Villard
v.
Shoreline Pools Srvc.

This case is not covered by Casetext's citator
Connecticut Superior Court Judicial District of Stamford-Norwalk at StamfordAug 19, 2011
2011 Ct. Sup. 17779 (Conn. Super. Ct. 2011)
2011 Ct. Sup. 1777952 CLR 482

No. FST CV 10 6007372 S

August 19, 2011


MEMORANDUM OF DECISION


DAVID R. TOBIN, J.

On November 8, 2010, the plaintiff, Alexandra Villard, commenced this action by service of process on the defendants, Shoreline Pools Service, Inc., Shoreline Pools, Inc. (collectively, the Shoreline Pools defendants) and David Lionetti (Lionetti). In the plaintiff's revised complaint dated March 15, 2011, the plaintiff alleges the following facts. Starting on the evening of June 14, 2009, and continuing into the early morning hours of June 15, 2009, the defendant Lionetti consumed numerous alcoholic beverages. Shortly after midnight on June 15, 2009, Lionetti was operating a motor vehicle owned by defendant, Shoreline Pools Service, Inc., with a blood alcohol limit that was in excess of the permissible level to drive in the state of Connecticut.

In the revised complaint, the plaintiff alleges that on January 14, 2010, she was named the conservator of the person and estate of her husband, Rene Villard, by the Stamford Probate Court.

At the same time, the plaintiff's ward, Rene Villard, was driving his car on Vassar Avenue in Stamford. After Rene Villard's vehicle came to a stop at the corner of the intersection of Vassar Avenue and Selleck Street, Rene Villard began to make a left hand turn onto Selleck Street. When Rene Villard started making this turn, there were no vehicles in sight. Nevertheless, the automobile operated by Lionetti soon came upon Villard's vehicle at a rate of speed that was far in excess of the posted twenty-five mile per hour speed limit. Lionetti then crashed into Rene Villard's car. As a result of this traffic accident, Rene Villard has suffered numerous extreme physical injuries, including, but not limited to, significant brain damage resulting in a long-term hospitalization.

In the first count of her complaint, the plaintiff alleges a cause of action for negligence against Lionetti on behalf of Rene Villard. In the second and third counts, the plaintiff asserts vicarious liability claims against the Shoreline Pools defendants based on their ownership of the vehicle that Lionetti was operating at the time of the accident. In those counts, the plaintiff alleges that each of the Shoreline Pools defendants is a Connecticut corporation that is owned and/or controlled by the defendant Lionetti's father, Mark Lionetti, and his uncle, David Lionetti.

Although not specifically identified in the complaint, the plaintiff apparently relies on the presumption of agency set forth in General Statutes § 52-183.

In her fourth count, the plaintiff asserts claims of statutory recklessness against defendant Lionetti claiming violations of General Statutes §§ 14-218a, 14-219, 14-222 and 14-227a. In her fifth and sixth counts, the plaintiff asserts statutory recklessness claims against the Shoreline Pools defendants. In those counts, the plaintiff alleges that Rene Villard's injuries were caused "by defendant Lionetti, for whose violations [the Shoreline Pools defendants are] liable, in violation of [General Statutes §§] 14-218a, 14-219a, 14-222 and/or 14-227a . . ." The plaintiff contends that Lionetti operated the subject automobile in reckless disregard of these statutes, that Lionetti's violations of these statutes were a substantial factor in causing Rene Villard's injuries and that the Shoreline Pools defendants are vicariously liable for Lionetti's recklessness. Accordingly, in her prayer for relief, the plaintiff seeks double or treble damages from the Shoreline Pools defendants pursuant to General Statutes § 14-295.

Count five alleges a statutory recklessness cause of action against Shoreline Pools Service, Inc. and count six alleges a statutory recklessness cause of action against Shoreline Pools, Inc., respectively.

Although the plaintiff alleges that the Shoreline Pools defendants are liable for Lionetti's violation of General Statutes § 14-219a, it appears that she actually meant General Statutes § 14-219, as § 14-219a is a repealed statute.

