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Oppenheimer v. Southwest Airlines Co.

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

June 17, 2013

STEPHEN OPPENHEIMER and ANGELINE OPPENHEIMER, Plaintiffs,
v.
SOUTHWEST AIRLINES CO., Defendant.

ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS

IRMA E. GONZALEZ, District Judge.

Before the Court is Defendant Southwest Airlines Co. ("Southwest")'s motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). [Doc. No. 6.] For the reasons below, Defendant's motion is DENIED.

BACKGROUND

This is a personal injury action arising in diversity. As Plaintiff Stephen Oppenheimer boarded a Southwest flight, a large metal object fell out of an overhead storage bin and hit him on the head, knocking him unconscious. Plaintiffs contend Southwest's negligence and willful and wanton misconduct caused this event and consequent injury. Defendant moves to dismiss Plaintiffs' claims for willful and wanton misconduct and corresponding request for punitive damages.

DISCUSSION

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), "[a] pleading that states a claim for relief must contain... a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Motions to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) test the sufficiency of this required showing. New Mexico State Investment Council v. Ernst & Young LLP, 641 F.3d 1089, 1094 (9th Cir. 2011). "Dismissal is proper when the complaint does not make out a cognizable legal theory or does not allege sufficient facts to support a cognizable legal theory." Cervantes v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., 656 F.3d 1034, 1041 (9th Cir. 2011).

Here, Defendant's motion to dismiss rests on three faulty premises: (1) that no claim for willful and wanton misconduct exists under California law; (2) that, if such a claim does exist, heightened California pleading standards apply thereto; and (3) that requests for punitive damages provide a basis for dismissal under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). As discussed below, these premises misconstrue both California substantive law and federal civil procedure, and thus fail to warrant dismissal.

1. Willful and Wanton Misconduct Exists Under California Law

Defendant contends no claim for willful and wanton misconduct exists under California law. [ See Doc. No. 6 at 4-6.] To the contrary, "California case law clearly distinguishes between the concepts of ordinary negligence and other, aggravated forms of misconduct such as gross negligence and recklessness." City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court, 41 Cal.4th 747, 779 (Cal. 2007); Berkley v. Dowds, 152 Cal.App.4th 518, 526 (Cal.Ct.App. 2007). The Ninth Circuit recently acknowledged the same. Ileto v. Glock, Inc., 565 F.3d 1126, 1158 n.14 (9th Cir. 2009) (Berzon, J. concurring) ("California courts do recognize an aggravated form of negligence, ' sometimes called willful misconduct.'") (quoting Berkley, 152 Cal.App.4th at 526-28). Accordingly, federal district courts sitting in diversity routinely entertain claims for willful and wanton misconduct under California law. See, e.g., Jhaveri v. ADT Sec. Services, Inc., 2012 WL 843315, at *3 (C.D. Cal. March 6, 2012) ("In California, a cause of action for willful misconduct is... an aggravated form of negligence"); Galvan v. Mimms, 2013 WL 1962688, at *5 (E.D. Cal. May 10, 2013) (same); Berman v. Knife River Corp., 2012 WL 646068, at *6 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 28, 2012) ("Whether termed gross negligence, ' willful and wanton negligence, ' reckless misconduct, ' or something else, a plaintiff may plead a separate cause of action for aggravated negligence."). In light of this ample California and federal precedent, Defendant's contrary contention cannot warrant dismissal.

2. California Pleading Standards Are Inapplicable

Defendant further contends that, even if a claim for willful and wanton misconduct exists, here, Plaintiffs' claims fail to satisfy heightened California pleading standards. [ See, e.g., Doc. No. 6 at 10 ("when Plaintiff attempts to elevate the negligence to willful misconduct, even more than specific facts are required and [t]he act or omission must be even more specifically described'"), 14 ("Plaintiffs' second cause of action fails to meet the heightened pleading requirements [for] seeking punitive damages").] Defendant's position reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of federal practice. "The manner and details of pleading in the federal court are governed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure regardless of the substantive law to be applied in the particular action." Clement v. American Greetings Corp., 636 F.Supp. 1326, 1328 (S.D. Cal. 1986) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 1; Hanna v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460, 485 (1965); 5 Wright & Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure 2d § 1204). "Although in [a] diversity action [state] substantive law is to be applied to determine the ultimate validity of the plaintiff's claims, Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938), the Federal Rules govern issues concerning the adequacy of the pleadings. Hanna v. Plumer, supra . " Id. at 1329.

The applicable federal pleading standards only require "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-78 (2009). "A claim has facial plausibility 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. at 678. This plausibility standard "does not require [courts] to flyspeck complaints looking for any gap in the facts." Lacey v. Maricopa County, 693 F.3d 896, 924 (9th Cir. 2012) (en banc) (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 677-78). "Specific facts are not necessary.'" Moss v. U.S. Secret Service, 572 F.3d 962, 968 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007)); see also Cafasso, U.S. ex rel. v. General Dynamics C4 Systems, Inc., 637 F.3d 1047, 1055 (9th Cir. 2011) (plausibility standard does not require "the who, what, when, where, and how of the misconduct alleged."). Nor is "[t]he standard at this stage... that plaintiff's explanation must be true or even probable." Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1216-17 (9th Cir. 2011). "The factual allegations of the complaint need only plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief.'" Id. at 1217 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 681). If "the complaint's factual allegations, together with all reasonable inferences, state a plausible claim for relief, " dismissal must be denied. Cafasso, 637 F.3d at 1054 (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 677).

Plaintiffs' allegations suffice. Under California substantive law, a showing of conscious disregard can both support willful and wanton misconduct and warrant punitive damages. See Bigge Crane & Rigging Co. v. Workers' Comp. App. Bd., 188 Cal.App.4th 1330, 1349 (Cal.Ct.App. 2010) (conscious disregard can support willful misconduct); Cal. Civ. Code Section § 3294 (conscious disregard can warrant punitive damages). Plaintiffs allege that Southwest's boarding procedure, known as the "Southwest Stampede, " consciously sacrifices passenger safety for speed and profit. [ See, e.g., Doc. No. 1 at 10-13.] Unique among United States airline carriers, Southwest does not assign seats, leaving passengers to determine seating and stow luggage without crew instruction or supervision. [ Id. ] Under the threat of termination for delay, Southwest crew rush passengers through this free-for-all boarding process. [ See id. at 10-11.] Southwest crew are further pressured to simultaneously entertain passengers, distracting from necessary and prudent boarding and stowage safety measures, such as inspecting and evaluating carry-on items and securing their stowage in overhead bins. [ See id. at 11.] Southwest has long known of the risks of injury posed by its rushed and chaotic boarding procedure, as evidenced by numerous prior lawsuits for injuries caused by carry-on luggage during boarding and tightened federal regulations instituted in response to the Southwest Stampede. [ Id. at 7, 11.] Finally, Plaintiffs ...


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