BOLDMAN et al v. WAL-MART STORES, INC. et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge Anne E. Thompson on 8/17/2016. (km)
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
JOSEPH J. BOLDMAN and LAURA A.
Civ. No. 16-4
WAL-MART STORES, INC., WALMART STORES, EAST, LP, and WALMART STORES, EAST, INC.,
This matter comes before the Court upon the motion of Defendants Wal-Mart Stores,
Inc., Wal-Mart Stores, East, LP, and Wal-Mart Stores, East, Inc. (collectively “Wal-Mart” or
“Defendants”) to dismiss the second amended complaint of Plaintiffs Joseph and Laura Boldman
(“Plaintiffs”). (ECF No. 34). Plaintiffs oppose, and file cross-motions for relief under Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure 15(a) and 60, as well as Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4. (ECF
No. 36). The Court has issued the opinion below based upon the written submissions of the
parties and without oral argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78(b). For the
reasons stated herein, Defendants’ motion to dismiss will be denied, and Plaintiffs’ motion to
amend the complaint will be granted.
As the Court writes primarily for the benefit of the parties, the Court will only recount the
facts relevant to this motion. Plaintiffs’ allegations are as follows: on January 1, 2014, Plaintiffs
were visiting Mr. Boldman’s grandparents in Aberdeen Township, New Jersey. Mr. Boldman
attempted to start a fire using a five-gallon portable gasoline can that his grandfather had
purchased from Wal-Mart in October 2012. When Mr. Boldman attempted to start a fire using
the gasoline can, the gasoline can exploded, causing him serious injuries. Mr. Boldman and his
wife have therefore brought product liability claims against Wal-Mart as the seller of the can.
On November 17, 2015, Plaintiffs filed suit against Wal-Mart in the Superior Court of
New Jersey. Defendants removed the case to federal court on January 4, 2016. Then, on
January 11, 2016, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. On February 11, 2016,
the Court granted Defendants’ motion and dismissed the complaint without prejudice, but gave
Plaintiffs leave to amend the complaint within thirty days.
Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on March 9, 2016. Defendants then filed a motion
to dismiss Plaintiffs’ amended complaint on March 28, 2016. The Court granted Defendants’
motion on May 3, 2016, again dismissing the complaint without prejudice. However, the Court
did not grant Plaintiffs leave to amend the complaint. On May 26, 2016, Plaintiffs attempted to
file a second amended complaint without leave from the Court. Defendants therefore filed
another motion to dismiss on June 8, 2016. In response to this motion, Plaintiffs have also filed
cross-motions for relief under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 15(a) and 60, as well as Federal
Rule of Appellate Procedure 4. These motions are presently before the Court.
Defendants seek to dismiss Plaintiffs’ complaint on the grounds that Plaintiffs filed a
second amended complaint without being granted leave to amend by the Court. Defendants
assert that this was improper under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a). Defendants also
assert that Plaintiffs are now barred from filing a second amended complaint because the case is
closed and the statute of limitations has run.
Under Rule 15(a), a party may amend a pleading once as a matter of course early in the
case. After that, a party may only amend its pleading with the opposing party’s written consent
or the Court’s leave. Id. However, “[t]he court should freely give leave when justice so
requires.” Id. at (2). Plaintiffs acknowledge that they filed the second amended complaint
without leave from the Court, but argue that the omission of a grant of leave to amend was an
oversight by this Court, and that they should now be permitted to amend their complaint under
Rule 15(a). In the alternative, Plaintiffs request relief from judgment under Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure 60(a) or (b), or an extension of time to file an appeal under Federal Rule of
Appellate Procedure 4.
Under Third Circuit precedent, “an order which dismisses a complaint without prejudice
is neither final nor appealable because the deficiency may be corrected by the plaintiff without
affecting the cause of action. Only if the plaintiff cannot amend or declares his intention to stand
on his complaint does the order become final and appealable.” Borelli v. City of Reading, 532
F.2d 950, 951-52 (3d Cir. 1976) (citations omitted); see also Ahmed v. Dragovich, 297 F.3d 201,
207 (3d Cir. 2002); In re Flanagan, 999 F.2d 753, 755 (3d Cir. 1993). Consequently, courts
have held that motions for leave to amend should be routinely granted to plaintiffs, even after
judgments of dismissal have been entered against them, if the appropriate standard for leave to
amend under Rule 15(a) is satisfied. Newark Branch, N.A.A.C.P. v. Town of Harrison, N.J., 907
F.2d 1408, 1416-17 (3d Cir. 1990). Under Rule 15(a), leave to amend should generally be freely
granted in the absence of undue delay, bad faith, prejudice, or futility. Burtch v. Milberg
Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 230 (3d Cir. 2011).
The Court agrees that the filing of the second amended complaint without leave to amend
was procedurally improper.1 However, under the Third Circuit precedent discussed above,
Plaintiffs would ordinarily still be eligible to file for leave to amend the complaint. But
Defendants argue that this precedent does not apply, as the statute of limitations for Plaintiffs’
claims have run and they therefore cannot amend the complaint.
