Anderson v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 4:20-cv-01610-MTS

CourtUnited States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Missouri)
Writing for the CourtMATTHEW T. SCHELP UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
PartiesANGELA ANDERSON, Plaintiff, v. R.J. REYNOLDS TOBACCO CO., et al., Defendants.
Decision Date11 August 2021
Docket Number4:20-cv-01610-MTS

ANGELA ANDERSON, Plaintiff,
v.

R.J. REYNOLDS TOBACCO CO., et al., Defendants.

No. 4:20-cv-01610-MTS

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

August 11, 2021


MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

MATTHEW T. SCHELP UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

This matter is before the Court on Defendant R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company's (RJR) Motion to Dismiss Counts I, II, III, and IV of Plaintiff's Petition or for More Definite Statement, Doc. [12]. In the same Motion, RJR also moved the Court to strike Plaintiff's requests for punitive damages. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants in part and denies in part the Motion to Dismiss, denies the Motion for More Definite Statement, and denies the Motion to Strike.

I. Background

Plaintiff filed her Petition in state court, alleging that she developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), among other issues, as a result of smoking Newport, Kool, and Belair cigarettes manufactured by Defendant RJR or its predecessor companies and Benson &Hedges cigarettes manufactured by former Defendant Philip Morris USA Inc.[1] Doc. [1-1] ¶¶ 2-10, 45, 84-85. Plaintiff alleged that she “began smoking cigarettes in or around the late 1970s, ” which caused her to “bec[ome] addicted to the nicotine in the cigarettes, ” and “the consistent addictive levels sustained her addiction to the nicotine in the cigarettes . . . resulting in excessive exposure to carcinogens and other toxic substances in the Benson &Hedges, Newport, Kool, and Belair cigarettes she smoked over the many decades of her smoking history.” Id. ¶¶ 45, 77.

Plaintiff asserted four Counts against RJR: strict liability design defect (Count I), negligent design (Count II), fraudulent concealment (Count III), and “concealment fraud conspiracy” (Count IV). Id. at 29-37. RJR moved to dismiss all four claims, asserting that the claims fail under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for a variety of reasons. RJR contends that Counts I and II should be dismissed for two reasons: first, because the claims are impliedly preempted by federal law, and second, because Plaintiff did not identify any specific design features in the brands of cigarettes at issue that rendered them unreasonably dangerous or caused her injuries, which, RJR argues, makes the claims deficient under Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). Doc. [13] at 4-8. As to Counts III and IV, RJR provides four reasons the Court should dismiss those claims: (1) they are preempted by federal law because they are merely failure-to-warn claims; (2) they are barred by the applicable statute of limitations; (3) Plaintiff failed to allege that RJR had a duty to disclose information to Plaintiff; and (4) the Petition does not meet the heightened pleading standards applicable to fraud claims under Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(b). Id. at 8-14. RJR further asked the Court to strike Plaintiff's requests for an award of punitive damages, asserting that initial pleadings cannot contain claims for punitive damages under Missouri law. Id. at 14-15; see Doc. [1-1] ¶¶ 94, 103, 115, 123. Finally, if the Court denies the Motion to Dismiss, RJR requested that the Court order Plaintiff to provide a more definite statement pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(e).

II. Legal Standard

The purpose of a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is to test the legal sufficiency of a complaint. When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court assumes all of a complaint's factual allegations to be true and makes all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. See Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 326-27 (1989); Martin v. Iowa, 752 F.3d 725, 727 (8th Cir. 2014).

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) provides that a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” To survive a motion to dismiss, the complaint must allege facts supporting each element of the plaintiff's claims, and the claims cannot rest on mere speculation. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Specifically, the complaint “must allege more than ‘[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements'” and must “allege sufficient facts that, taken as true, ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” K.T. v. Culver-Stockton Coll., 865 F.3d 1054, 1057 (8th Cir. 2017) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). The Court “need not accept as true plaintiff's conclusory allegations or legal conclusions drawn from the facts.” Glick v. W. Power Sports, Inc., 944 F.3d 714, 717 (8th Cir. 2019). In considering such a motion, the Court does not ask whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but whether the plaintiff is entitled to present evidence in support of the claim. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

III. Discussion

The Court will first assess RJR's Motion to Dismiss Counts I-IV. As discussed below, it is unpersuaded by RJR's arguments as to Counts I and II but will dismiss Counts III and IV. The Court will then briefly address RJR's Motion for More Definite Statement as to Counts I and II, the only two remaining claims in the case. Finally, the Court will confront RJR's Motion to Strike Plaintiff's prayer for punitive damages.

