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Pruitt v. Invacare Corporation

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Eastern Division

October 28, 2014

CHARLEEN PRUITT, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF THE WRONGFUL DEATH HEIRS OF MARTHA RUTH NIXON, DECEASED, Plaintiff,
v.
INVACARE CORPORATION, ABC and DEF Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

TOM S. LEE, District Judge.

This cause is before the court on the motion of plaintiff Charleen Pruitt to amend her complaint to substitute or add as defendants GF Health Products, Inc. (Graham-Field) and Available Medical Supplies, Inc. (Available Medical). Further, since Available Medical's Mississippi citizenship is not diverse from plaintiff's citizenship, plaintiff moves that following amendment of her complaint, the court enter an order remanding this case to the Circuit Court of Smith County, from which it was removed. Defendant Invacare Corporation has responded to the motion advising that while it has no opposition to the request to substitute or add Graham-Field as a defendant, it opposes the request to amend as it relates to Available Medical and hence also opposes the motion to remand. The court, having considered the memoranda of authorities, together with attachments, submitted by the parties, concludes that the motion to amend to add Available Medical is not well taken and should be denied. It follows that the motion to remand will be denied. Further, as to Graham-Field, the court concludes that notwithstanding Invacare's lack of objection, the motion to amend to substitute or add Graham-Field as a defendant should be denied.

Facts and Procedural History

On October 30, 2009, plaintiff Charleen Pruitt's 82-year old mother, Martha Ruth Nixon, died of asphyxiation when she became trapped between the bed rail and bed on her hospital bed. On October 26, 2012, four days prior to expiration of the three-year statute of limitations, [1] Pruitt filed the present wrongful death action in the Circuit Court of Smith County asserting claims based on products liability against Invacare and two fictitious defendants (ABC and DEF) that she alleged were involved in the design, manufacture, sale and distribution of the hospital bed. More particularly, plaintiff alleged that the bed, bed rails, mattress and component parts of the subject bed were defective because the design of the bed rail and the fit of the bed rail to the bed created the risk of lethal entrapment and the use of an air mattress in conjunction with the bed rails increased the risk. Based on these allegations, plaintiff charged that Invacare, ABC and DEF are liable under the Mississippi Product Liability Act (MPLA), Miss. Code Ann. § 11-1-63 et seq., for strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty for design, manufacture, inadequate warnings and res ipsa loquitur. On February 1, 2013, plaintiff served process on Invacare, following which Invacare timely removed the case to this court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332.[2]

Following removal, a case management order was entered May 21, 2013 establishing a December 2, 2013 discovery deadline. However, on October 29, 2013, Invacare filed on behalf of the parties a joint motion to extend the discovery deadline. In that motion, Invacare stated that it had inspected the subject bed and bed rails and determined that while the bed was manufactured by Invacare, the bed rails were not. Invacare further explained that while it had subpoenaed the files of Available Medical, the dealer who supplied the hospital bed and bed rails to plaintiff, Available Medical had advised that despite an exhaustive search, it could not locate any of the relevant records. While plaintiff advised that she did not concede that Invacare did not manufacture the bed rails, the parties asserted in their motion to extend the discovery deadline that as a result of Available Medical's loss of its records relating to the products at issue, the parties had been prevented from identifying the manufacturer of the bed rails. They reported that they "need[ed] additional time to pursue further efforts to locate the missing evidence that the dealer [has] been unable to locate" and needed "additional time and discovery to ascertain the manufacturer of the relevant bed rails in order that the Plaintiff can consider adding the bed rail manufacturer as a defendant in this case." The discovery deadline was extended to June 2, 2014.

On March 2, 2014, Invacare noticed the deposition of Larry Jenkins, owner of Available Medical. In his deposition, taken March 25, 2014, Jenkins identified the bed and mattress that his company supplied to Ms. Nixon as having been manufactured by Invacare, but he could not identify the manufacturer of the bed rails, which had no markings on them. However, Jenkins testified that his company only handled bed rails manufactured by two companies, Invacare and Graham-Field. And although he stated that it was his company's usual practice to use Invacare rails with Invacare beds, he acknowledged that it "could have happened that" it "mixed and matched" a bed and rails, using one company's bed and another company's rails.

Plaintiff's Motion to Amend

On September 17, 2014, plaintiff filed the present motion pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a)(2) to amend "to specifically identify two previously-named fictitious defendants whose identity was unknown when this suit was filed." In her motion, plaintiff asserts that at the time she filed suit, she was unaware that Graham-Field or Available Medical was a proper defendant. She states that she believed Available Medical was an "innocent seller" within the meaning of the Mississippi Products Liability Act's innocent seller exemption set forth in Mississippi Code Annotated § 11-1-63(h), and that she was thus prohibited from naming Available Medical as a defendant.[3] She contends that she only became aware of Available Medical's identity as a proper defendant upon learning in Jenkins's deposition that Available Medical may have substantially altered or modified the Invacare bed by "mixing and matching" an Invacare bed with another manufacturer's rails and thereby forfeited its immunity as an innocent seller. She further maintains that under Mississippi products liability law, if the bed rails causing/contributing to Ms. Nixon's death were manufactured by Graham-Field, then Graham-Field is unquestionably a proper defendant under the theories of negligence and strict liability for defective design, breach of warranty, and failure to warn. She concludes that "[j]ustice requires that [she] should be able to amend her complaint to add/substitute these previously unknown defendants and recover from all parties contributing to Ms. Nixon's death."

Fed. R. Civ. P. 15: Amendment and Relation Back

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a) provides that leave to amend the pleadings "shall be freely given when justice so requires." While the decision whether to grant a motion to amend is committed to the court's discretion, the Fifth Circuit has cautioned that in keeping with Rule 15(a), such a motion should not be denied "unless there is a substantial reason to do so". Jacobsen v. Osborne , 133 F.3d 315, 318 (5th Cir. 1998) (quoting Leffall v. Dallas Indep. Sch. Dist. , 28 F.3d 521, 524 (5th Cir. 1994)). One such reason for denying a motion to amend is that the amendment would be futile, Jacobsen , 133 F.3d at 318; and one reason an amendment may be futile is if the claim(s) sought to be asserted would be time-barred, id.

In the case at bar, it is undisputed that the statute of limitations on all of plaintiff's claims expired on October 30, 2012. Therefore, plaintiff's proposed amendment, sought nearly five years after her claims accrued and two years after the statute of limitations expired, is futile unless, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 15(c) or its state counterpart, Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c), it relates back to the date of the original filing. See id.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(1) provides that an amendment to a pleading relates back to the date of the original pleading when:

(A) the law that provides the applicable statute of limitations allows relation back;
(B) the amendment asserts a claim or defense that arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out-or attempted to be set out-in the original pleading; or
(C) the amendment changes the party or the naming of the party against whom a claim is asserted, if Rule 15(c)(1)(B) is satisfied and if, within the period provided by Rule 4(m) for serving the summons and ...

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