No. CV 06-5000843 S
August 2, 2006
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
This matter is before the court on a motion to strike the fourth and fifth counts and corresponding prayer for relief of the plaintiff's complaint filed by the defendants, Peter and Patricia Scvucka, dated April 10, 2006.
On February 16, 2006, the plaintiff, Gaye V. Zukauskas, filed a five-count complaint against the defendants, Peter P. Scvucka (defendant driver) and Patricia A. Scvucka (defendant owner). Therein, the plaintiff alleges the following facts. On March 1, 2005, at approximately 6:55 p.m., the plaintiff was driving her motor vehicle on Route 4, a public street or highway, when the defendant driver, who was driving in the opposite direction on Route 4 in a vehicle owner by his mother, the defendant owner, suddenly and without warning entered the plaintiff's lane and twice collided with her motor vehicle, causing the plaintiff to suffer injury and losses. The plaintiff alleges almost identical facts in counts four and five. In count four, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant owner's conduct was negligent because she knew or should have known that it was likely to snow and that the tires on her motor vehicle were in an unsafe condition. In count five, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant owner's conduct was reckless because she allowed the defendant driver to operate her vehicle knowing that it was likely to snow and knowing that the tires were unsafe.
On April 11, 2006, the defendants filed a motion to strike the fourth and fifth counts of the plaintiff's complaint and the prayer for punitive damages corresponding with the fifth count of the plaintiff's complaint on the ground that, as pleaded, both counts fail to state legally sufficient claims and fail to meet the standard for the imposition of such damages. The defendants submitted a memorandum of law in support of the motion to strike. On June 8, 2006, and June 14, 2006, the plaintiff filed a memorandum of law in opposition to the defendant's motion to strike. The matter was last heard on the short calendar on July 3, 2006.
"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, 815 A.2d 1189 (2003). "It is fundamental that in determining the sufficiency of a complaint challenged by a defendant's motion to strike, all well-pleaded facts and those facts necessarily implied from the allegations are taken as admitted . . . Indeed, pleadings must be construed broadly and realistically, rather than narrowly and technically." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Asylum Hill Problem Solving Revitalization Assn. v. King, 277 Conn. 238, 246, 890 A.2d 522 (2006). "A motion to strike . . . requires no factual findings by the trial court . . . [W]e construe the complaint in the manner most favorable to sustaining its legal sufficiency . . . [I]f facts provable in the complaint would support a cause of action, the motion to strike must be denied . . . Thus, we assume the truth of both the specific factual allegations and any facts fairly provable thereunder." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Greco v. United Technologies Corp., 277 Conn. 337, 347, 890 A.2d 1269 (2006). "For the purpose of ruling upon a motion to strike, the facts alleged in a complaint, though not the legal conclusions it may contain, are deemed to be admitted." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Murillo v. Seymour Ambulance Assn., Inc., 264 Conn. 474, 476, 822 A.2d 1202 (2003).
In their memorandum of law in support of the motion to strike, the defendants argue that count four fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted because the defendant owner has no duty to the plaintiff. The defendants also argue that because the plaintiff merely reiterated the factual allegations contained in her negligence cause of action against the defendant owner, that her common-law recklessness cause of action is insufficiently pleaded. Additionally, the defendants argue that since the facts alleged in the plaintiff's fifth count fail to rise to the level of common-law recklessness, count five is insufficient as a matter of law. Lastly, the defendants argue that as a matter of law, the defendant owner cannot be liable for punitive damages.
The plaintiff counters that count four sufficiently alleges negligence as a matter of law because the defendant owner permitted the defendant driver to operate a vehicle on a public roadway when she knew or should have known that the vehicle had unsafe tires and that it was likely to snow. The plaintiff also argues that count five sufficiently alleges common-law recklessness because Connecticut case law permits allegations of negligence and recklessness to factually mirror one another. Moreover, the plaintiff argues that the facts alleged in her complaint sufficiently establish the defendant owner's reckless conduct. As such, the plaintiff also argues that punitive damages remain available in connection with the fifth count of her complaint, sounding in common-law recklessness.
The defendants argue that the fourth count of the plaintiff's complaint is legally insufficient because the defendant owner does not owe the plaintiff a duty. "The essential elements of a cause of action in negligence are well established: duty; breach of that duty; causation; and actual injury . . . Duty is a legal conclusion about relationships between individuals, made after the fact, and [is] imperative to a negligence cause of action . . . Thus, [t]here can be no actionable negligence . . . unless there exists a cognizable duty of care." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Murdock v. Croughwell, 268 Conn. 559, 566, 848 A.2d 363 (2004). "[T]he test for the existence of a legal duty of care entails (1) a determination of whether an ordinary person in the defendant's position, knowing what the defendant knew or should have known, would anticipate that harm of the general nature of that suffered was likely to result, and (2) a determination, on the basis of a public policy analysis, of whether the defendant's responsibility for its negligent conduct should extend to the particular consequences or particular plaintiff in the case." Id., 566. The first prong of this test is a test for foreseeability . . . To meet this test, the defendant must be able to foresee the general nature of the harm suffered, though not necessarily the exact nature of the harm . . . [a] simple conclusion that the harm to the plaintiff was foreseeable . . . cannot by itself mandate a determination that a legal duty exists. Many harms are quite literally foreseeable, yet for pragmatic reasons, no recovery is allowed . . . The final step in the duty inquiry, then, is to make a determination of the fundamental policy of the law, as to whether the defendant's responsibility should extend to such results." Mazureck v. Great American Insurance Company Inc., Superior Court, complex litigation docket at Waterbury, Docket No. X02 CV 01 0177433 (February 10, 2005, Schuman, J.). Liability may not be imposed merely because it might have been foreseeable that some accident could have occurred; rather, liability attaches only for reasonably foreseeable consequences." Lodge v. Arett Sales Corporation, 246 Conn. 563, 577, 717 A.2d 215 (1998).