A. Motion to Dismiss

1. Counts I and II Are Not Impliedly Preempted by Federal Law and Satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)

The Court disagrees with RJR's argument that Plaintiff's design defect and negligent design claims are preempted by federal law. “Once Congress has regulated aspects of the design, manufacture, or sale of a product, the doctrine of conflict preemption, including implied preemption, forecloses claims premised on such regulated aspects.” Borner v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., 294 F.3d 594, 599 (8th Cir. 2005). “Where there is an actual conflict between a state law cause of action and Congress's express policy, state law must give way under the Supremacy Clause.” Id. (citing Geier v. Am. Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861 (2000)). An actual conflict arises “when it is impossible for a private party to comply with both state and federal law, and when state law ‘stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of'” the federal law. Wuebker v. Wilbur-Ellis Co., 418 F.3d 883, 887 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Geier, 529 U.S. at 873). Courts “do not lightly deem state law to be superseded by federal law” out of respect for the states' exercise of their traditional police powers, Jones v. Vilsack, 272 F.3d 1030, 1033 (8th Cir. 2001) (citing Cipollone v. Liggett Grp., 505 U.S. 504, 516 (1992)), and a “party asserting conflict preemption faces a high bar.” Graham v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 857 F.3d 1169, 1186 (11th Cir. 2017).

RJR did not cite a specific federal statute or regulation with which it contends Plaintiff's state defective designs claims conflict. Instead, RJR grounds its preemption argument in FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., where the Supreme Court held that Congress, in enacting 15 U.S.C. § 1331 and other tobacco-related legislation, intended for “tobacco products [to] remain on the market.” 529 U.S. 120, 138-39 (2000). The Court explained that a “ban of tobacco products by the FDA would therefore plainly contradict congressional policy.” Id. at 139. While that case did not directly involve the preemption of state law, courts have referenced the FDA v. Brown & Williamson case and its reasoning in finding that state defective design claims pertaining to cigarettes are impliedly preempted by federal law. See, e.g., Mash v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., No. 4:03-cv-0485-TCM, 2004 WL 3316246 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 26, 2004); Pooshs v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 904 F.Supp.2d 1009 (N.D. Cal. 2012); Cruz Vargas v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 218 F.Supp.2d 109 (D.P.R. 2002). Those cases have found preemption where the plaintiff alleged that cigarettes, by their very nature, are inherently dangerous and thus defective. Design defect claims are necessarily preempted in such a case, the reasoning goes, because a finding that cigarettes are defective by virtue of what they are-as opposed to defective because of the particular design of the defendant's cigarettes-would amount to a ban on cigarettes, inconsistent with the holding of FDA v. Brown & Williamson. See Mash, 2004 WL 3316246, at *6; Pooshs, 904 F.Supp.2d at 1025-26; Cruz Vargas, 218 F.Supp.2d at 118. RJR, in line with those cases, insists that “Plaintiff's design defect claims are predicated on risks that are inherent in cigarette smoking, ” so her claims, says RJR, are preempted. Doc. [13] at 6-7.

The Court disagrees. Intrinsic to the notion that allegations of defect based on the inherent characteristics of cigarettes are preempted is that allegations that particularities in the cigarettes at issue render the products defective are not preempted. Indeed, the caselaw bears out that principle: “If, however, in this action liability is imposed based on a design defect in the cigarettes that is scientifically and commercially feasible to remove from the cigarettes [at issue], plaintiffs' claims will not be preempted because imposing liability would not be tantamount to a ban on tobacco products.” Conley v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 286 F.Supp.2d 1097, 1107-08 (N.D. Cal. 2002); see, e.g., Bougopoulos v. Altria Grp., 954 F.Supp.2d 54, 61 (D.N.H. 2013) (“If Bougopoulos had asserted liability based on the inherent dangerous characteristics of cigarettes, the claim may have been preempted [H]owever, Bougopoulos's strict liability claim alleges a defect due to the defendants' manipulation of nicotine, not the inherent characteristics of cigarettes. Therefore, Bougopoulos's strict liability claim is not preempted by federal law.”); Smith v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 275 S.W.3d 784, 798-99 (Mo.Ct.App. 2008). Consistent with that caselaw, the Court holds that Plaintiff's strict liability design defect and negligent design...

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