In her seventh count, the plaintiff alleges a common-law recklessness cause of action against Lionetti. The eighth and ninth counts asserting common-law recklessness claims against the Shoreline Pools defendants have been withdrawn. (See footnote 1 of the plaintiff's memorandum of law in opposition). In her tenth, eleventh and twelfth counts, the plaintiff alleges her individual claims for loss of consortium against each of the defendants.

Presently before the court is the motion of the Shoreline Pools defendants (# 116.00) dated April 26, 2011, to strike counts five and six on the ground that Connecticut law does not allow a plaintiff to impose vicarious liability on an employer for the statutory recklessness of an employee. On June 3, 2011, the plaintiff filed a memorandum of law in opposition to the Shoreline Pools defendants' motion. The court heard argument in this matter at short calendar on July 25, 2011.

DISCUSSION

"The purpose of a motion to strike is to contest . . . the legal sufficiency of the allegations of any complaint . . . to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Fort Trumbull Conservancy, LLC v. Alves, 262 Conn. 480, 498 (2003). In a motion to strike, "the moving party admits all facts well pleaded." RK Constructors, Inc. v. Fusco Corp., 231 Conn. 381, 383 n. 2 (1994). Therefore, "[i]f facts provable in the complaint would support a cause of action, the motion to strike must be denied." (lnternal quotation marks omitted.) Batte-Homgren v. Commissioner of Public Health, 281 Conn. 277, CT Page 17781 294 (2007). Nevertheless, "[a] motion to strike is properly granted if the complaint alleges mere conclusions of law that are unsupported by the facts alleged." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Fort Trumbull Conservancy, LLC v. Alves, supra, 262 Conn. 498. When deciding a motion to strike, the court must "construe the complaint in the manner most favorable to sustaining its legal sufficiency." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Sullivan v. Lake Compounce Theme Park, Inc., 277 Conn. 113, 117 (2006).

In their memorandum of law, the Shoreline Pools defendants argue that counts five and six are legally insufficient because General Statutes § 14-295 does not allow a plaintiff to state a statutory recklessness claim against an employer for the conduct of its employee. The Shoreline Pools defendants reason that pursuant to Connecticut common law, a court cannot award punitive damages under a theory of vicarious liability. The Shoreline Pools defendants contend that because a statute in derogation of the common law must be strictly construed and that § 14-295 does not explicitly allow for the awarding of punitive damages against an employer for the reckless conduct of its employee, that § 14-295 does not authorize the causes of action alleged by the plaintiff in counts five and six.

The plaintiff does not explicitly allege in her fifth or sixth counts that the Shoreline Pools defendants should be held liable under General Statutes § 14-295. Nevertheless, the plaintiff does refer to General Statutes §§ 14-218a, 14-219, 14-222 and 14-227a. Under the provisions of § 14-295, a reckless violation of each of these statutes can serve as the basis of double or treble damages under § 14-295. Moreover, in her prayer of relief, the plaintiff specifically refers to § 14-295 as the basis for her claim for double or treble damages under her fifth and sixth counts. Although Practice Book § 10-3(a) requires that "[w]hen any claim made in a complaint . . . is grounded on a statute, the statute shall be specifically identified by number," this court has held "that a plaintiff must only allege that the defendant violated one or more of the motor vehicle statutes enumerated in General Statutes § 14-295 and that this violation was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff's injuries" in order to state a legally sufficient claim for statutory recklessness in a motor vehicle accident case. Grimmer v. Fairfield Cab Co., Superior Court, judicial district of Fairfield, Docket No. CV 09 5026627 (December 9, 2009, Tobin, J.). Consequently, the court finds that the plaintiff has adequately alleged a statutory recklessness cause of action.

In opposition to the motion to strike, the plaintiff first claims that the majority of Superior Court decisions have allowed the owner of a motor vehicle to be held vicariously liable for statutory recklessness damages under § 14-295 in the context of an employer/employee relationship. The plaintiff also contends that the plain text and legislative history of § 14-295 indicate that the legislature intended to make a non-operator liable for statutory damages. The plaintiff's precise argument in that regard is that in 2003 the General Assembly added a second sentence to § 14-295 that specifically held that the owner of a rented or leased vehicle could not be responsible for double or treble damages. The plaintiff reasons that it would have made little sense for the legislature to exempt specifically the owner of a rented or leased motor vehicle if all non-driver owners could not be held liable under § 14-295 as a matter of law. Additionally, the plaintiff also notes that the plain language of § 14-295 indicates that it applies to "any civil action." Finally, the plaintiff contends that when read in conjunction with General Statutes § 52-183, which provides for a presumption of agency between the owner and operator of a motor vehicle for both the negligent and reckless operation of an automobile, § 14-295 must allow for a statutory recklessness claim against an employer for the actions of an employee driver. The plaintiff contends that a contrary construction would essentially render § 52-183 as meaningless.

