Bowden ex rel. Bowden v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

Decision Date29 November 2000
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 99-D-880-E.
Citation124 F.Supp.2d 1228
PartiesStephen BOWDEN, By and Through his next friend, Carolyn BOWDEN, Plaintiff, v. WAL-MART STORES, INC., et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Alabama

Donald R. Harrison, Harrison & Edmondson, LLC, Dadeville, AL, for Plaintiff.

Marda W. Sydnor, Parsons, Lee & Juliano, Birmingham, AL, for Wal-Mart Stores.

James Eugene Williams, James Flynn Mozingo, Melton, Espy, Williams & Hayes, Montgomery, AL, for Tallassee Community Hospital.

Walter J. Price III, Huie, Fernambucq & Stewart, Birmingham, AL, for Montgomery Regional Medical Center.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

DE MENT, District Judge.

Before the court are three separate motions for summary judgment. Tallassee Community Hospital, Inc. ("TCH") filed its motion on May 19, 2000. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. ("Wal-Mart") filed its motion on May 24, 2000. Montgomery Regional Medical Center ("Montgomery Regional") filed its motion on September 25, 2000. Plaintiff has timely responded to each. After careful consideration of the arguments of counsel, the relevant law, and the record as a whole, the court finds that TCH's motion is due to be granted, Wal-Mart's motion is due to be granted in part and denied in part, and Montgomery Regional's motion is due to be denied.

I. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

The court exercises subject matter jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (federal question jurisdiction), 42 U.S.C. § 1395dd (Emergency Medical Leave and Active Labor Act), and 28 U.S.C. § 1367 (supplemental jurisdiction). Neither party contests personal jurisdiction or venue.

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

The court construes the evidence and makes factual inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970). Summary judgment is entered only if it is shown "that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). At this juncture, the court does not "weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter," but solely "determine[s] whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986) (citations omitted).

This determination involves applying substantive law to the substantive facts that have been developed. A dispute about a material fact is genuine if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party, based on the applicable law in relation to the evidence presented. See id. at 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505; Barfield v. Brierton, 883 F.2d 923, 933 (11th Cir.1989). The moving party bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The burden then shifts to the non-moving party, which "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Corp. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). An action will be dismissed when the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party. See id. at 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348.

III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A helium balloon, a glow-in-the dark plastic star, and a hospital conspired to rob Plaintiff Stephen Bowden ("Plaintiff") of much of his eyesight, just a few days after he celebrated his eighth birthday. About a year before this tragedy, Stephen's grandmother had purchased a package of Glow Power Wonder Glow Stars from Wal-Mart. The plastic stars are sold in a package along with some adhesive putty, which allows them to be affixed to ceilings, walls, and other surfaces. The package labeling states that the product is a "Super Kit Play Set" that is designed for consumers over three years of age. (Wal-Mart Mot. Ex. 1.) Stephen has lived with his grandparents since he was an infant, when his parents divorced and his mother committed suicide. The issue is whether the acts of any of the Defendants proximately caused his injuries.

After Stephen's grandparents purchased the stars, the family stuck them to the ceiling in his bedroom. The adhesive stars eventually began to fall to the floor. On September 15, 1997, Stephen had a birthday party with friends and family at a local hotel. Stephen's grandparents brought a bunch of helium balloons back to their house and set some of them free in Stephen's bedroom. A few nights later, before Stephen went to bed, he picked up one of the stars and pressed it against one of the balloons. The balloon exploded, propelling the star through the air with such force that it punctured the cornea and retina in Stephen's left eye. (Wal-Mart Mot. at 1-6.)

