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BNSF Railway Co. v. Hall Hauling LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

March 27, 2018




         This matter is before the Court on defendant Hall Hauling's motion to stay and supplemental motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, to stay. Plaintiff BNSF Railway Company has filed responses in opposition and the issues are fully briefed. All matters are pending before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge, with consent of the parties, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         This action arises from a collision between a commercial truck owned by Hall Hauling and a BNSF freight train, in which the driver of the truck died and the train derailed. Litigation is proceeding in both state and federal courts. Hall Hauling asks the Court to abstain from exercising jurisdiction, pursuant to Colorado River Water Cons. Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976), and either stay this action or dismiss it outright.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         On May 5, 2017, a BNSF freight train loaded with coal was proceeding southbound on a track near Foley, Missouri. Mr. Shanon Amerosa, an employee of Hall Hauling, had just picked up a truckload of rock at a mine operated by Magruder Limestone Company, Inc., and Magruder Quarry and Equipment Co., LLC (collectively, “Magruder”). Mr. Amerosa departed from the quarry on a road that crossed the railroad tracks. He entered the railroad crossing and was struck by the BNSF train. The collision caused Mr. Amerosa's death, the destruction of Haul Hauling's truck, and the derailment of 30 loaded coal cars and a locomotive. [Docs. # 1 at ¶ 12; # 9-1 at ¶ 38; # 9-3 at ¶¶ 13-15].

         On June 13, 2017, Mr. Amerosa's minor daughter filed a wrongful death action in the Circuit Court of Lincoln County, naming Magruder and BNSF.[1] Amerosa v. Magruder Limestone Co., Inc., et al., No. 17L6-CC00072, Amended Petition [Doc. # 9-1] (the Lincoln County action). BNSF filed a counterclaim for property damage, alleging that Mr. Amerosa was at fault for the collision. [Doc. # 9-2]. The Lincoln County court dismissed BNSF's counterclaims because they were asserted against Mr. Amerosa, who was not the plaintiff in the suit, but granted BNSF leave to brings its claims in a third-party action. [Docs. # 13-1, # 13-2].

         On November 1, 2017, Hall Hauling filed a motion to intervene in the Lincoln County action in order to assert a negligence claim against BNSF for the loss of its truck.[2] [Doc. # 9-3]. On November 17, 2017, rather than file a third-party action against Hall Hauling in the Lincoln County case, BNSF filed this diversity action alleging that Hall Hauling was vicariously liable for the alleged negligence of its employee and directly liable for his negligent training. Hall Hauling filed a motion to stay the federal action pending the Lincoln County court's decision on its motion to intervene, arguing that abstention under Colorado River would be warranted in the federal case if it were allowed to intervene in the state case. BNSF opposed the motion to stay, arguing that the Court should not abstain under Colorado River, no matter the outcome of Hall Hauling's motion to intervene.

         The state court granted Hall Hauling leave to intervene on January 10, 2018. BNSF filed an answer and counterclaim in which it asserts the same claims asserted in its complaint in this action. Hall Hauling has filed a supplemental motion in the federal action again arguing that abstention is warranted under Colorado River.

         II. Discussion

         The Colorado River abstention doctrine permits federal courts to decline to exercise jurisdiction over cases where “parallel” state court litigation is pending. Spectra Commc'ns Grp., LLC v. City of Cameron, Mo., 806 F.3d 1113, 1121 (8th Cir. 2015) (quoting Cottrell v. Duke, 737 F.3d 1238, 1245 (8th Cir. 2013)). “This rule is based on ‘considerations of wise judicial administration, giving regard to conservation of judicial resources and comprehensive disposition of litigation.'” Id. (quoting Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 817). Because federal courts have a “virtually unflagging obligation . . . to exercise the jurisdiction given them, ” Colorado River abstention is appropriate only in “exceptional circumstances” where the surrender of federal jurisdiction is supported by “the clearest of justifications.” Moses H. Cone Mem'l Hosp. v. Mercury Const. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 25-26 (1983). In determining whether a specific case presents “exceptional circumstances, ” a court must “tak[e] into account both the obligation to exercise jurisdiction and the combination of factors counselling against that exercise.” Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 818-19.

         A. Parallel Actions

         “A parallel state court proceeding is a necessary prerequisite to use of the Colorado River factors.” In re Burns & Wilcox, 54 F.3d 475, 477 (8th Cir. 1995). In the Eighth Circuit, it is not enough that the state and federal cases are based on the same general facts or subject matter and involve the same parties. Fru-Con Const. Corp. v. Controlled Air, Inc., 574 F.3d 527, 535 (8th Cir. 2009). Rather, there must be a “substantial likelihood that the state proceeding will fully dispose of the claims presented in federal court.” Id. BNSF initially argued that the state and federal actions were not parallel because its negligence claims were raised only in the federal action. BNSF has now filed negligence counterclaims against Hall Hauling in the state court action and thus there is a substantial likelihood that the state court proceedings will fully dispose of the claims BNSF asserts against Hall Hauling in the federal action. The Lincoln County and federal proceedings are parallel.

         B. Colorado River Factors

         Where parallel state and federal proceedings exist, the courts examine the following six factors to determine whether exceptional ...

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