See Public Acts 2003, No. 03-250.

Section 14-295 provides: "In any civil action to recover damages resulting from personal injury, wrongful death or damage to property, the trier of fact may award double or treble damages if the injured party has specifically pleaded that another party has deliberately or with reckless disregard operated a motor vehicle in violation of section 14-218a, 14-219, 14-222, 14-227a, 14-230, 14-234, 14-237, 14-239 or 14-240a, and that such violation was a substantial factor in causing such injury, death or damage to property. The owner of a rental or leased motor vehicle shall not be responsible for such damages unless the damages arose from such owner's operation of the motor vehicle." The statute's second sentence was added by enactment of Public Act 03-250, effective on October 1, 2003.

General Statutes § 1-2z, enacted as Public Acts 2003, No. 03-154 mandates an approach to the construction of statutes. The statute provides: "The meaning of a statute shall, in the first instance be ascertained from the text of the statute itself and its relationship to other statutes. If, after examining such text and considering such relationship, the meaning of such text is plain and unambiguous and does not yield absurd or unworkable results, extratextual evidence of the meaning of the statute shall not be considered."

"[W]hen construing a statute, [o]ur fundamental objective is to ascertain and give effect to the apparent intent of the legislature . . . In other words, we seek to determine, in a reasoned manner, the meaning of the statutory language as applied to the facts of [the] case, including the question of whether the language actually does apply . . . In seeking to determine the meaning, General Statutes § 1-2z directs us first to consider the text of the statute itself and its relationship to other statutes. If, after examining such text and considering such relationship, the meaning of such text is plain and unambiguous and does not yield absurd or unworkable results, extratextual evidence of the meaning of the statute shall not be considered . . . When a statute is not plain and unambiguous, we also look for interpretive guidance to the legislative history and circumstances surrounding its enactment, to the legislative policy it was designed to implement, and to its relationship to existing legislation and common law principles governing the same general subject matter . . ." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Sosin v. Sosin, 300 Conn. 205, 227-28 (2011). "The test to determine ambiguity is whether the statute, when read in context, is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Raftopol v. Ramey, 299 Conn. 681, 699 (2011). Furthermore, "[w]hen application of the statute to a particular situation reveals a latent ambiguity in seemingly unambiguous language . . . we turn for guidance to the purpose of the statute and its legislative history to resolve that ambiguity." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Conway v. Wilton, 238 Conn. 653, 665 (1996).

No Connecticut appellate court has addressed the issue of whether an employer may be held vicariously liable for statutory damages assessed pursuant to § 14-295. A number of superior courts that have considered the issue have reached different results. In Moncrieffe-West v. Transportation General, Inc., Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven, Docket No. CV 10 6012915 (December 6, 2010, Burke, J.) ( 51 Conn. L. Rptr. 96), the court reviewed and analyzed the conflicting opinion. The court noted, "[t]here is . . . a split of authority on the lower courts regarding the imposition of § 14-295 punitive damages on one who is only vicariously liable. Compare Hollis v. Alamo Financing, L.P., Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Docket No. CV 08 5024043 (October 7, 2009, Rittenband, J.T.R.) ( 48 Conn. L. Rptr. 620), and Otis v. Montesi, Superior Court, judicial district of Middlesex, Docket No. CV 07 5002196 (January 25, 2008, Jones, J.), and Goss v. Wright, Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven, Docket No. CV 05 5001164 (March 15, 2006, Lopez, J.) [ 40 Conn. L. Rptr. 882] (holding vicarious liability may be basis for statutory recklessness claim under § 14-295), with Zwicker v. Sabetta, Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven, Docket No. CV 07 5008853 (February 1, 2008, Skolnick, J.T.R.) ( 45 Conn. L. Rptr. 9), and, Hronis v. EBO Logistics, LLC, 641 F.Sup.2d 139, 140 (D.Conn. 2009) (holding § 14-295 does not abrogate common-law rule that there can be no imposition of punitive damages on one who is only vicariously liable)." Id., 97-98. After considering these decisions, the court in Moncrieffe-West held that § 14-295 did not abrogate the common-law rule prohibiting vicarious liability for punitive damages.

