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Durkin v. PACCAR

January 19, 2010

JESSICA DURKIN, BOTH INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE AND ADMINISTRATRIX AD PROSEQUENDUM OF THE ESTATE OF WILLIAM R. GANGELL, JR., DECEASED PLAINTIFF,
v.
PACCAR, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schiller, J.

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion to Remand, Defendants' Motion to Transfer Venue, and three motions to dismiss filed by Defendants. For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny Plaintiff's remand motion and transfer the case to the District of New Jersey for resolution of the remaining matters.

I. BACKGROUND

In 2008, R.E. Pierson Construction Co. (" Pierson") purchased a large number of fifty foot long steel pilings. Bills of lading indicate that the pilings were transported to Pierson from "Dura-Bond" of Steelton, PA by Liedtka Trucking. (Notice of Removal Ex. F [Bills of Lading].) The steel was transported to Pierson in several shipments, each consisting of seven "doubles" (two steel pilings joined together), over the month of September 2008. (Id.) Dura-Bond*fn1 had coated the steel with a coal tar epoxy before its delivery to Pierson and placed nylon cording between the doubles to protect the recently applied coating during transit. (Mot. To Remand Ex. F [Dura-Bond Prelim. Objections] ¶ 51.).

On November 12, 2008, William R. Gangell, Jr., a citizen of New Jersey, was driving a tractor-trailer loaded with eleven of these steel piling doubles for Pierson, his employer. (Pl.'s Mot. to Remand Ex. A [Compl.] ¶¶ 6--7; Notice of Removal ¶ 6.) The trip originated at Pierson's facility in Williamstown, New Jersey and was to conclude at another Pierson facility in Pilesgrove, New Jersey. (Notice of Removal Ex. I [N.J. Police Crash Inspection Report] at WNC110.) As the truck slowed to approach an intersection in Franklin Township, New Jersey, the steel load shifted forward, collapsing the bulkhead of the trailer and pinning Gangell inside the tractor. (Compl. ¶¶ 7--8; Pl.'s Mot. to Remand ¶ 2.) Gangell survived the initial impact but died several hours later at a nearby hospital. (Id. ¶ 3.)

According to a crash investigation conducted by New Jersey police, the truck Gangell was driving was 103,000 pounds, which was 23,000 pounds overweight. (N.J. Police Crash Inspection Report at WNC116.). The crash investigation also indicated that insufficient tie downs were used to secure a load of that weight. (Id. at WNC111.)

Following this incident, Pierson filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of Atlantic County, New Jersey -- Chancery Division, seeking the release of the tractor, trailer, and steel, which at the time were being held in storage. (Mot. to Transfer Venue Ex. F [Dec. 23, 2008 letter] at 2.) Gangell's estate challenged that request. (Id.) The presiding judge in that case, Judge William C. Todd III, issued several orders related to the inspection and preservation of physical evidence from the accident. In a December 23, 2008 letter written to Wabash National Corporation ("Wabash"), PACCAR, Inc. ("PACCAR"), and Peterbilt Motors Co. ("Peterbilt"), Durkin's lawyer stated that Judge Todd had ordered a videotaped inspection of the tractor, trailer, and steel, and that relevant parties were invited to attend. (Dec. 23, 2008 letter.) The letter stated that "due to the potential that the subject tractor, trailer, steel, and component parts may be released, repaired, or otherwise materially altered after [the inspection and related hearing] it is strongly encouraged that representatives from your company be present at the previously mentioned events." (Id.) Judge Todd entered an Order on January 13, 2009 preserving the tractor, trailer, steel, and all related property, and allowing inspections of such physical evidence through February 13, 2009. (Mot. to Transfer Venue Ex. G [Order Preserving Property].) Plaintiff's counsel was instructed "to forward a copy of this Order to all attorneys to appear January 13, 2009 and to all other interested parties immediately." (Id.) Judge Todd issued an order on February 11, 2009 releasing the steel to Pierson to use as it deemed appropriate. (Mot. to Transfer Ex. I [Judge Todd's Feb. 11, 2009 Order].)

