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Eastman v. Smith

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

October 11, 2019

BRANDON SMITH, Blackhawk School District Technology Instructor, in his individual capacity. Defendant.


          Joy Flowers Conti Senior United States District Judge

         Pending before the court is a motion to dismiss the amended complaint (ECF No. 20), filed by defendant Brandon Smith (“Smith” or “defendant”), with brief in support. Plaintiff Nathan Eastman (“Eastman” or “plaintiff) filed a brief in opposition and the motion is ripe for decision.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         At a hearing on July 23, 2019, the court granted Smith's motion to dismiss the original complaint filed in this case, but granted Eastman leave to file an amended complaint. Eastman did so, and Smith renewed his motion to dismiss.

         The facts are taken from the amended complaint (ECF No. 19). This case arose out of an incident on April 30, 2015. At the time, Eastman was a minor high school student. Smith was the Industrial Technology teacher at Blackhawk High School. Eastman was building a wooden canoe in the industrial materials classroom at Smith's direction. Smith instructed Eastman to use a 2-inch forstner bit on a Clausing drill press. The spring retraction on the drill press was broken. Eastman had not used this drill press to drill wood before this incident. Smith did not provide instructions for securing the clamp to the table or blocking the clamp from moving. Smith was working on a mower with his back turned.

         Newly alleged in the amended complaint, Smith knew that the drill press would not retract automatically and had specifically advised the students to be aware that they would manually have to raise the drill. Amended Complaint ¶ 9. A second drill press that would retract automatically was available in the classroom. Amended Complaint ¶ 10. “Nonetheless, Smith instructed Eastman to use the broken Clausen drill press that he knew would not retract automatically.” Amended Complaint ¶ 11. Smith was aware that the use of the forstner bit to remove the sliver of wood between the holes in the canoe was not an intended use of the bit, but instructed Eastman to use it anyway. Amended Complaint ¶ 22.

         As Eastman attempted to use the drill press, the wood began shaking and pulled his hand into the drill bit. When he let go, the drill bit did not retract because of the broken spring mechanism. Eastman suffered severe injuries to his hand and wrist. Plaintiff asserts one claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on a “state-created danger” theory.

         Standard of Review

A complaint may be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” But detailed pleading is not generally required. The Rules demand “only ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957)). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain 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, 678 (2009) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “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.; see also Sheridan v. NGK Metals Corp., 609 F.3d 239, 262 n. 27 (3d Cir. 2010). Although the plausibility standard “does not impose a probability requirement, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, it does require a pleading to show “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully, ” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. A complaint that pleads facts “merely consistent with a defendant's liability ... stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The plausibility determination is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679.
Under the pleading regime established by Twombly and Iqbal, a court reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint must take three steps. First, it must “tak[e] note of the elements [the] plaintiff must plead to state a claim.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675. Second, it should identify allegations that, “because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Id. at 679; see also Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 224 (3d Cir. 2011) (“Mere restatements of the elements of a claim are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” (citation and editorial marks omitted)). Finally, “[w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, [the] court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 786-87 (3d Cir. 2016). At the final step, the court is to assume all well-pled allegations to be true, construe those allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, draw all reasonable inferences from them in favor of plaintiff, and ask whether they “raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence” to support the legal claim being asserted. Id. at *7.

         Legal Analysis

         Defendant argues that the amended complaint continues to allege mere negligence, rather than conduct that “shocks the conscience”; that a teacher is immune from liability under 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 8541, 8545; and that plaintiff cannot recover punitive damages. Plaintiff contends he stated a valid claim and that defendant is not entitled to ...

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