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Waits v. Kubota Tractor Corp.

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

October 4, 2019

JOHN O. WAITS, as Administrator of the Estate of Jared A. Waits, deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
KUBOTA TRACTOR CORPORATION, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. SCOTT COOLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff John O. Waits (“Waits”) originally filed this action in the Circuit Court of Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. Waits seeks punitive damages for the wrongful death of his decedent, Jared A. Waits, an Alabama citizen, resulting from the operation of a Kubota tractor with no Falling Object Protection System (“FOPS”). Waits sued several defendants for common law negligence, wantonness, and pursuant to the Alabama Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine (“AEMLD”), including several Japanese corporations who designed and manufactured the allegedly defective tractor (collectively the “Kubota Defendants”); Marty Sanders (“Sanders”), an individual and citizen of Alabama; and Martin Truck & Tractor Company, Inc. (“Martin Tractor”), a corporation and citizen of Alabama.

         On July 10, 2019, the Kubota Defendants removed the case to this Court, asserting diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1441, and 1446. (Doc. 1.) The Kubota Defendants subsequently filed a motion (doc. 5) requesting that this Court not remand the case back to state court, alleging that Waits had fraudulently joined nondiverse Defendants Sanders and Martin Tractor in an effort to defeat this Court's subject matter jurisdiction. This Court set a briefing scheduling on the issue of fraudulent joinder. In response, the Kubota Defendants timely filed a brief arguing that Defendants Sanders and Martin Tractor were fraudulently joined. (Doc. 9.) Waits timely filed his response. (Doc. 15.) Subsequently, the Kubota Defendants filed a reply. (Doc. 19.)

         For the reasons stated below, this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over this action, and therefore the Kubota Defendants' motion (doc. 5) is due to be DENIED, and this matter is due to be REMANDED to the Circuit Court of Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. Further, the Motions to Dismiss filed by Defendant Martin Tractor (doc. 14) and Defendant Sanders (doc. 20); the Motion for HIPAA Order filed by the Kubota Defendants (doc. 24); and the Motion for Extension of Time (doc. 25) are due to be resolved by the state court, as this Court has no subject matter jurisdiction over this case.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Waits purchased a Kubota tractor and accompanying front-end loader from Martin Tractor for use on his personal farm. Sanders, a Martin Tractor employee, sold the tractor to Plaintiff. The tractor did not have a FOPS. “[Waits's] decedent, Jared Waits, was using the tractor to move branches on [Waits's] farm when a branch traveled over the top of the front-end loader and struck [Waits's] decedent in the forehead, killing him.” (Doc. 1-1 ¶ 15.) Waits alleges that a FOPS would have prevented the branch from striking the decedent in this manner and, therefore, would have prevented the decedent's death.

         When he sold Waits the tractor, Sanders allegedly “represented to [Waits] that the subject tractor was suitable and safe to use for moving and clearing trees, branches, and dirt, and for other forestry and land-moving types of activities.” (Doc. 1-1 ¶ 40.) Waits alleges that Sanders's representation “was negligently made because had Sanders exercised due care, he would have known the subject tractor was not suitable and safe for such activities without a FOPS.” (Id. at ¶ 72). Further, Waits alleges that Martin Tractor “failed to warn, or adequately warn, ultimate users and consumers . . . of the [tractor's] dangers . . . when Martin Tractor was aware of the dangers.” (Doc. 1-1 ¶ 30.) Martin Tractor allegedly “had knowledge of existing conditions and knew that personal injury or death from objects entering the operator's compartment would likely or probably result from its acts and omissions.” (Id. ¶ 35.) Martin Tractor had this knowledge “from its experience with tractors substantially similar to the subject tractor, from its awareness of likely work scenarios for the subject tractor, and from reports about the actual use of such tractors in the field, and from claims and lawsuits, where in fact operators were injured or killed.” (Id.)

