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Rush v. STIHL, Inc.

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

July 13, 2018

MELVIN RUSH PLAINTIFF
v.
STIHL, INC., ET AL. DEFENDANTS

          ORDER

          DANIEL P. JORDAN III CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This products-liability action is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions. Defendant STIHL, Inc., (“STIHL”) filed a Motion to Dismiss [2] citing lack of personal jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. Plaintiff Melvin Rush responded by seeking remand to the Circuit Court of Kemper County, Mississippi. See Pl.'s Mot. [7]. For the reasons that follow, Rush's Motion to Remand [7] is denied, and STIHL's Motion to Dismiss [2] is granted in part.

         I. Factual Background

         This case stems from damages Rush suffered when a borrowed STIHL chainsaw, Model 029, exploded while he was using it. Sometime in late-2016, Rush alleges that he borrowed the chainsaw from Russell Roberts. See Rush Dep. [24-1] at 10-11. After completing his project, Rush attempted to return the chainsaw to Roberts but was allegedly told to hold onto it until Roberts asked for it. See Id. at 20. Unfortunately, Roberts passed away before requesting the chainsaw's return. Rush says no one from Roberts's estate, administered by Defendant Sherline Watkins, or his family asked for the chainsaw's return. See Id. at 36-38. After Roberts's death, on or around May 20, 2017, Rush says the chainsaw exploded when he attempted to start it. See Compl. [3] at 14. Rush suffered severe burns. Id.

         Rush filed suit in state court complaining that his injuries were caused by STIHL's negligence and Roberts's failure to warn Rush regarding the chainsaw's defective condition. Id. at 7-12. STIHL removed the case to this Court saying Rush improperly joined Defendants Watkins and Brian Roberts, Roberts's next-of-kin.[1] Upon removal to this Court, STIHL argues the Court should dismiss Rush's Complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction and because the Mississippi Products Liability Act (“MPLA”) subsumes Rush's negligence claims. Rush responded by seeking remand.

         II. Rush's Motion to Remand A. Standard STIHL premises federal jurisdiction on 28 U.S.C. § 1332, under which a district court has jurisdiction over civil actions between “citizens of different States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). The statute requires complete diversity between all named plaintiffs and all named defendants. See, e.g., Lincoln Prop. Co. v. Roche, 546 U.S. 81, 84 (2005).

         The improper-joinder rule “is a narrow exception to the rule that diversity jurisdiction requires complete diversity.” Smallwood v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., 352 F.3d 220, 222 (5th Cir. 2003). Improper joinder can be established by showing the “inability of the plaintiff to establish a cause of action against the non-diverse party in state court.” Travis v. Irby, 326 F.3d 644, 646- 47 (5th Cir. 2003) (citing Griggs v. State Farm Lloyds, 181 F.3d 694, 698 (5th Cir. 1999)). In evaluating a claim of improper joinder, the “appropriate test is whether there is any reasonable basis for predicting the plaintiffs might be able to recover against . . . the in-state defendant.” Jones v. Gen. Motors Corp., No. 3:06-CV-608-DPJ-JCS, 2007 WL 1610478, at *1 (S.D.Miss. June 1, 2007) (quoting Love v. Ford Motor Co.., 212 Fed.Appx. 292, 294 (5th Cir. 2006)).

         A district court should ordinarily resolve an improper-joinder claim by conducting a Rule 12(b)(6)-type analysis. Smallwood v. Ill. Cent. R. Co., 385 F.3d 568, 573 (5th Cir. 2004) (“Smallwood II ”). “If a plaintiff can survive a Rule 12(b)(6) challenge for failure to state a claim, there is ordinarily no improper joinder.” Davidson v. Georgia-Pacific, L.L.C, 819 F.3d 758, 765 (5th Cir. 2016). But when “a plaintiff has stated a claim, but has misstated or omitted discrete facts that would determine the propriety of joinder . . . the district court may, in its discretion, pierce the pleadings and conduct a summary inquiry.” Smallwood II, 385 F.3d at 573.

         B. Analysis

         STIHL removed this case from state court alleging that Rush improperly joined the In-State Defendants. Specifically, STIHL says Rush's claims against the In-State Defendants are improperly joined because: (1) a defendant who does not manufacture or sell a product is not liable for product defects when they gratuitously loan an item; (2) the MPLA subsumes Rush's negligence claims; (3) the claim is barred under Mississippi's survival statute since no claim accrued before Roberts's death; (4) Rush filed suit before the 90-day moratorium on claims against an estate passed; and (5) Brian Roberts is improperly joined because no cause of action exists against a decedent's next-of-kin under Mississippi law. See Notice of Removal [1] at 12, 14. Seeking remand, Rush argues that Defendant Watkins is properly joined as the administrator of Roberts's estate and that his pleaded claims are valid.[2] See generally Pl.'s Mot. [7].

         In furtherance of these arguments, STIHL requested leave to conduct limited discovery. See Def.'s Mot. [14]. After a telephonic conference, the Court granted STIHL's motion and admonished the parties:

Looking at the Complaint itself, the Court agrees that discovery is necessary to address omitted facts. The core allegation against Roberts is that he “had actual or constructive knowledge of the defective nature of the subject gas-powered chainsaw” yet “fail[ed] to warn Plaintiff Rush.” Compl. [3] at 17. If the case were presented to the Court on the strength of this pleading, there would be a difficult question whether Plaintiff has stated a plausible claim related to Roberts-even assuming the claim survived the more technical legal issues STIHL advances. “[T]he tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Limited discovery regarding Roberts's knowledge and actions should help answer the questions the Court anticipates.

Jan. 11, 2018 Order [15] at 2-3. Accordingly, the Court allowed “[e]ach side [to] propound 10 interrogatories and 10 requests for production of documents. They may also conduct depositions if deemed appropriate.” Id. at 3.

         Now that this discovery has been completed, the Court is still left solely with Rush's conclusory statement that Roberts “had actual or constructive knowledge of the defective nature of the subject gas-powered chainsaw.” Compl. [3] at 17. Rush argues that Roberts had knowledge that the chainsaw was defective because two recall notices, from 1994 and 1997 respectively, appear on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's website. See Pl.'s Reply [26] at 4. Even so, Rush fails to plead any facts suggesting that Roberts had cause to check this website or was otherwise on notice of this recall. Cf. Fruge v. Ethicon US, LLC, No. CV 16-149-JWD-EWD, 2017 WL 1807610, at *15 (M.D. La. Feb. 24, 2017) (denying summary judgment where material issue of fact existed whether plaintiff was on notice that recall was posted on ...


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