Stephen's family dashed over to TCH, the nearest hospital. Upon arriving at the hospital's emergency room, Stephen was taken immediately to the trauma unit. He was examined without delay by Dr. David Streeter, who administered treatment and arranged to transfer Stephen to another facility, where he could be seen by an ophthalmologist. Stephen's grandparents, however, insisted that Stephen be seen at a larger facility in Montgomery. (Streeter Aff.) They left TCH and drove to Montgomery Regional. Stephen's grandmother presented an attendant at Montgomery Regional with her Medicaid card. The attendant told Ms. Bowden, "I'm sorry. I cannot see where this is an emergency. You'll have to wait four to six hours and we will not treat it as an emergency." (2d Am.Compl. ¶ 25.) Because Montgomery Regional would not treat Stephen's serious injury, the Bowdens had no choice but to proceed to another hospital, where they were advised to transport Stephen to a specialized eye care facility in Birmingham. (Id. ¶ 26.) Many hours later, Stephen received the comprehensive treatment to which he is entitled as a human being. This civil action arises out of the series of negligent acts and omissions that occurred prior to that point.

IV. DISCUSSION
A. Wal-Mart

The court begins by addressing Plaintiff's products liability claims against Wal-Mart. Plaintiff's Amended Complaint1 alleges that Wal-Mart proximately caused his ocular injuries "under the following rules of liability," including negligence and wantonness in the design, manufacture, distribution, inspection, sale, and storage of the stars that exploded the helium balloon in his bedroom and punctured his retina. (Am Compl. ¶¶ 38, 40(a)-(f).) He also alleges that Wal-Mart failed to warn consumers of the "inherent danger of this product and to carefully warn how it must be used."2 (Id. ¶ 40(g)). In moving for summary judgment, Wal-Mart argues that there is no causal relationship between Plaintiff's injuries and Wal-Mart's actions. With respect to Plaintiff's allegation of negligent design, sale, and distribution, the court disagrees. In all other respects, however, Wal-Mart's motion for summary judgment is due to be granted.

A federal court exercising supplemental jurisdiction over state law claims applies the laws that would have been applied by that state's supreme court. See Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938). Under Alabama law, negligence and wantonness claims require a showing of: (1) a duty to a foreseeable plaintiff; (2) breach of that duty; and (3) proximate causation of injury. See Crowne Investments, Inc. v. Bryant, 638 So.2d 873, 878 (Ala.1994). To establish wantonness Plaintiff must additionally show that Defendant acted intentionally, consciously, or with reckless indifference. See Rommell v. Automobile Racing Club of Am., 964 F.2d 1090, 1096 (11th Cir.1992) (applying Alabama law). Foreseeability alone cannot give rise to an inference of the scienter necessary to sustain a claim of wantonness. See id.

On issues of proximate causation, the ultimate question is whether the plaintiff's injury is "a natural and probable consequence of the negligent act or omission which an ordinarily prudent person ought reasonably to foresee would result in injury." Vines v. Plantation Motor Lodge, 336 So.2d 1338, 1339 (Ala.1976). The question of proximate cause is typically one for the jury to decide. See Davison v. Mobile Infirmary, 456 So.2d 14, 24 (Ala. 1984). Indeed, a court should grant summary judgment only when "there is a total lack of evidence from which the factfinder may reasonably infer a direct causal relation between the culpable conduct and the resulting injury." Id. (emphasis supplied).

1. Negligent design, sale, and distribution

The court first addresses Plaintiff's allegation that the stars were defective and unreasonably dangerous. A defective product is "one that is not fit for its intended purpose or that does not meet the reasonable expectations of the ordinary consumer." Beam v. Tramco, Inc., 655 So.2d 979, 981 (Ala.1995). Some products are so poorly and negligently designed that they should not be sold. The issue is whether the product is safe or dangerous when used as intended. See Casrell v. Altec Indus., Inc., 335 So.2d 128, 133 (Ala.1976). "Whether a product is `unreasonably dangerous' is for the trier of fact, just as negligence, vel non, is in a traditional negligence case." Id. Put another way, "a product is unreasonably dangerous if it is dangerous to an extent beyond which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics." Id. at 133 n. 2 (quoting Welch v. Outboard Marine Corp., 481 F.2d 252, 254 (5th Cir. 1973)).

Initially, the court finds that there is a question of fact whether the stars were being used as intended. While Wal-Mart points to labels on the product's packaging and argues that the stars were intended...

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