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In a Negligence Case, Should the Court Presume a Defendant Was at Fault Unless He Proves Otherwise or Must Negligence Be Proved by the Asserting Plaintiff?

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In Bedford v. Doe, No. 10-4558, (8th Cir. Dec. 12, 2017), the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit undertook this issue.

Raeburn Bedford (“Bedford”) was a truck driver who was injured after he opened the door to a trailer he was hauling and a load of boxes fell on him. Bedford sued International Paper Company, (“IP”), and a John Doe (“Doe”) who worked for IP, asserting that Doe negligently failed to secure the load and that IP negligently supervised the loading and inspecting of the trailer and was vicariously responsible for Doe’s negligence. When IP moved for summary judgment, Bedford failed to respond. Because Bedford did not respond directly to IP’s motion for summary judgment, the district court deemed that he had admitted the facts that IP stated and granted IP’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the claims against it. The district court also dismissed the claim against Doe because Bedford appeared to have abandoned that claim—a ruling that Bedford does not challenge on appeal. Bedford moved for reconsideration and was denied.

Bedford does not challenge the district court’s conclusion that he violated a Local Rule by failing to respond to IP’s motion for summary judgment and so had admitted the facts that IP stated. He argues instead that there is evidence that IP and Doe breached their duty to him and that IP’s statement of undisputed facts is incomplete and misleading, and so IP is not entitled to summary judgment even if he is deemed to have admitted those facts.

In other words, if the nonmoving party must prove X to prevail, the moving party at summary judgment can either produce evidence that X is not so or point out that the nonmoving party lacks the evidence to prove X.

Once the moving party satisfies this initial burden, the nonmoving party must respond by submitting evidentiary materials of specific facts showing the presence of a genuine issue for trial.  The nonmoving party must instead present enough evidence that a jury could reasonably find in his favor.

In its motion for summary judgment, IP pointed out to the district court that Bedford was unable to produce evidence that demonstrates that IP was negligent because he could not show that the trailer was improperly loaded or that any negligence by IP was the proximate cause of his injuries.

Bedford contends that we should presume that Doe was negligent when loading the trailer, and if we do so, then IP cannot show that it is entitled to summary judgment. But this squarely contradicts Arkansas negligence law. The Supreme Court of Arkansas has stressed that negligence is never assumed but must instead be proven by the party asserting it. It has also emphasized that plaintiffs, in proving negligence, may not rely on conjecture or speculation, and the mere fact that an accident occurred does not give rise to an inference of negligence. Therefore, the ruling is affirmed.