In this case, the plaintiff claims the plain language of the second sentence of § 14-295 specifically excludes only the owners of rented and leased vehicles from double or treble damages. The plaintiff reasons that the legislature had no reason to amend the statute in 2003 if the legislature believed that the provisions of § 14-295 in effect at that time precluded the vicarious imposition of punitive damages. The plaintiff notes that § 14-295 does not expressly prohibit the court from awarding punitive damages against a non-driver owner and that the plain text of the statute indicates that § 14-295 applies to "any civil action." Based on this analysis the plaintiff concludes that a statutory recklessness claim founded on a theory of vicarious liability is a viable cause of action.

An alternative explanation for the insertion of the second sentence of § 14-295 is that the General Assembly intended to overrule legislatively the Supreme Court's decision in Gionfriddo v. Avis Rent A Car System, Inc., 192 Conn. 280 (1984), in which the court held that § 14-154a authorized the imposition of statutory double or treble damages under § 14-295. When reading this decision, the Gionfriddo court focused on the language found in § 14-154a indicating that "[any person renting or leasing to another any motor vehicle owed by him shall be liable . . . to the same extent as the operator would have been liable if he had also been the owner." Consequently, the addition of the language into § 14-295 stating that "[t]he owner of a rental or leased motor vehicle shall not be responsible for such damages unless the damages arose from such owner's operation of the motor vehicle" into § 14-295 made it clear that the legislature no longer wanted to allow a court to award punitive damages against the owner of a rented or leased motor vehicle pursuant to § 14-154a. This alternative explanation for the addition of the second sentence into § 14-295 in 2003, which the court credits, substantially undermines the plaintiff's analysis.

"The legislative roots of both General Statutes §§ 14-154a and 14-295 can be found in a statute enacted in 1797 known as `An Act to Regulate Stage and Other Carriage Drivers.' The statute provided in § 2 for the imposition of treble damages for injuries caused by one in violation of certain rules of the road; and in § 4 made the owner of the vehicle liable if the driver could not pay . . . The statute was retained without substantive change until 1905 when the legislature amended § 4 to limit owners' liability (1) to `actual' damages; and (2) to situations in which the driver was proved to be the owner's agent or the owner was proved negligent in his entrustment of the vehicle to the driver. The 1905 act further required the injured person to elect to proceed either against the owner for actual damages or against the driver for treble damages." (Citation omitted.) Gionfriddo v. Avis Rent A Car System, Inc., 192 Conn. 280, 287 n. 3 (1984). Although this 1905 act was repealed in 1921 and replaced with a new statute in 1925, imputed responsibility for a driver's negligence was only explicitly extended to owners who leased vehicles via the present day § 14-154a. Id.; Pirro v. Berardi, Superior Court, judicial district of Waterbury, Docket No. CV 01 0165815 (October 3, 2003, Alvord, J.) [ 35 Conn. L. Rptr. 541]; see also Bissonette v. Pomroy, Superior Court, judicial district of Windham, Docket No. CV 97 0054782 (July 1, 1997, Sferrazza, J.) ( 19 Conn. L. Rptr. 664, 664) (same). Therefore, it can be seen at that one point in time, Connecticut law allowed for the vicarious imposition of punitive damages against the owner of a vehicle for the conduct of the driver in the event that the driver could not pay for the victim's damages. Nevertheless, this language was removed from the governing statutes in 1905, and the General Assembly only later specifically extended vicarious liability to the owners of rented or leased automobiles.

General Statutes § 14-154a imposes vicarious liability on the owners of rental and leased cars. This statute has largely been preempted by the Graves Amendment, 49 U.S.C. § 30106. See Rodriguez v. Testa, 296 Conn. 1, 9 (2010).

