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Earley v. United Airlines

September 28, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Kemp


This diversity action is before the Court on defendant United Airlines' ("United") motion for summary judgment. This case has been referred to the Magistrate Judge for full disposition under 28 U.S.C. §636(c). For the following reasons, United's motion for summary judgment will be granted.


The following facts are taken from the complaint and plaintiff Susan Earley's deposition, which is the only evidence filed by either party. On August 19, 2003, Ms. Earley was a passenger on United Flight 62 from San Francisco, California to Honolulu, Hawaii and was seated next to the window. The airplane only had two seats on Ms. Earley's side of the aisle, and the other seat adjacent to Ms. Earley was unoccupied during the flight.

During the flight, Ms. Earley left her seat to use the restroom. When she returned, she sidestepped to the left while facing the front of the airplane in order to get back into her seat. While one foot was in front of her window seat, and her other foot and body were in front of the unoccupied aisle seat, the tray table attached to the back of the seat immediately in front of the unoccupied seat fell and struck Ms. Earley. This caused Ms. Earley to lose her balance and fall into the aisle seat, twisting her knee in the process. (Dep. of Ms. Earley at pp. 39; 44.)

Ms. Earley felt a "sharp, stabbing pain" in her knee as a result of the fall but did not report the incident or pain to anyone on the airplane. According to Ms. Earley, after the tray table fell on her, it randomly fell more times during the duration of her flight. She did not notify anyone of the problem. At some later date, Ms. Earley went to the emergency room and was diagnosed with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn meniscus in her left knee, which required surgery.


Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c) provides:

The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

"[T]his standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986)(emphasis in original); Kendall v. The Hoover Co., 751 F.2d 171, 174 (6th Cir. 1984).

Summary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is genuine; "that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party," Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The purpose of the procedure is not to resolve factual issues, but to determine if there are genuine issues of fact to be tried. Lashlee v. Sumner, 570 F.2d 107, 111 (6th Cir. 1978). Therefore, summary judgment will be granted "only where the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, where it is quite clear what the truth is,...[and where] no genuine issue remains for trial,...[for] the purpose of the rule is not to cut litigants off from their right of trial by jury if they really have issues to try." Poller v. Columbia Broadcasting Systems, Inc., 368 U.S. 464, 467 (1962); accord, County of Oakland v. City of Berkley, 742 F.2d 289, 297 (6th Cir. 1984).

In making this inquiry, the standard to be applied by the Court mirrors the standard for a directed verdict. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. The primary difference between the two motions is procedural: summary judgment motions are usually made before trial and decided on documentary evidence, while directed verdict motions are made at trial and decided on the evidence that has been admitted. Bill Johnson's Restaurants, Inc. v. NLRB, 461 U.S. 731, 745, n. 11 (1983). In essence, though, the inquiry under each is the same: whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.

Accordingly, although summary judgment should be cautiously invoked, it is an integral part of the Federal Rules which are designed "to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 327 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 1).

In a motion for summary judgment the moving party bears the "burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact, and for these purposes, the [evidence submitted] must be viewed in the light most favorable to the opposing party." Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970) (footnote omitted); accord, Adams v. Union Carbide Corp., 737 F.2d 1453, 1455-56 (6th Cir. 1984), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1062 (1985). Inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts contained in such materials must be considered in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962); Watkins v. Northwestern Ohio Tractor Pullers Association, Inc., 630 F.2d 1155, 1158 (6th Cir. 1980). Additionally, "unexplained gaps" in materials submitted by the moving party, if pertinent to material issues of fact, justify denial of a motion for summary judgment. Adickes, 398 U.S. at 157-60; Smith v. Hudson, 600 F.2d 60, 65 (6th Cir.), cert. dismissed, 444 U.S. 986 (1979).

If the moving party meets its burden and adequate time for discovery has been provided, summary judgment is appropriate if the opposing party fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the opposing party's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which ...

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