Riley et al v. Willo Products Company, Inc. et al
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER. (see order for details) IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendants Willo Products Company's and Bradley Corporation's Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings [ECF Nos. 20 , 22 ] are DENIED. Signed by District Judge E. Richard Webber on 02/01/2013. (CBL)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
CHARLES RILEY and GEORGIA
RILEY, as Natural Parents of
CHARLES GREGORY RILEY,
deceased, et al.,
WILLO PRODUCTS COMPANY, et al., )
Case No. 2:12CV00039 ERW
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
This matter comes before the Court on Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings filed by
Defendants Willo Products Company (“Willo”) and Bradley Corporation (“Bradley”) [ECF Nos.
20, 22]. Defendants request this Court to enter judgment in their favor and against Plaintiffs, in
accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), on Plaintiffs’ claims of Negligence
(Counts I - against Willo, and III - against Bradley) and Strict Liability - Product Defect (Counts
II - against Willo, and IV - against Bradley) contained in Plaintiffs’ Complaint.
The Court adopts the following statement of facts as well-pleaded allegations in
Plaintiffs’ Complaint [ECF No. 1]. Ginsburg v. Inbev NV/SA, 623 F.3d 1229, 1233 n. 3 (8th Cir.
2010); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009).
Plaintiffs are family members of Charles Gregory Riley (“Decedent”), who died on June
2, 2009, as a result of using a bed sheet tied to a collapsible hook to cut off his air supply, while
he was detained in a holding cell at the Randolph County Justice Center [ECF No. 1].
Defendants Willo and Bradley are engaged in the business of designing, manufacturing,
distributing, and selling detention equipment systems and controls, including security clothes
hooks [ECF No. 1]. During the relevant time period, Defendants sold their manufactured
products to Randolph County, where the products were used in the cells located inside the
Randolph County Justice Center [ECF No. 1]. Defendants designed, manufactured, distributed,
or sold the security clothes hook that was located in the Randolph County Justice Center on June
2, 2009. The security clothes hook was designed, manufactured, and marketed to release when
more than twenty (20) pounds of force was applied to the hook, to, among other things, prevent
individuals from committing suicide [ECF No. 1]. The security hook did not release when
Decedent applied at least twenty (20) pounds of force by tying a bed sheet to the hook, and
Decedent died as a result of suicide by hanging [ECF No. 1].
On June 1, 2012, Plaintiffs filed their four-count Complaint against Defendants, asserting
negligence and strict liability claims for wrongful death [ECF No. 1]. Both Willo and Bradley
filed Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings, contending that the Decedent’s intervening act of
suicide prevents Plaintiffs from demonstrating the essential element of causation in their claims,
and that Defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law [ECF Nos. 20, 22].
Generally, a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings is reviewed under the same
standard as a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Ginsburg, 623 F.3d at 1233, n. 3; Clemons v.
Crawford, 585 F.3d 1119, 1124 (8th Cir. 2009); Ashley County v. Pfizer, 552 F.3d 659, 665 (8th
Cir. 2009). The Court must view the allegations in the Complaint liberally and in the light most
favorable to Plaintiff. Eckert v. Titan Tire Corp., 514 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2008) (citing
Luney v. SGS Auto. Servs,, 432 F.3d 866, 867 (8th Cir. 2005)). The Court “must accept the
allegations contained in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the
nonmoving party.” Coons v. Mineta, 410 F.3d 1036, 1039 (8th Cir. 2005). A complaint must
have “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v.
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007) (abrogating the “no set of facts” standard for Fed.R.Civ.P.
12(b)(6) found in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)). To prove the grounds for
entitlement of relief, a plaintiff must provide more than labels and conclusions, and “a formulaic
recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp., 550 U.S. at 555;
Huang v. Gateway Hotel Holdings, 520 F.Supp.2d 1137, 1140 (E.D. Mo. 2007).
“[T]he Court generally must ignore materials outside the pleadings, but it may consider
‘some materials that are part of the public record or do not contradict the complaint.’” State ex
rel. Nixon v. Coeur D’Alene Tribe, 164 F.3d 1102, 1107 (8th Cir. 1999). Additionally, the Court
may consider materials that are “necessarily embraced by the pleadings.” Piper Jaffray Cos. v.
National Union Fire Ins. Co., 967 F.Supp. 1148, 1152 (D.Minn. 1997); Porous Media Corp. v.
Pall Corp., 186 F.3d 1077, 1079 (8th Cir. 1999).
The Court interprets the forum state’s law when it has power under diversity jurisdiction.
Gray v. AT&T Corp., 357 F.3d 763, 765 (8th Cir. 2004). In this diversity case, Missouri law
applies. Id. Accordingly, the Court shall resolve the issues by attempting to predict how the
highest court in Missouri would resolve the issues. Nordyne, Inc. v. Int’l Controls &
Measurements Corp., 262 F.3d 843, 846 (8th Cir. 2001).
To prevail on a claim of negligence in Missouri, a plaintiff must prove the existence of a
duty, the defendant’s breach of the duty, and damages proximately caused by the defendant’s
breach. Morrison v. Kubota Tractor Corp., 891 S.W.2d 422, 425 (Mo. Ct. App. 1994) (citing
Commercial Distrib. Ctr., Inc. v. St. Regis Paper Co., 689 S.W.2d 664, 671 (Mo. App. 1985)).