It is well established that "at common law, there [was] no vicarious liability for punitive damages . . . and that under that common-law doctrine, the owner of a motor vehicle is not vicariously liable for punitive damages resulting from the driver's reckless operation of the vehicle." (Citations omitted.) Matthiessen v. Vanech, 266 Conn. 822, 837 (2003). Consequently, in its Matthiessen decision, our Supreme Court clearly established that an owner of an automobile cannot be held vicariously liable under a common-law recklessness theory. The Appellate Court has cited Matthiessen for the generalized conclusion that "it [is] improper to award punitive damages against someone who is innocent and, therefore, only liable vicariously." Stohlts v. Gilkinson, 87 Conn.App. 634, 654, cert. denied, 273 Conn. 930 (2005). In that case the Appellate Court relied on the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 909 for the following exceptions to that rule: "Punitive damages can properly be awarded against a master or other principal because of an act by an agent if, but only if, (a) the principal or a managerial agent authorized the doing and the manner of the act, or (b) the agent was unfit and the principal or a managerial agent was reckless in employing or retaining him, or (c) the agent was employed in a managerial capacity and was acting in the scope of employment, or (d) the principal or a managerial agent of the principal ratified or approved the act." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id. The plaintiff in the present case has not alleged facts that would implicate any of these exceptions.

Accordingly, when read together, Matthiessen and Stohlts stand for the proposition that the common-law rule in Connecticut is that a court cannot impose punitive damages on a party that is only vicariously liable for the actions of the alleged tortfeasor. Matthiessen specifically holds that at common law the owner of a motor vehicle could not be liable for punitive damages due to the reckless behavior of the driver. It is a familiar principle of statutory construction that "[w]hen a statute is in derogation of common law . . . it should receive a strict construction and is not to be extended, modified, repealed or enlarged in its scope by the mechanics of [statutory] construction . . . In determining whether or not a statute abrogates or modifies a common law rule the construction must be strict, and the operation of a statute in derogation of the common law is to be limited to matters clearly brought within its scope." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Fennelly v. Norton, 294 Conn. 484, 504-05 (2010). Given the fact that the predecessor statutes to § 14-295 had allowed for the imposition of punitive damages against a motor vehicle owner and that the legislature affirmatively removed this language from those statutes, and that in order to authorize punitive damages that § 14-295 would need to abrogate the common law, it is clear that the court must strictly construe § 14-295. The plain language of § 14-295 does not expressly impose punitive damages based on vicarious liability. The text of the statute only refers to a vehicle that was recklessly "operated." This analysis does not "yield absurd or unworkable results." Accordingly, the court finds that the fifth and sixth counts of the plaintiff's revised complaint, alleging statutory recklessness against the alleged non-driver owners, are legally insufficient under the provisions of § 14-295.

The plaintiff also claims that General Statutes § 52-183, when read in conjunction with § 14-295, supports a conclusion that a court can vicariously impose punitive damages on the owner of a motor vehicle. Section 52-183 provides: "In any civil action brought against the owner of a motor vehicle to recover damages for the negligent or reckless operation of the motor vehicle, the operator, if he is other than the owner of the motor vehicle, shall be presumed to be the agent and servant of the owner of the motor vehicle and operating it in the course of his employment. The defendant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption." It is the plaintiff's position that the inclusion of the word "reckless" in § 52-183 would be superfluous if the owner of an automobile were exempt from liability for statutory recklessness. In her memorandum of law, the plaintiff argues that "[b]ecause there is no vicarious liability for common law recklessness, § 52-183 only serves a purpose if, as the statutes themselves indicate, there is statutory action in vicarious liability for reckless operation of a motor vehicle." In proposing this argument, the plaintiff misapprehends the law. Connecticut recognizes a cause of action against an owner of an automobile for the common-law recklessness of a driver. However, the plaintiff may collect only compensatory damages from such an owner and is not entitled to pursue a claim for punitive damages. Matthiessen v. Vanech, supra, 266 Conn. 839-40. Accordingly, the court finds that the provisions of § 52-183 in no way implies a legislative intent to impose vicarious liability for punitive damages on non-operator owners of motor vehicles.

For the reasons stated above, the court grants the Shoreline Pools defendants' motion to strike counts five and six of the plaintiffs' revised complaint.