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Stehle v. Venture Logistics, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division, Dayton

January 10, 2020

JOSEPH P. STEHLE, et al., Plaintiffs,
VENTURE LOGISTICS, LLC, et al., Defendants.



         Pending before the Court is the Motion to Dismiss Complaint and Transfer Venue (Doc. 16) (the “Motion”), filed by Defendant Venture Logistics, LLC (“Venture”), pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2), 12(b)(3), and 28 U.S.C. §§ 1404(a) and 1406(a).[1] Plaintiffs filed a Response to the Motion (Doc. 22) (the “Response”), and Venture filed a Reply in support of the Motion (Doc. 27) (the “Reply”). The Motion is fully briefed and ripe for review.[2] (Docs. 16, 22, 27.) For the reasons discussed below, the Court GRANTS, IN PART, the Motion and TRANSFERS this case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises from the tragic death of Joseph P. Stehle (“Stehle”) that occurred following a traffic accident. Venture is in the business of short haul regional trucking delivery services. It serves customers in every state except Alaska and Hawaii. Venture is an Indiana Limited Liability Company, formed in Indiana, with its principal place of business located at 1101 Harding Court, Indianapolis, Indiana.

         As alleged in the Complaint, on or about June 9, 2018, Stehle was driving a vehicle eastbound on Interstate 70 approaching mile marker 110 in Wilkinson, Indiana (within Hancock County) when it was struck in the rear by a tractor trailer driven by defendant Sean P. Kelley (“Kelley”), one of Venture's truck drivers. The tractor trailer drove up and on top of the vehicle driven by Stehle, allegedly crushing him and causing his death. Plaintiffs allege that, at the time of the collision, the vehicle driven by Stehle was covered by a policy of insurance issued by defendant American Guarantee and Liability Insurance Company (“American Guarantee”).

         Plaintiffs allege that this Court has subject matter jurisdiction over this case on diversity grounds pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Plaintiffs allege that venue is appropriate in this Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(2) and (d) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 4. All of the Plaintiffs are alleged to be residents of Ohio. The Complaint alleges that Kelley is a resident of Indiana. It indicates an address in Illinois for American Guarantee. As referenced above, Venture is an Indiana Limited Liability Company with its principal place of business in Indiana. Venture has a registered agent in Ohio; it selected a nationwide company authorized by the Federal Motor Carriers Act to designate agents for service of process in all states in which it operates in order to ensure compliance with that Act.

         Based on an affidavit submitted to the Court from Jeff Davis, Venture's Executive Vice President, Venture conducts relatively limited business in Ohio. In 2018, Venture logged 6% of its total driven miles, nationwide, within the State of Ohio. That same year, 5.6% of its total business profits were derived from the State of Ohio. Venture does not operate any terminals within Ohio, does not have any offices located within Ohio, and only 20 of its approximately 900 total drivers are dedicated to serving Ohio customers. Venture's Ohio drivers make up 2.2% of its total fleet of drivers; Kelley is not one of Venture's Ohio drivers.

         Mr. Davis testified in his affidavit that Kelley operated out of Venture's Indianapolis, Indiana terminal and that, upon information and belief, Kelly began his route in Brazil, Indiana on the day of the incident. A bill of lading indicates that, during the time of the incident, Kelley was transporting baled waste to a Kentucky customer. Again, the incident took place in Indiana while both Kelley and Stehle were driving eastbound (therefore toward Ohio) on Interstate 70. Kelley's driver's logs do not show that Kelley ever entered the State of Ohio on the date of the incident. Mr. Davis testified that, upon information and belief, Venture has never been served at its Ohio registered agent other than in the present lawsuit.

         Plaintiffs filed the Complaint on June 7, 2019. (Doc. 1.) It contains ten causes of action, titled: Negligence; Negligence Per Se; Wrongful Death; Survivorship; Loss of Consortium; Negligent/Intentional Emotional Distress; Claim Against Defendant American Guarantee; Uninsured Motorists/Declaratory Judgment Against Defendant American Guarantee; Negligent Hiring/Entrustment/Supervision; and Punitive Damages. American Guarantee filed its Answer to the Complaint on August 8, 2019 (Doc. 11), and Kelley filed his Answer to the Complaint on October 29, 2019 (Doc. 24).

