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Puerini v. LaPierre

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 4, 2019

Jason Puerini et al.
Jeanne LaPierre et al.

          Providence County Superior Court (PC 11-2266) Associate Justice Richard A. Licht

          For Plaintiffs: Lauren E. Jones, Esq. Manuel Andrews, Esq.

          For Defendants: Annette G. Hasapidis, Pro Hac Vice Howard A. Fried, Pro Hac Vice Faith A. LaSalle, Esq. Paul R. Crowell, III, Esq.

          Present Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          Paul A. Suttell Chief Justice.

         Federal preemption is the subject of this appeal. It arises out of litigation over the vicarious liability of the owner-lessor of a motor vehicle for the alleged negligence of the driver-lessee in a roadway collision resulting in injuries to the operator of a motorcycle. A hearing justice of the Superior Court resolved the case on summary judgment motions. While several theories of liability were alleged in the complaint, the only issue on appeal before us is whether the hearing justice erred by granting summary judgment in favor of the owner of the car-the corporate entity to which the car lease had been assigned-on the basis that a federal law preempted state statutes authorizing vicarious liability of a car owner for the negligent acts of the driver. To resolve the issue, we must address a question of first impression in this jurisdiction-whether the federal Graves Amendment, 49 U.S.C. § 30106, preempts our state laws allowing a party injured in a motor vehicle accident to recover from the title owner of a vehicle through the owner's vicarious liability for the negligence of the driver. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.


         Facts and Procedural History

         In the late afternoon of April 25, 2008, Jason Puerini was operating his motorcycle on Great Road in North Smithfield when an automobile turned out of a parking lot in front of him, resulting in a collision. The automobile was driven by Jeanne LaPierre, the co-lessee of the vehicle in a lease originated by Metro Honda, aka Metro Motors Inc. (Metro Motors), and assigned prior to the collision to Honda Lease Trust (HLT). There is no dispute that Puerini sustained multiple serious injuries from the collision.

         In 2011, Puerini and his wife, Andrea, individually and on behalf of their minor children, filed a multi-count complaint in Providence County Superior Court. In addition to Jeanne LaPierre, the complaint named as defendants LaPierre's sister, Priscilla MacPherson, co-lessee of the automobile; Metro Motors, the corporate entity that leased the car to LaPierre and MacPherson; HLT, the corporate entity holding the title to the leased vehicle and the lessor by assignment at the time of the accident; and Amica Mutual Insurance Company, [1] as insurer for LaPierre and MacPherson. The complaint alleged that LaPierre's negligence caused Puerini's injuries, that the corporate defendants were vicariously liable for LaPierre's negligence, and that Puerini's wife and children had suffered loss of consortium. MacPherson filed a cross-claim, seeking indemnification and contribution from codefendants in the event that she was ultimately held liable for plaintiffs' injuries.

         In 2013, a hearing justice granted plaintiffs' motion to amend their complaint. The amended complaint added allegations against defendants asserting that, although it was LaPierre who sought to lease the new vehicle, the corporate defendants intentionally placed MacPherson as the primary lessee (with LaPierre as the co-lessee) without MacPherson's and LaPierre's knowledge because LaPierre had been unable to secure financing based on her negative credit history. The amended complaint reasserted several theories of liability against the corporate defendants, including vicarious liability by statute, pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§ 31-33-6 and 31-33-7, as well as through common law theories of bailment and assignment. The plaintiffs also alleged several new theories of statutory liability against the corporate defendants based on the new allegations, including violation of the state deceptive trade practices act and fraud pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§ 31-5.1-1 and 6-13.1-1, respectively; violation of the federal deceptive trade practices act, 15 U.S.C. § 45; and civil liability pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 9-1-2. In addition, plaintiffs alleged common law theories of fraud and negligence, and reasserted the counts for loss of consortium. HLT's answer asserted-as an affirmative defense-that plaintiffs' theories of liability were preempted by federal law.

         Between August 2013 and July 2015, Metro Motors and HLT each filed several motions for summary judgment. A hearing on Metro Motors' motions was eventually held in July 2015, and a hearing on HLT's motions was held in September 2015. The hearing justice granted the motions, and plaintiffs filed a premature notice of appeal.[2] After this Court ordered that this case be placed on the regular calendar for full briefing and argument, plaintiffs withdrew their appeal with respect to Metro Motors.[3] The issues presented for our review will, therefore, be considered only as to HLT.


         Standard of Review

         "This Court reviews a hearing justice's grant of a motion for summary judgment de novo." Bayview Loan Servicing, LLC v. Providence Business Loan Fund, Inc., 200 A.3d 153, 156 (R.I. 2019) (quoting Pineda v. Chase Bank USA, N.A., 186 A.3d 1054, 1056 (R.I. 2018)). "We will affirm a trial court's decision only if, after reviewing the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, we conclude that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. (brackets omitted) (quoting Cancel v. City of Providence, 187 A.3d 347, 350 (R.I. 2018)). "Furthermore, the nonmoving party bears the burden of proving by competent evidence the existence of a disputed issue of material fact and cannot rest upon mere allegations or denials in the pleadings, mere conclusions or mere legal opinions." Id. (quoting Cancel, 187 A.3d at 350). "Summary judgment should enter against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case." Id. (brackets and deletion omitted) (quoting Cancel, 187 A.3d at 350). "Additionally, when presented with questions of statutory interpretation, this Court engages in a de novo review." Id. at 156-57 (quoting In re Tetreault, 11 A.3d 635, 639 (R.I. 2011)).



         This appeal is focused exclusively on plaintiffs' claims that HLT is vicariously liable to them for their injuries. HLT has argued from its first motion for summary judgment, however, that the federal Graves Amendment, 49 U.S.C. § 30106, preempts any state statute imposing vicarious liability on HLT as the title owner of the vehicle LaPierre was driving when the collision occurred. The plaintiffs objected, arguing that, because the General Assembly has "enacted financial responsibility laws[] aimed at making sure an individual hurt on these highways has an avenue of recovery against a lessor, the Graves Amendment is not applicable."

         On appeal, plaintiffs hang their hats on two broad arguments. First, they argue that HLT was not entitled to summary judgment because, as asserted in one of HLT's responses to an interrogatory propounded by plaintiffs, HLT was not in the business of leasing or renting motor vehicles at the time LaPierre signed the lease for the vehicle involved in the accident. This interrogatory response, according to plaintiffs, should have precluded summary judgment. Second, plaintiffs argue that the Motor Vehicle Reparation Act, G.L. 1956 chapter 47 of title 31 (MVRA), is a financial responsibility law and thus is not preempted by the Graves Amendment.

         For its part, HLT argues that plaintiffs waived their argument that HLT is not entitled to the protections from liability pursuant to the Graves Amendment because the question of whether HLT was a dealer in the business of leasing cars at the time the lease was signed was not argued before the hearing justice. Alternatively, HLT argues that it does in fact fall within the scope of the Graves Amendment's protections because there is no factual dispute that it is a dealer in the business of leasing motor vehicles. HLT also argues that the MVRA is not a vicarious liability statute; instead, HLT contends, the MVRA requires owners of vehicles to have insurance but does not impose vicarious liability as a consequence for failure to comply with its mandatory insurance provisions.


         Preemptive Effect of ...

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