning, he stopped by the office of Hoosier Energy employee Tommy Harrison and joked about fishing. (Harrison Aff. ¶, ECF No. 52-2.) A motion-activated camera captured an image of Mr. Jones by his truck near the canal at 10:23 a.m. (Foli Aff. ¶ 5, ECF No. 52-3.) At 8:32 p.m., Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) officers found Mr. Jones's body floating in the Turtle Creek Reservoir, more than 700 yards from the waterfall separating the canal and the reservoir. (Id. ¶ 6.) In the area where the body was recovered, the water was “extremely warm, ” an estimated 95 degrees, (Lan-dis Aff. ¶ 7), and the water in the canal was approximately 115 degrees, (Pl.'s Ex. A at 7, ECF No. 60-1; Pl.'s Ex. C, ECF No. 62).

         Mr. Jones's wallet and keys were found atop the canal wall, two hundred yards downstream of the bridge, (Landis Aff. ¶ 10), and nearly a mile (an estimated 5, 149 feet) upstream of the waterfall into the reservoir, (Pl.'s Ex. A at 5, ECF No. 60-1). Mr. Jones's life jacket-still buckled-was found in the reservoir near the waterfall. (Pl.'s Ex. A at 2, ECF No. 60-1.) The rocket-collecting cage was missing from the funnel area of the boom. (Id. at 2-3.)

         The Sullivan County Coroner determined that Mr. Jones's cause of death was hy-perthermia and drowning and his manner of death was accidental. (Dudley Aff. ¶¶ 6, 8.) The autopsy revealed that Mr. Jones's blood alcohol content was 0.032 percent. (Id. ¶ 7.)


         As the Court previously determined, the substantive law of Indiana applies in this diversity case. (See ECF No. 41 at 3.) To survive summary judgment, Plaintiff must present enough evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that (1) Hoosier Energy owed Mr. Jones a duty, (2) it breached that duty, and (3) that breach proximately caused Mr. Jones's injuries. See Benton v. City of Oakland City, 721 N.E.2d 224, 232 (Ind. 1999). Hoosier Energy contends that Plaintiff lacks evidence of the third element, causation. (As Hoosier Energy does not address the elements of duty or breach, the Court assumes, without deciding, that such elements are met.)

         In Indiana negligence law, proximate cause consists of causation-in-fact-whether the injury would have occurred but for the breach-and scope of liability-whether the injury is a foreseeable, “natural and probable consequence” of the breach. City of Gary ex rel. King v. Smith, 801 N.E.2d 1222, 1243-44 (Ind. 2003). Summary judgment is “rarely appropriate” in negligence cases, Rhodes v. Wright, 805 N.E.2d 382, 387 (Ind. 2004), as “both of those inquiries are ordinarily for the jury, ” but “‘where it is clear that the injury was not foreseeable under the circumstances and that the imposition of liability upon the original negligent actor would not be justified, the determination of proximate cause ...

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