         Waits sued several defendants in state court for wrongful death, including Sanders and Martin Tractor. Waits alleges that Martin Tractor is liable (1) under the AEMLD and (2) for negligence or wantonness.[2] Further, Waits alleges that Sanders is liable for negligent misrepresentation, and that Martin Tractor is vicariously liable for Sanders's misrepresentation under the doctrine of respondeat superior.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court, like all federal courts, is a court of “limited jurisdiction.” Jackson-Platts v. Gen. Elec. Capital Corp., 727 F.3d 1127, 1134 (11th Cir. 2013). It is authorized to hear only those cases falling within “one of three types of subject matter jurisdiction: (1) jurisdiction under a specific statutory grant; (2) federal question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331; or (3) diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a).” PTA-FLA, Inc. v. ZTE USA, Inc., 844 F.3d 1299, 1305 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Baltin v. Alaron Trading Corp., 128 F.3d 1466, 1469 (11th Cir. 1997)). A defendant may remove an action initially filed in state court to federal court if the action is one over which the federal court has original jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). “[A] defendant seeking to remove a case to a federal court must file in the federal forum a notice of removal ‘containing a short and plain statement of the grounds for removal.'” Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co., LLC v. Owens, 135 S.Ct. 547, 553 (2014) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a)).

         To remove an action filed in state court, the defendant must file notice of removal with the district court within 30 days of receiving a copy of the initial pleading. 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a)-(b). Where multiple defendants are involved, “the limitations period for removal expires upon thirty days from service on the . . . last-served defendant.” Bailey v. Janssen Pharmaceutica, Inc., 536 F.3d 1202, 1203 (11th Cir. 2008). “Only state-court actions that originally could have been filed in federal court may be removed to federal court by the defendant.” Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987).

         For removal to be proper, the court must have subject-matter jurisdiction over the action. See Caterpillar Inc., 482 U.S. at 392. Because Kubota Defendants removed this action, they have the burden of establishing that the case was properly removed. See Wilson v. Republic Iron & Steel Co., 257 U.S. 92, 97 (1921). Any doubt about the existence of federal jurisdiction “should be resolved in favor of remand to state court.” City of Vestavia Hills v. Gen. Fid. Ins. Co., 676 F.3d 1310, 1313 (11th Cir. 2012) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).

         The burden on the removing party to prove fraudulent joinder is a “heavy one.” Stillwell v. Allstate Ins. Co., 663 F.3d 1329, 1332 (11th Cir. 2011) (per curiam) (quoting Crowe v. Coleman, 113 F.3d 1536, 1538 (11th Cir. 1997)). “If there is even a possibility that a state court would find that the complaint states a cause of action against any one of the resident defendants, the federal court must find that the joinder was proper and remand the case to the state court.” Id. at 1333 (quoting Coker v. Amoco Oil Co., 709 F.2d 1433, 1440-41 (11th Cir. 1983), superseded by statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), on other grounds as recognized in Stillwell, 663 F.3d at 1333). The pleading standard for surviving fraudulent joinder is “is a lax one.” Id. at 1332-33. Rather than the plausibility standard, which requires the complaint to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)), a claim of fraudulent joinder can be defeated by a showing that the claim has “a possibility of stating a valid cause of action, ” Stillwell, 663 F.3d at 1333 (quoting Triggs v. John Crump Toyota, Inc., 154 F.3d 1284, 1287 (11th Cir. 1998)). When assessing possibility, the Eleventh Circuit has stated that “[i]n considering possible state law claims, possible must mean more than such a possibility that a designated residence can be hit by a meteor tonight. That is possible. Surely, as in other instances, reason and common sense have some role.” Legg v. Wyeth, 428 F.3d 1317, 1325 n.5 (11th Cir. 2005) (internal citations omitted). In other words, “[t]he potential for legal liability ‘must be reasonable, not merely theoretical.'” Id. (quoting Great Plains Tr. Co. v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., 313 F.3d 305, 312 (5th Cir. 2002)). Further, any ambiguities in the state substantive law must be resolved in the plaintiff's favor. Stillwell, 663 F.3d at 1333.

         To determine whether the claim possibly states a valid cause of action, the court must look to the pleading standards of the state court rather than federal court. Id. at 1334. The Supreme Court of Alabama has stated that “a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal is proper only when it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim that would entitle the plaintiff to relief.” H ...


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