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Jackson v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

January 22, 2018

CHARLES JACKSON, Plaintiff,
v.
WAL-MART STORES, INC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Charles Jackson brings this products liability action after a tragic accident caused by an exploding gasoline container. Blitz, the manufacturer of the allegedly defective container, is now defunct, and Jackson seeks to recover instead from the container's purported distributor, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Wal-Mart has filed a motion to dismiss Jackson's claim, doc. 32, and that motion is now fully briefed, docs. 39; 42, and ripe for review. After carefully considering the Parties' briefs, Jackson's first amended complaint, doc. 31, and with the additional benefit of oral argument, the court finds that Jackson has failed to plead a plausible claim against Wal-Mart and that Wal-Mart's motion is due to be granted.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” “[T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Mere “‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action'” are insufficient. Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits dismissal when a complaint fails to comply with Rule 8(a)(2) or does not otherwise state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The court accepts the plaintiff's well-pleaded factual “allegations in the complaint as true and constru[es] them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Hunt v. Aimco Props., L.P. 814 F.3d 1213, 1221 (11th Cir. 2016). However, “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must . . . ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A complaint states a facially plausible claim for relief “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. The complaint must establish “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (explaining that “[f]actual allegations [in the complaint] must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.”). Ultimately, the line between possibility and plausibility is a thin one, and making such a determination is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         III. Facts

         On April 21, 2015, Charles Jackson attempted to burn a small pile of debris in his backyard. Doc. 31 at 10. After having difficulty getting the fire started, Jackson used his Blitz[1] gas container to pour gasoline directly onto the smoldering detritus. Id. at 4, 11. Unbeknownst to Jackson, the Blitz container lacked a flame arrestor, id., a small, metal device placed over a gas container's nozzle to prevent catastrophic flashback explosions potentially caused by the ignition of fumes emanating from the gasoline. Id. at 5. Since the 1970s, manufacturers have used flame arrestors to prevent this serious danger. Id.

         Without the presence of a flame arrestor, the burning debris pile ignited the poured gasoline's vapor-trial causing the container to explode and leaving Jackson covered in burning gasoline. Id. at 11. Jackson, with the help of his roommate and a neighbor, eventually managed to extinguish the flames, but not before he suffered second degree burns over 80% of his body. Id. at 11-12. As a result of his severe burns, Jackson has incurred more than $1, 000, 000 in medical expenses to date and will continue to require specialized medical treatment for the rest of his life. Id. at 12.

         Jackson alleges that his father purchased the purportedly defective Blitz container sometime between 2007 and 2013 from a Wal-Mart located roughly 20 miles from Calhan, Colorado, a small town where his father presumably lived during this period. Id. at 9. After his father's death, Jackson acquired the Blitz container as the beneficiary of his father's estate. Id. Although Jackson has neither a receipt establishing that Wal-Mart sold the container at issue nor any other proof that his father actually purchased the gas container from Wal-Mart, he alleges that Wal-Mart must have sold the container because his father purchased “everything” from Wal-Mart while living in Calhan. Id. Jackson further points out that Wal-Mart was the only store within 40 miles of his father's home where Blitz gas containers were sold. Id.[2]

         Wal-Mart is the largest seller of plastic gas containers in the country and has been involved in the industry for decades. Id. at 4-6. Accordingly, Wal-Mart has frequently been involved in litigation involving Blitz and other gas can manufacturers, and has also allegedly conducted its own internal testing regarding the efficacy of flame arrestors in preventing flashback explosions. Id. at 6-7, 14- 16. Purportedly, Wal-Mart previously rejected a Blitz gas container design featuring a flame arrestor resulting in the cancellation of that model of container. Id. at 20. Wal-Mart also purportedly declined to support a national campaign to raise awareness of the dangers posed by gas containers and, on at least two occasions, sought to increase its sales of Blitz containers without flame arrestors despite the potential risks they posed to consumers. Id. at 7-8.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         In its motion to dismiss, Wal-Mart primarily argues that it is immune from liability pursuant to Alabama Code §§ 6-5-501 and 6-5-521, the Alabama Innocent Seller Act (the Act). Wal-Mart contends that the Act is intended to immunize distributors, like Wal-Mart, from products liability suits so long as the distributor served as a mere conduit for the sale of goods placed into the stream of commerce. Additionally, Wal-Mart argues that Jackson's complaint fails to adequately allege that the Blitz gas container at issue in this case was actually purchased from the company. Because the court has determined that Jackson's complaint fails to allege a plausible claim against Wal-Mart, it declines to reach the state law immunity question.

         A. Jackson's Complaint Fails to Allege a Plausible Claim Against Wal-Mart

         Under Alabama law, “the ‘threshold requirement of any products liability action is identification of the injury-causing product and its manufacturer.'” Sheffield v. Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corp., 595 So.2d 443, 450 (Ala. 1992) (quoting Marshall v. Celotex Corp., 651 F.Supp. 389, 393 (E.D. Mich. 1987)). That is, the plaintiff must prove “[she] suffered injury or damages . . . [caused] by one who sold a product in a defective condition.” Atkins v. Am. Motors Corp., 335 So.2d 134, 141 (Ala. 1976); see also Turner v. Azalea Box Co., 508 So.2d 253, 254 (Ala. 1987) (explaining that “[i]n an [Alabama Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine] action, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant manufactured and/or sold the allegedly defective product”). To carry this burden at the pleading stage, Jackson must allege sufficient factual content to allow the court to ...


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