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Guinnane v. Dobbins

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

July 16, 2019

KATHERINE GUINNANE, individually, and as Personal Representative for the Estate of EDWIN GUINNANE, and GUINNANE RANCH, LLC, Plaintiffs,
v.
NANCY DOBBINS, as Personal Representative of the Estate of ROBERT DOBBINS; EAN HOLDINGS, LLC; ENTERPRISE RAC COMPANY OF MONTANA/ WYOMING, LLC, d/b/a Enterprise Rent-A-Car; and JOHN DOES 1-5, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Donald W. Molloy, District Judge United States District Court

         "This is an action for wrongful death and personal injury arising out of an automobile crash on Highway 41 in Jefferson County, Montana." (Amend. Compl., Doc. 16 at ¶ 1.) On July 13, 2015, a Dodge truck pulling a horse trailer owned by Guinnane Ranch, LLC and driven by Edwin and Katherine Guinnane was struck head-on by a Dodge Journey driven by Robert and Nancy Dobbins. (Id. at ¶¶ 11 -15.) The Journey was leased from Enterprise RAC of Montana and Wyoming and owned by EAN Holdings (collectively "Enterprise"). (Id. At ¶¶ 16-18.) Edwin was killed, and Katherine suffered serious injuries.[1] (Id. at ¶¶ 24-25.) Katherine, on behalf of herself and her late husband's estate, in conjunction with Guinnane Ranch, LLC (collectively "Plaintiffs") seek to hold the estate of Robert Dobbins liable for negligence (Count 1) and negligence per se (Count 2) and to hold Enterprise liable for negligent maintenance (Count 3) and punitive damages (Count 4). (Id. at ¶¶ 26-46.) Enterprise seeks to dismiss Counts 3 and 4 for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).[2] (Doc. 19.)

         Enterprise misses the mark under the Rules of Civil Procedure by a long shot. Rather, a long shot is exactly what the motion evidences, both in the argument and analysis put forth in the briefs. As a starting point, Rule 1 of the Federal Rules obligates not only the lawyers, but also the parties, when it declares that the rules "should be construed, administered, and employed by the court and the parties to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding." Fed.R.Civ.P. 1 (emphasis added). Rule 8 then provides the context for applying Rule 1 's principles to a motion to dismiss, requiring only that the plaintiff notify the defendants of his or her claim by filing "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). "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." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). But the plausibility standard outlined in Iqbal is not an invitation to ignore Rule 1, nor is it a requirement that common sense and modest legal analysis be set aside in deciding whether to move to dismiss claims such as those set forth in Counts 3 and 4 of Plaintiff s Amended Complaint in this case.

         Moreover, while review under Rule 12(b)(6) is limited to the factual allegations in the operative complaint, Lee v. City of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 688 (9th Cir. 2001), those allegations are accepted as true and viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, L.A. Lakers, Inc. v. Fed Ins. Co., 869 F.3d 795, 800 (9th Cir. 2017). Contrary to the position taken by Enterprise, Plaintiffs are not required to outline a single, detailed narrative of the alleged tortious conduct.

         For the reasons set forth below, taking into account the obligations of Rules 1 and 8, Enterprise's motion to dismiss is denied.

         A. Negligent Maintenance

         Enterprise first argues that dismissal is appropriate because the conclusory allegation that it caused the accident is inconsistent with the specific, factual allegation that Robert Dobbins caused by the accident "by driving distracted and carelessly causing his vehicle to drift into oncoming traffic." (Doc. 16 at ¶ 28.) Enterprise further argues that any argument that the condition of the vehicle's tires "could" cause the accident or was a "substantial factor" in bringing it about is speculative and lacks factual support. These arguments lack merit.

         As to Enterprise's first point, a plaintiff can plead in the alternative regardless of whether he or she can ultimately recover on more than one theory. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(d); see Molsbergen v. United States, 757 F.2d 1016, 1018-19 (9th Cir. 1985); Folsom v. Mont. Pub. Emps. 'Ass'n, Inc., 400 P.3d 706, 715 (Mont. 2017). Moreover, "courts have been reluctant to permit one pleading to be read as a judicial or evidentiary admission against an alternative or inconsistent pleading." Molsbergen, 757 F.2d at 1019. Thus, to the extent Robbins's liability is inconsistent with Enterprise's liability-which may not even be the case, see Oberson v. U.S. Dep't of Agr., 514 F.3d 989, 1000 (9th Cir. 2008) (outlining the "substantial factor" test)-Plaintiffs may pursue both claims.

         In its second point, Enterprise attempts to litigate the merits of the negligent maintenance claim by disputing the role the mismatched tires "could" have played in the accident. (Doc. 20 at 6 (citing Doc. 16 at ¶ 23).) Plaintiffs have alleged that Enterprise's decision to lease the Journey in an unsafe condition was a substantial factor in causing the fatal accident. (Doc. 16 at ¶¶ 37-43.) This allegation is supported by allegations related to the condition of the tires, (id. at ¶ 19), the warnings provided in the Journey's manual, (id. at ¶¶ 20, 21), and Enterprise's interest in the vehicle, (id. at ¶¶ 17, 18, 38-40). Enterprise's attempt to introduce contradictory inferences-i.e., that the vehicle was driven all the way from Missoula without incident, (Doc. 20 at 9; Doc. 23 at 4)-does not diminish the sufficiency of Plaintiffs' allegations. See Lee, 250 F.3d at 688 ("[F]actual challenges to the plaintiffs complaint have no bearing on the legal sufficiency of the allegations under Rule 12(b)(6).").

         Taken as true and viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, LA. Lakers, Inc., 869 F.3d at 800, Plaintiffs state a claim for negligent maintenance against Enterprise that is plausible on its face, Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         B. Guinnane Ranch's Claims

         Enterprise further argues that Guinnane Ranch "has failed to adequately allege any element of the claims." (Doc. 20 at 10.) The Amended Complaint provides that Edwin and Katherine Guinnane were in a truck and towing a trailer owned by Guinnane Ranch, [3] (Doc. 16 at ¶ 11), and that Guinnane Ranch "incurred property damage" as a result of the accident, (id at ¶ 25(d)). That is sufficient to put Enterprise on notice of the Ranch's allegations. See Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 513 (2002) (pleadings need only "give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiffs claim is and the grounds upon which it rests").

         C. Punitive Damages

         Enterprise argues that even if Plaintiffs' negligence claim survives, they have failed to allege facts to support a finding of actual malice. Punitive damages are authorized only "when the defendant has been found guilty of actual fraud or actual malice," Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-221, and cannot be predicated on "mere ...


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