Hale v. Cub Cadet, LLC et al

Filing 20

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER that 9 Motion to Remand is DENIED as further set out. Signed by Hon. Chief Judge Mark E. Fuller on 11/8/2010. (cb, )

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-CSC Hale v. Cub Cadet, LLC et al Doc. 20 IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT F O R THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA E A S T E R N DIVISION D O R O T H Y HALE, as Administratrix o f the Estate of Grover Cleveland Hale, d eceased , ) ) ) ) P L A IN T IF F , ) ) v. ) ) C U B CADET, LLC; MTD CONSUMER ) P R O D U C T S , et al., ) ) D EFEN D AN TS. ) C A S E NO. 3:10-cv-697-MEF (W O -P U B L IS H ) M E M O R A N D U M OPINION AND ORDER T h e Dorothy Hale ("Plaintiff"), the Administratrix of the estate of Grover Cleveland H a le ("Hale"), brings this suit against the manufacturer of the riding lawn mower which c a u s e d his death. Plaintiff also brings suit against the manufacturer's parent company. Although Plaintiff filed suit in the Circuit Court for Lee County, Alabama, the two named d e f e n d a n ts removed the action, invoking this Court's subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 2 8 U.S.C. 1332. This cause is now before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Remand (D o c . # 9). The Court has carefully considered the submissions of the parties and the a p p lic a b le law. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court finds that the motion is due to be D E N IE D . FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND O n August 29, 2009, Hale died in while using a lawnmower at his property in G e o rg ia . Hale had purchased the lawnmower at a Home Depot U.S.A. store located in Lee C o u n ty, Alabama. It is alleged that Defendant Cub Cadet, LLC ("Cub Cadet") designed, Dockets.Justia.com assembled, manufactured, marketed, and distributed the lawnmower Hale purchased in a d e f e c tiv e and unreasonably dangerous condition. Plaintiff seeks damages from Club Cadet a n d its parent corporation in this suit. Plaintiff also names several "fictitious defendants." P la in ti f f filed suit against these defendants in the Circuit Court of Lee County, A la b a m a on July 8, 2010. Plaintiff's Complaint seeks unspecified damages pursuant to the A la b a m a Wrongful Death Statute and the Alabama Extended Manufacturer's Liability D o c trin e . On July 16, 2010, the named defendants were served with a copy of the initial p le a d in g in this case. On August 16, 2010, Cub Cadet and its corporate parent (collectively referred to as " D e f e n d a n ts " ) filed a Notice of Removal (Doc. # 1) in this Court. Defendants contend that th is Court has subject matter jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1332(a) b e c a u s e more than $75,000 is in controversy and the Plaintiff is a citizen of Georgia and D e f e n d a n ts are citizens of Ohio. Defendants also filed a motion asking this Court to dismiss th is case or to transfer it to a proper venue. Plaintiff filed a motion to remand contending that Defendants have failed to offer s u f f ic ie n t grounds for removal in that the amount in controversy is insufficient to satisfy the re q u ire m e n ts of the diversity statute. In so arguing, the Plaintiff makes specific contentions re g a rd in g the nature of permissible damages under the Alabama Wrongful Death Statute; h o w e v e r, Plaintiff subsequently conceded that Georgia law provides the substantive d e c is io n a l authority for this action.1 When a federal court exercises jurisdiction based upon diversity of citizenship, the c o u rt is bound to apply the substantive law of the state in which it sits. Erie R. Co. v. 2 1 JURISDICTION AND REMAND STANDARD F e d e ra l courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. o f Am., 511 U.S. 375 (1994); Burns v. Windsor Ins. Co., 31 F.3d 1092, 1095 (11th Cir. 1994); W y m b s v. Republican State Executive Comm., 719 F.2d 1072, 1076 (11th Cir. 1983). As s u c h , federal courts only have the power to hear cases that they have been authorized to hear b y the Constitution or the Congress of the United States. Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 377. Among the cases over which a federal district court may exercise subject matter j u r i s d i c tio n are civil actions in which only state law claims are alleged if the civil action a rise s under the federal court's diversity jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. 