In the present case, construing the complaint most favorably to the plaintiff and assuming the truth of her factual allegations; Greco v. United Technologies Corp., supra, 277 Conn. 347; the defendant owner knew or should have known both that the tires on her motor vehicle were unsafe and that it was likely to snow. "The sole inquiry in ruling on a motion to strike is whether the plaintiff's allegations, if proved, would state a cause of action." Devivo v. Prosenak, Superior Court, judicial district of Fairfield, Docket No. CV 02 0392531 (March 23, 2006, Owens, J.T.R.). The allegations contained in the plaintiff's complaint, taken as true, support the proposition that an accident is a reasonably foreseeable consequence of operating a motor vehicle with unsafe tires during a likely snow storm. Consequently, a person in the defendant's position would be able to anticipate it. Additionally, sound public policy dictates that automobiles — especially those that are likely to come in contact with other unsuspecting drivers and pedestrians — be kept in safe, good working order. See Mitchell v. Miller, 26 Conn.Sup. 142, 150, 214 A.2d 694 (1965). Accordingly, the fourth count of the plaintiff's complaint sounding in negligence against the defendant owner is legally sufficient and properly pleaded.
Therefore, the motion to strike count four of the plaintiff's complaint is denied.
The fifth count of the plaintiff's complaint sounds in common-law recklessness. "To determine whether the plaintiff['s] [revised] complaint states a cause of action sounding in recklessness, [the court] look[s] first to the [definition] of . . . reckless behavior." O'Brien v. Daly, Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven, Docket No. CV 04 4000580 (February 10, 2005, Zoarski, J.T.R.). "Recklessness involves more than a failure to exercise reasonable care to avoid danger to others, or to take reasonable precautions to avoid injuring another . . . Recklessness is more than negligence, or even gross negligence . . . It involves a disregard of the consequences of one's actions, and a disregard of the rights of others." Florio v. DoCarmo, Superior Court, judicial district of Waterbury, Docket No. 03-0183675 (July 8, 2004, Matasavage, J.).
[r]ecklessness requires a conscious choice of a course of action either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger to any reasonable man, and the actor must recognize that his conduct involves a risk substantially greater . . . than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent . . . More recently, we have described recklessness as a state of consciousness with reference to the consequences of one's acts . . . It is more than negligence, more than gross negligence . . . The state of mind amounting to recklessness may be inferred from conduct. But, in order to infer it, there must be something more than a failure to exercise a reasonable degree of watchfulness to avoid danger to others or to take reasonable precautions to avoid injury to them . . . Wanton misconduct is reckless misconduct . . . It is such conduct as indicates a reckless disregard of the just rights or safety of others or of the consequences of the action . . .
While we have attempted to draw definitional distinctions between the terms wilful, wanton or reckless, in practice the three terms have been treated as meaning the same thing. The result is that willful, wanton, or reckless conduct tends to take on the aspect of highly unreasonable conduct, involving an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation where a high degree of danger is apparent."
(Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.)
"Although there is a difference between negligence and a reckless disregard of the rights or safety of others, a complaint is not deficient so long as it utilizes language specific enough to inform the court and opposing counsel that both negligence and reckless conduct are being asserted." Craig v. Driscoll, 262 Conn. 312, 343, 813 A.2d 1003 (2003).
The plaintiff alleges that "prior to lending the motor vehicle to [the defendant driver], the [defendant owner] knew the motor vehicle did not have safe tires and that it was likely to snow while he was operating the motor vehicle." (Emphasis added.) (Plaintiff's complaint, p. 18.) At short calendar, the plaintiff's counsel admitted that he could not locate any Connecticut case law supporting the proposition that unsafe tires coupled with a possibility of snow establishes common-law recklessness. (Short Calendar, July 3, 2006.) Research confirms the plaintiff's counsel's admission. Plaintiff's counsel cited cases of recklessness being found in matters involving unsafe brakes and steering. However, while the activity certainly involves negligence, this court does not find that providing a vehicle with unsafe tires rises to the standard of being highly unreasonable conduct, involving an extreme departure from ordinary care.
Therefore, taken in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, the plaintiff's legal conclusion that the factual allegations amount to recklessness is misguided. As stated above, "[f]or the purpose of ruling upon a motion to strike, the facts alleged in a complaint, though not the legal conclusions it may contain, are deemed to be admitted." (Emphasis added; internal quotation marks omitted.) Murillo v. Seymour Ambulance Assn., Inc., supra, 264 Conn. 476. "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.) Wilson v. Visual Effects, Inc., Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven, Docket No. CV 06 5001655 (June 6, 2005, Thompson, J.). Since the facts alleged in count five of the plaintiff's complaint do not rise to the level of common-law recklessness, the plaintiff has insufficiently pled that count.
As such, the defendant's motion to strike the fifth count of the plaintiff's complaint is granted.
Since the court has granted the motion to strike the fifth count of the plaintiff's complaint sounding in common-law recklessness, the corresponding prayer for punitive damage relief is also ordered stricken, rendering discussion moot.
In conclusion, for the above stated reasons, the court denies the motion to strike the fourth count, but grants the motion to strike the fifth count of the plaintiff's complaint and the corresponding prayer for punitive damages.