The parties agree that the applicable statute of limitations for Plaintiffs’ product liability
claims is two years. Plaintiffs’ alleged injury took place on January 1, 2014. Consequently,
absent any tolling, the statute of limitations for their claims had run on January 1, 2016. Under
federal law, “a statute of limitations is not tolled by the filing of a complaint subsequently
dismissed without prejudice, as the original complaint is treated as if it never existed.” Brennan
v. Kulick, 407 F.3d 603, 606 (3d Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). However, Plaintiffs’ action is in
this Court under diversity jurisdiction, under the substantive laws of New Jersey. Erie R. Co. v.
Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938). Statutes of limitations are characterized as substantive law
for purposes of the Erie doctrine, In re TMI, 89 F.3d 1106, 1121 (3d Cir. 1996), and when
applying a state limitations period, federal courts also generally use state tolling principles,
Knopick v. Connelly, 639 F.3d 600, 606 (3d Cir. 2011). Therefore, the tolling principles of New
Jersey law, and not federal law, apply to this case.
Plaintiffs argue that the two-year statute of limitations was tolled by New Jersey’s
principles of substantial compliance or equitable tolling. Courts invoke the doctrine of
substantial compliance to “avoid technical defeats of valid claims.” Alan J. Cornblatt, P.A. v.
Defendants also argued that Plaintiffs were barred from amending their complaint because the
Court denied leave to amend in the prior opinion. The Court did not deny leave to amend, but
rather did not address it, on the expectation that Plaintiffs would file for leave to amend if they
wished to file a second amended complaint.
Barow, 708 A.2d 401, 411 (N.J. 1998) (citation omitted). To prove substantial compliance, a
party must show: (1) lack of prejudice to the defending party; (2) a series of steps taken to
comply with the statute involved; (3) a general compliance with the purpose of the statute; (4) a
reasonable notice of the petitioner’s claim; and (5) a reasonable explanation why there was not a
strict compliance with the statute. Negron v. Llarena, 716 A.2d 1158, 1163 (N.J. 1998).
The Court agrees that Plaintiffs have substantially complied with the statute of
limitations. Plaintiffs gave Defendants reasonable notice of their claims in the original complaint
and subsequent amended complaint, to which the second amended complaint relates back. As
such, they also generally complied with the purpose of the statute, which is to provide defendants
with notice of claims brought against them in a timely manner. Defendants should not be
prejudiced given the brief period between the date the case was dismissed and the date Plaintiffs
attempted to file their second amended complaint. Plaintiffs attempted to comply with the
statute by filing their initial complaint within the statute of limitations, and by attempting to file
their second amended complaint in a timely manner after the dismissal without prejudice. And
Plaintiffs explain that their failure to comply strictly with the statute was reasonable because they
followed the doctrine enunciated by the Third Circuit and New Jersey courts regarding the
finality of dismissals without prejudice and the tolling rules. Finally, the Court notes that
granting Defendants’ motion to dismiss would result in an overly harsh outcome not in line with
New Jersey courts’ goal of avoiding technical defeats of valid claims, as well as the Court’s prior
ruling of dismissal without prejudice.
Because the Court finds that Plaintiffs substantially complied with the statute of
limitations, the statute was tolled by the filing of Plaintiffs’ initial complaint notwithstanding the
May 3, 2016 dismissal without prejudice. This also means that the attempted filing of Plaintiffs’
second amended complaint fell within the statute of limitations. Given this finding, the Court’s
May 3, 2016 dismissal without prejudice was not a final, appealable order. Plaintiffs are
therefore eligible to move for leave to amend under Rule 15(a).
Under Rule 15(a), leave to amend should be freely given in the absence of undue delay,
bad faith, prejudice, or futility. Burtch, 662 F.3d at 230. Plaintiffs filed their second amended
complaint within three weeks of the dismissal, so there was no undue delay. The amendments do
not appear to be in bad faith or futile, as they merely address the issues raised by the Court in its
prior opinion. And as Plaintiffs show, there is no indication that Defendants will suffer any
prejudice if Plaintiffs are allowed to file an amended complaint. Therefore, Plaintiffs’ motion for
leave to amend will be granted, and the second amended complaint will be filed with the Court.
Plaintiffs’ alternative requests for relief will be denied as moot. Finally, Defendants’ motion to
dismiss will be denied.
For the reasons stated above, Defendants’ motion to dismiss will be denied. The case
will be reopened, Plaintiffs’ cross-motion for leave to amend under Rule 15(a) will be granted,
and the second amended complaint will be filed with the Court. Plaintiffs’ requests for relief in
the alternative will be denied as moot. A corresponding order follows.
/s/ Anne E. Thompson
ANNE E. THOMPSON, U.S.D.J.
Dated: August 17, 2016
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