1332(a). The diversity s ta tu te confers jurisdiction on the federal courts in civil actions "between citizens of different s ta te s ," in which the jurisdictional amount, currently in excess of $75,000, is met. Id. When a case is originally filed in state court, a party may remove it if the case o rig in a lly could have been brought in federal court. See 28 U.S.C. 1441(a). However, the n o n -m o v in g party may move for remand, which will be granted if "it appears that the district T o m p k in s , 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938). The Erie doctrine extends to choice-of-law questions, so th a t a court sitting in diversity must apply the forum state's conflict-of- law rules. Strochak v . Federal Ins. Co., 109 F.3d 717, 719-20 (11th Cir. 1997) (citing Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. M fg . Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496 (1941)); Thomas v. FMC Corp., 610 F. Supp. 912, 913-14 (M .D . Ala. 1985). For more than one hundred years, Alabama has steadfastly applied the tra d itio n a l lex loci delicti choice of law rule to tort claims, including products liability claims a n d claims for wrongful death. See, e.g., Life Star Response of Ala., Inc. v. Admiral Ins. C o ., 17 So. 3d 200 (Ala. 2009); Fitts v. Minnesota Mining & Mfg. Co., 581 So. 2d 819, 820 (A la . 1991); Bodnar v. Piper Aircraft Corp., 392 So. 2d 1161 (Ala. 1981); Alabama Great S . R.R. v. Carroll, 11 So. 83 (1892). Alabama has specifically rejected alternative a p p ro a c h e s such as the one advance by the Restatement of Conflicts of Laws Second. See, e .g ., Fitts, 581 So. 2d at 823; Bodnar, 392 So. 2d at 1163. Because it is alleged that Hale was in ju re d and died in Georgia, the Court agrees that Georgia law, not Alabama law, provides th e causes of action and remedies. 3 court lacks subject matter jurisdiction." See 28 U.S.C. 1447(c). Because removal ju ris d ic tio n raises significant federalism concerns, "removal statutes are construed narrowly; w h e re plaintiff and defendant clash about jurisdiction, uncertainties are resolved in favor of re m a n d ." Burns, 31 F.3d at 1095. DISCUSSION T h e Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that where a complaint specifically c la im s damages less than the requisite jurisdictional amount for diversity jurisdiction, a d e f e n d a n t must prove to a "legal certainty" that plaintiff's claims would not yield a recovery le s s than the jurisdictional amount to keep a removed case in federal court. See, e.g., Burns, 3 1 F.3d at 1095. However, when the complaint contains an unspecified demand for d a m a g e s , a removing defendant need only prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the a m o u n t in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional requirement. See, e.g., Roe v. Michelin N. A m ., Inc., 613 F.3d 1058, 1061 (11th Cir. 2010); Tapscott v. MS Dealer Serv. Corp., 77 F.3d 1 3 5 3 , 1356-57 (11th Cir. 1996); Moss v. Voyager Ins. Cos., 43 F. Supp. 2d 1298, 1301 (M.D. A la . 1999). "In cases where plaintiff has made such an unspecified damages demand, `a lo w e r burden of proof is warranted because there is simply no estimate of damages to which a court may defer.'" Moss, 43 F. Supp. 2d at 1301 (citing Tapscott, 77 F.3d at 1356-57). In assessing whether it has subject matter jurisdiction over a case removed after s e r v i c e of the initial complaint,2 this Court must determine whether subject matter The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has recently clarified that there are three typ e s of removal and that slightly different analyses apply to the varying types of removal. See generally Roe, 613 F.3d at 1061 n.4; Pretka, 608 F.3d at 756-768. 4 2 jurisdiction existed at the time of the removal. See, e.g., Pretka v. Kolter City Plaza II, Inc., 6 0 8 F.3d 744, 751 (11th Cir. 2010); Poore v. American-Amicable Life Ins. Co. of Tex., 218 F .3 d 1287, 1290-91 (11th Cir. 2000); Sierminski v. Transouth Fin. Corp., 216 F.3d 945, 949 (1 1 th Cir. 2000) (jurisdictional facts that support removal must be judged at the time of the re m o v a l, and any post petition affidavits are allowable only if relevant to that period of time); M o s s , 43 F. Supp. 2d at 1303. Here, Defendants have removed the suit to federal court on the basis of the initial c o m p la in t arguing that it is facially apparent from the complaint itself3 that the amount in c o n tro v e rsy exceeds the jurisdictional minimum even though the complaint does not claim a specific amount in damages. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has recently explained a t length what a district court must do to evaluate the question presented by such a removal: If a defendant alleges that removability is apparent from the face of the com plaint, the district court must evaluate whether the complaint itself satisfies th e defendant's jurisdictional burden. In making this determination, the court is not bound by the plaintiff's representations regarding its claim, nor must it a s s u m e that the plaintiff is in the best position to evaluate the amount of d a m a g e s sought. Indeed, in some cases, the defendant or the court itself may b e better-situated to accurately assess the amount in controversy. Eleventh Circuit precedent permits district courts to make reasonable d e d u c tio n s , reasonable inferences, or other reasonable extrapolations from the p le a d in g s to determine whether it is facially apparent that a case is removable. Put simply, a district court need not suspend reality or shelve common sense in determining whether the face of a complaint...establishes the jurisdictional a m o u n t. Instead, courts may use their judicial experience and common sense i n determining whether the case stated in a complaint meets federal Because Defendants have removed this case pursuant to the first paragraph of 28 U .S .C . 1446(b), they could have presented additional evidence business records and a f f id a v its , for instance to satisfy their jurisdictional burden; however, Defendants did not e le c t to do so. See Roe, 613 F.3d at 1061 n.4. 5 3 jurisdictional requirements. R o e , 613 F.3d at 1061-62 (internal citations and quotations omitted). An error in the Plaintiff's complaint which carried over into the Defendants' Notice o f removal complicates the analysis in this case. Plaintiff incorrectly alleged that Hale's d e a th entitled her to damages under the Alabama Wrongful Death Statute, which does not a l l o w an award of compensatory damages, but instead limits recovery in wrongful death c a s e s to punitive damages assessed on the basis of five factors. See generally Roe, 613 F.3d a t 1064. In the Notice of Removal, Defendants repeat the Plaintiff's choice of law error and a rg u e that under the Alabama Wrongful Death Statute the amount in controversy would more lik e ly than not exceed $75,000. Of course, for the reasons previously explained, Georgia law a p p lie s to the claims in this action because the Cub Cadet product allegedly caused Hale's d e a th in Georgia. Therefore, the parties contentions about the likely value of the claims u n d e r Alabama law are simply not relevant. Georgia is unique in its measure of damages for a wrongful death act claim. Unlike o th e r states, including Alabama which also has a unique but different approach, the measure o f damages is the value of the decedent's life to him.4 Therefore, the measure of damages The measure of damages in a wrongful death action under Georgia law is e s ta b lis h e d by statute. See Ga. Code Ann. 51-4-2(a). The recovery of damages permitted b y Ga. Code Ann. 51-4-2(a) is for the "full value of the life of the decedent, as shown by th e evidence." Ga. Code Ann. 51-4-2(a). The statute further states that the: "`Full value o f the life of the decedent, as shown by the evidence' means the full value of the life of the d e c e d e n t without deducting for any of the necessary or personal expenses of the decedent had h e lived." See Ga. Code Ann. 51-4-1(1). See also Brock v. Wedincamp, 558 S.E.2d 836, 8 4 1 (Ga. Ct. App. 2002). "The damages recoverable in a wrongful death action include the d e c e d e n t's expected earnings, or the value of the decedent's services, from the date of the d e c e d e n t's tortiously-caused premature death to the statistically-projected date of the 6 4 is the same as for a person who survives a tortious injury but is totally and permanently d is a b le d . Other possible damages associated with the decedent's survivors are prohibited. Other than alleging the fact that Hale is deceased, both the Complaint and the Notice of R e m o v a l are devoid of any factual allegations that assist the Court in determining the value o f Hale's life to him or the damages which he would have incurred if he had been totally and p e rm a n e n tly disabled in the accident, instead of being killed. Nevertheless, applying c o m m o n sense and drawing reasonable inferences from the factual allegations of the C o m p la in t, the Court is satisfied that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. CONCLUSION B e c a u s e this Court is satisfied that it has subject matter jurisdiction over this action p u rs u a n t to 28 U.S.C. 1332, it is hereby ORDERED that the Plaintiff's Motion to Remand (D o c . # 9) is DENIED. D O N E this the 8th day of November, 2010. /s/ Mark E. Fuller CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE d e c e d e n t's natural death, plus an intangible element representing the full value of the life of th e decedent." Wesley Chapel Foot & Ankle Ctr. v. Johnson, 650 S.E.2d 387, 391 n.6 (Ga. Ct. App. 2007) (citations omitted). 7

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