Jason Puerini et al.
Jeanne LaPierre et al.
Providence County Superior Court (PC 11-2266) Associate
Justice Richard A. Licht
Plaintiffs: Lauren E. Jones, Esq. Manuel Andrews, Esq.
Defendants: Annette G. Hasapidis, Pro Hac Vice Howard A.
Fried, Pro Hac Vice Faith A. LaSalle, Esq. Paul R. Crowell,
Present Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and
A. Suttell Chief Justice.
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
and Procedural History
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.
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,  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'
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.
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. 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. The issues presented for our review will,
therefore, be considered only as to HLT.
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)).
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
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
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
Effect of ...