To succeed on a strict liability-product defect claim, a plaintiff must prove that a product was
being sold in the course of a defendant’s business, that the product was in a defective and
unreasonably dangerous condition at the time of sale, that the product was being used in a
reasonably anticipated manner, and that the defective condition was the cause of the plaintiff’s
damages. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.760 (2012); Blevins v. Cushman Motors, 551 S.W.2d 602, 607
(Mo. banc 1977).
In their Motions, Defendants assert that the Plaintiffs cannot show causation for their
Negligence claim or their Strict Liability-Product Defect claim, because suicide is an independent
intervening act under Missouri law. They contend that they are entitled to judgment as a matter
of law due to the Plaintiffs’ inability to prove this essential element of both claims. In Missouri,
an act of voluntary suicide has been held to be “a new and independent intervening act which
breaks the causal connection between the allegedly negligent act and the death.” Coleman v. City
of Pagedale, No. 4:06CV01376 ERW, 2008 WL 2439747 at *2 (E.D. Mo. June 16, 2008)
(quoting Eidson v. Reprod. Health Servs., 863 S.W.2d 621, 627 (Mo. App. 1993).
In their Response in Opposition to Defendants’ Motions, Plaintiffs argue that it is
premature for a determination that Defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. They
contend the Missouri Supreme Court has rejected prior Missouri court decisions holding that
suicide was an independent intervening act breaking the causal connection between allegedly
negligent acts and deaths. See Kivland v. Columbia Orthopaedic Group, LLP, 331 S.W.3d 299,
306-10 (Mo. banc 2011). In Kivland, after undergoing spinal surgery, the decedent found
himself paralyzed from the waist down, and in continuous, extreme pain. Id. at 302. Eight
months after he and his wife filed a medical negligence action against his surgeon, the decedent
committed suicide by shooting himself. Id. Following his death, the medical negligence action
was amended by adding a claim for wrongful death on behalf of his widow and his daughter. Id.
The decedent’s surgeon moved for partial summary judgment on the action’s claims for
wrongful death and lost chance of recovery, asserting that the decedent’s suicide was an
independent intervening act, and that, as a matter of law, the surgeon legally could not be
responsible for the decedent’s death. Id. at 303-04. As to the wrongful death claim, the Court
rejected the surgeon’s request to make a general exception to the causation standard when the
death is by suicide, and instead held that plaintiffs can show that a defendant’s negligence was
the proximate cause of the decedent’s suicide by presenting evidence that the suicide was the
“natural and probable consequence” of the injury the decedent suffered at the hands of the
defendant. Id. at 309.
Plaintiffs also note that the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict in favor of
the parents of a psychiatric patient who committed suicide by jumping from a fifteenth floor
window of a hospital. Honey v. Barnes Hosp., 708 S.W.2d 686 (Mo. Ct. App. 1986). Following
his death, the decedent’s parents brought a wrongful death suit against the hospital, a general
contractor, and a window manufacturer. Id. at 690-91. The hospital had contracted for the
construction of a new hospital building, based on certain architectural design specifications. The
window manufacturer was required to build the windows for the project according to the
specifications. Id. at 690. The parents’ theory of recovery against the window manufacturer was
based upon common law negligence, and their allegations included that the manufacturer
negligently supplied windows without adequate tolerance to allow locking, or negligently
supplied windows without limit stops. Id. at 703. During trial, expert testimony that limit stops
would prevent the window from opening more than three to five inches was adduced. Id. The
Court held that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to believe that the presence of a limit stop
would have prevented the decedent’s death. Id. at 703.
In their Replies, Defendants argue that their Motions must be granted because the
decedent’s intervening suicidal act broke the causal connection between their alleged act of
negligence and his death, and they contend that Kivland did not change the standard for
determining when a defendant many be held liable for a decedent’s suicide. Defendants assert
that the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Kivland plaintiffs because the defendant’s
suicide was the natural and probable consequence of the surgeon’s negligence. They` claim the
facts of this matter are completely dissimilar to those in Kivland, because Decedent Riley was not
suicidal due to Defendant’s negligence. Defendants also claim that Honey does not support
Plaintiffs’ assertion that a manufacturer may be held liable in a wrongful death action where the
decedent committed suicide, because the Honey court did not consider the intervening act of
suicide when determining causation .
In Kivland, the Missouri Supreme Court opined that “[t]he better rule is to focus on what
Missouri cases actually require in wrongful death cases: whether the decedent’s death was ‘a
direct result’ of defendant’s negligence.” Kivland, 331 S.W.3d at 309. Thus, a plaintiff can
demonstrate the defendant’s negligence was the proximate cause of the decedent’s suicide by
presenting evidence that the suicide was the natural and probable consequence of the injury the
decedent suffered. Id. Viewing the allegations in the Complaint liberally, and in the light most
favorable to Plaintiffs, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts from which a
jury could believe that, had the hook released when more than twenty (20) pounds of force was
applied to the hook, Decedent’s death would have been prevented. The Court concludes that
Plaintiffs have stated a cognizable threshold claim for wrongful death based on negligence and
strict liability, sufficient to withstand the Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings. The Court will
deny the Defendants’ Motions.
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendants Willo Products Company’s and Bradley
Corporation’s Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings [ECF Nos. 20, 22] are DENIED.
day of February, 2013.
E. RICHARD WEBBER
SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?