Plaintiff Jessica Durkin, Gangell's fiancée and a citizen of New Jersey, filed a lawsuit in New Jersey Superior Court, Middlesex County, on July 21, 2009. (Compl. ¶ 6; Notice of Removal ¶¶ 6, 34; Notice of Removal Ex. J. [N.J. Compl.].) Durkin's lawsuit named as defendants the purported manufacturers of the tractor (PACCAR and Peterbilt), the purported manufacturer of the trailer (Wabash), the purported manufacturers of the cargo straps used to secure the steel load (Spanset, Inc. and ANCRA International LLC), and the purported manufacturers of the steel (Skyline Steel, LLC and ArcelorMittal USA, Inc.). (N.J. Compl.; Mot. to Remand ¶ 4.) The lawsuit did not name Dura-Bond. All of the defendants named in the New Jersey lawsuit are of diverse citizenship from Plaintiff, except for Skyline Steel, LLC ("Skyline"), which is headquartered in Parsippany, New Jersey. (N.J. Compl. ¶¶ 2--5.)

Wabash removed the New Jersey action to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. (Notice of Removal ¶ 35.) Although Plaintiff and Defendant Skyline shared New Jersey citizenship, Wabash argued that removal was proper because Skyline was either a nominal party or was fraudulently joined. (Id.) In its Notice of Removal of the New Jersey action, Wabash contended that Skyline did not manufacture the steel but merely acted as a broker for its sale. (Mot. to Remand Ex. E [N.J. Notice of Removal] ¶ 22.) Wabash further asserted that the steel was manufactured by Nucor-Yamato Steel Co. ("Nucor-Yamato") and then transported to Dura-Bond Industries, where it was coated and packaged for delivery to Pierson. (Id.)

In response, Plaintiff discontinued her New Jersey lawsuit and refiled in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County. (Mot. to Remand ¶ 14.) The Pennsylvania complaint was nearly identical to the New Jersey complaint, except for two things: in the Pennsylvania action, Plaintiff dropped her claim against Skyline and sued the Dura-Bond Defendants, which are all citizens of Pennsylvania.*fn2 (Compl. ¶ 5.) Plaintiff's Pennsylvania state complaint alleges that the Dura-Bond Defendants coated and packaged the steel load negligently and in a manner that rendered the steel unreasonably dangerous. (Id. ¶¶ 30--36, 55--60.)

On October 23, 2009, Wabash removed the case to this Court with the consent of its co-defendants. Wabash contends that the Dura-Bond Defendants were either fraudulently joined or nominal parties brought into this case solely to prevent removal and that Plaintiff has no real intention of prosecuting a claim against them. The Dura-Bond Defendants moved to dismiss the case against them on similar grounds. In addition, PACCAR and Peterbilt moved to dismiss Plaintiff's punitive damages claims on the grounds of insufficient pleading. On November 18, 2009, Plaintiff moved to remand the case back to state court saying that removal was improper under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b). Following a status conference on December 10, 2009, PACCAR, Wabash, Spanset, Inc. ("Spanset") and ANCRA International LLC ("ANCRA") filed a Motion to Transfer Venue to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), and Spanset filed a Motion to Dismiss on jurisdictional grounds.

II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

A. Fraudulent Joinder

In ruling on a motion to remand in which a defendant alleges fraudulent joinder, the Court must determine if there is a "reasonable basis in fact or colorable ground supporting the claim against the joined defendant, or no real intention in good faith to prosecute the action against the defendant or seek a joint judgment." In re Briscoe, 448 F.3d 201, 216 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Abels v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 770 F.2d 26, 32 (3d Cir.1985)). The removing party carries a heavy burden of persuasion when it asserts that a defendant is fraudulently joined. Id. at 217. As the Third Circuit has noted in this context, "removal statutes are to be strictly construed against removal and all doubts should be resolved in favor of remand." Id. "'[I]f 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 joinder was proper and remand the case to state court.'" Id. (quoting Batoff v. State Farm Ins. Co., 977 F.2d 848, 851 (3d Cir. 1992). The fact that a plaintiff's motive for joining a particular defendant is to prevent removal ...


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