         II. ANALYSIS

         The briefing on the Motion raises three main issues. First, whether Venture consented to personal jurisdiction in Ohio. Second, if the Court determines that Venture has not consented to personal jurisdiction in Ohio, whether this Court otherwise has personal jurisdiction over Venture. Third, whether the claims against all or some of the defendants may and should be transferred to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

         A. Personal Jurisdiction

         Venture moves to dismiss the Complaint under Rule 12(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on the basis that this Court lacks personal jurisdiction over it. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(2). Plaintiffs bear the burden of establishing, through specific facts, that personal jurisdiction exists over each defendant independently. Beydoun v. Wataniya Restaurants Holding, Q.S.C., 768 F.3d 499, 504 (6th Cir. 2014); Conn v. Zakharov, 667 F.3d 705, 711 (6th Cir. 2012). However, the burden of proof that plaintiffs must bear to avoid dismissal depends on whether the court conducts an evidentiary hearing on the motion. Id. Here, based on the parties' submissions, the Court exercises its discretion not to conduct an evidentiary hearing.

         If a district court rules on a jurisdictional motion to dismiss made pursuant to Rule 12(b)(2) without limited discovery or conducting an evidentiary hearing, then-instead of weighing any facts disputed by the parties-the court must consider the pleadings and submitted affidavits in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, although the court also may consider the defendant's undisputed factual assertions. Id. Where a district court rules without an evidentiary hearing, then plaintiffs need only make a prima facie showing that personal jurisdiction over the defendant exists to defeat such a motion.[3] Id.

         (1) Inquiry concerning alleged consent to personal jurisdiction pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 13304(a)

         A defendant may consent to the personal jurisdiction of a particular court, regardless of that court's ability to exercise personal jurisdiction over that defendant. See Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 472 n.14 (1985) (“because the personal jurisdiction requirement is a waivable right, there are a variety of legal arrangements by which a litigant may give express or implied consent to the personal jurisdiction of the court”) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Merely as an example of how a party may consent to personal jurisdiction, “[t]he use of a forum selection clause is one way in which contracting parties may agree in advance to submit to the jurisdiction of a particular court.” Preferred Capital, Inc. v. Assocs. In Urology, 453 F.3d 718, 721 (6th Cir. 2006).

         In the Response, Plaintiffs argue that Venture consented to personal jurisdiction in this Court because it registered an agent for service in Ohio in accordance with 49 U.S.C. § 13304(a), a provision of the federal Motor Carrier Act. (Doc. 22 at PAGEID # 78.) The issue of whether designating an agent in a state, in accordance with 49 U.S.C. § 13304(a), implies consent to personal jurisdiction in that state is an issue that has divided courts. See Western Express, Inc. v. Villanueva, No. 3:17-cv-01006, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 176227, at *15-16 (M.D. Tenn. Oct. 24, 2014) (citing numerous cases and explaining how “[b]oth parties acknowledge that there are numerous cases holding that the designation of an agent for service of process does imply consent to personal jurisdiction” and that “there are numerous cases standing for the opposite premise as well.”) (internal citations omitted) (emphasis in original).

         The statute states the following:

(a) Designation of agent. A motor carrier or broker providing transportation subject to jurisdiction under chapter 135 [49 U.S.C. §§ 13501 et seq.] … shall designate an agent in each State in which it operates by name and post office address on whom process issued by a court with subject matter jurisdiction may be served in an action brought against that carrier or broker. The designation shall be in writing and filed with the Department of Transportation and each State in which the carrier operates may require that an additional designation be filed with it. If a designation under this subsection is not made, service may be made on any agent of the carrier or broker within that State.

49 U.S.C. § 13304(a). “The phrase ‘jurisdiction under chapter 135' generally refers to the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Department of Transportation and the Surface Transportation Board … over the interstate transportation by motor carrier and the procurement of that transportation.” Hegemann v. M & M Am., Inc., No. 2:18-cv-00064, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 160683, at *13 (D. Vt. Sept. 20, 2018) (citing Western Express, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 176227, at *13 n.4 and 49 U.S.C. §§ 13102(1), (2)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         As an initial matter, Venture points out that the Complaint does not identify 49 U.S.C. § 13304(a) as a basis for personal jurisdiction over Venture. (See Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 1-3, 9.) Regardless, this Court finds that Venture has not consented to personal jurisdiction based solely on Plaintiffs' service of process on Venture' registered agent in Ohio designated pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 13304(a).

         In 1993, the Sixth Circuit held that “the mere designation of an agent in compliance with the service-of-process statute does not automatically eliminate the requirement of minimum contacts to establish personal jurisdiction.” Pittock v. Otis Elevator Co., 8 F.3d 325, 329 (6th Cir. 1993) (finding that the district court properly determined that Ohio did not have personal jurisdiction over a non-Ohio defendant corporation concerning an accident that took place in Nevada). In Pittock, the plaintiffs argued that the defendant “consented to personal jurisdiction by designating an agent to accept service of process in Ohio.” Id. at 328. The statute at issue there was an Ohio state statute requiring a foreign corporation to designate an agent (upon whom process against the corporation may be served within the state) in order to be licensed to transact business in the state. Id., citing Ohio Revised Code ...

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