Sparks v. Total Body

Decision Date17 July 2009
Docket Number1071708.
Citation27 So.3d 489
PartiesMarcella SPARKS v. TOTAL BODY ESSENTIAL NUTRITION, INC., et al. Cindi Howard, Marion Howard, and Joshua Taylor v. Total Body Essential Nutrition, Inc., et al.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

Jeffrey C. Rickard and Thomas M. Powell of Marsh, Rickard & Bryan, P.C., Birmingham, for plaintiffs.

Duncan Y. Manley, Sharon D. Stuart, and J. Paul Zimmerman of Christian & Small LLP, Birmingham, for defendant Wright Enrichment, Inc.

Joseph H. Driver, Glenn E. Ireland, Sean C. Pierce, and Taylor C. Powell of Carr, Allison, Pugh, Howard, Oliver & Sisson, P.C., Birmingham, for defendant Tex-American Food Blending, Inc.

LYONS, Justice.

These cases are before this Court on a certified question from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

Facts and Procedural History

At various times Marcella Sparks, Cindi Howard, Marion Howard, and Joshua Taylor (collectively referred to as "the consumers") purchased a dietary supplement known as "Total Body Formula" from St. John's Nutrition, a health-food retailer in Oxford, Alabama.1 St. John's Nutrition is a retail seller of Total Body Formula and received the supplement from the manufacturer in sealed, prepackaged containers. St. John's Nutrition sold Total Body Formula to the consumers in the same condition as it was received by St. John's Nutrition. The consumers allege that after ingesting Total Body Formula, they suffered serious and permanent physical injuries resulting from high levels of selenium and chromium contained in the supplement.

In two separate actions2 filed on April 28, 2008, the consumers sued Total Body Essential Nutrition, Inc.; TexAmerican Food Blending, Inc.; Wright Enrichment, Inc.; and St. John's Nutrition in the Calhoun Circuit Court, asserting claims under the Alabama Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine ("AEMLD") for the manufacture and/or sale of a defective and unreasonably dangerous product, negligent failure to warn, negligence, negligent and/or reckless marketing, breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, and breach of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, and asserting a claim of fraud. On June 6, 2008, TexAmerican Food Blending removed the two actions to the federal district court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332, asserting that the amount in controversy exceeded the threshold jurisdictional limit of the federal district court and that diversity jurisdiction existed because St. John's Nutrition, the only named defendant with an Alabama residence for purposes of determining federal diversity jurisdiction, see 28 U.S.C. § 1332(c)(1), had been fraudulently joined.

Fraudulent joinder is established "when there is no possibility that the plaintiff can prove a cause of action against the resident (non-diverse) defendant." Triggs v. John Crump Toyota, Inc., 154 F.3d 1284, 1287 (11th. Cir.1998). "`If 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 the joinder was proper and remand the case to the state court.'" Triggs, 154 F.3d at 1287 (quoting Coker v. Amoco Oil Co., 709 F.2d 1433, 1440-41 (11th Cir.1983)). "The plaintiff need not have a winning case against the allegedly fraudulent defendant; he need only have a possibility of stating a valid cause of action in order for the joinder to be legitimate." Triggs, 154 F.3d at 1287. The removing party must establish fraudulent joinder by clear and convincing evidence. Henderson v. Washington Nat'l Ins. Co., 454 F.3d 1278, 1281 (11th Cir. 2006). When fraudulent joinder is established by the removing party, "the federal court must dismiss the non-diverse defendant and deny any motion to remand the matter back to state court." Florence v. Crescent Res., LLC, 484 F.3d 1293, 1297 (11th Cir.2007).

On July 2, 2008, the consumers moved the federal district court to remand the two actions to the Calhoun Circuit Court, arguing that St. John's Nutrition was not fraudulently joined so as to defeat jurisdiction based on diversity of citizenship. The consumers argued in their motion that TexAmerican Food Blending had failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence that there existed no possibility that causes of action for breach of the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose could be stated against St. John's Nutrition. Relying upon the sealed-container doctrine, Tex-American Food Blending argued that the consumers could not possibly establish causes of action against St. John's Nutrition for breach of the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose because, it argued, there existed no causal relationship between the conduct of St. John's Nutrition and the allegedly defective product.

Following a hearing, the federal district court, on September 8, 2008, entered an order finding that TexAmerican Food Blending had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the consumers' claims exceeded the jurisdictional amount of $75,000. However, the federal district court concluded that it is not clear under Alabama law whether claims alleging the breach of the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose are subject to the defense of the sealed-container doctrine. If the consumers' claims against St. John's Nutrition alleging breach of the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose are barred as a matter of law by the sealed-container doctrine, then the joinder of St. John's Nutrition as a defendant in the actions would be considered fraudulent. Therefore, the federal district court, pursuant to Rule 18, Ala. R.App. P., certified the following question to this Court:

"Whether, under Alabama's Uniform Commercial Code, a retail seller who has purchased goods from a reputable manufacturer in enclosed, pre-packaged and sealed containers, with alleged imperfections that cannot be discovered by the exercise of reasonable care by the seller, can be held liable for any alleged imperfections in the product under an implied warranty of merchantability and or fitness for particular purpose; or whether, instead, the UCC imposes strict liability upon a retail seller of goods thereby eradicating the `lack of proximate cause defense' provided to retail sellers under the AEMLD, as set forth in Atkins v. American Motors Corp., 335 So.2d 134 (Ala.1976)."

The former United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in the first case using the certification procedure adopted in Amendment No. 328, § 6.02, Alabama Constitution 1901 (now Art. VI, § 140, Off. Recomp.), stated:

"Five questions were certified but, following our usual practice, we left it to the Alabama Court to formulate the issues. As was their prerogative, the Alabama Court did just that and considered the basic issues rather than replying categorically to the certified questions."

Barnes v. Atlantic & Pacific Life Ins. Co. of America, 530 F.2d 98, 99 (5th Cir.1976) (footnote omitted).

Consistent with this prerogative, we note that the question as framed by the federal district court refers to "strict liability" as "eradicating the `lack of proximate cause defense.'" However, as the Court noted in Atkins v. American Motors Corp., 335 So.2d 134 (Ala.1976), the recognition of a defense of lack of causal relation arising from a defendant's activities in connection with handling the product and its defective condition "is not to be confused with the burden which rests on the plaintiff to prove that his injuries and damages were the proximate result of the defective condition of the product." Atkins, 335 So.2d at 143 n. 4. Finally, Alabama's Uniform Commercial Code ("the UCC") is equally attentive to the plaintiff's burden of establishing proximate cause. See, e.g., § 7-2-715(2)(b), Ala.Code 1975 ("Consequential damages resulting from the seller's breach include: ... Injury to person or property proximately resulting from any breach of warranty." (emphasis added)); § 7-2-314, Ala.Code 1975, Official Comment, ¶ 13 ("In an action based on breach of warranty, it is of course necessary to show not only the existence of the warranty but the fact that the warranty was broken and that the breach of the warranty was the proximate cause of the loss sustained." (emphasis added)).

We therefore rephrase the question posed by the federal district court as follows:

"Whether, under the UCC, a retail seller who has purchased goods from a reputable manufacturer in enclosed, pre-packaged and sealed containers, with alleged imperfections that cannot be discovered by the exercise of reasonable care by the seller, can be held liable for any alleged imperfections in the product under an implied warranty of merchantability and/or fitness for particular purpose; or, put another way, whether the UCC imposes liability upon a retail seller of goods without the availability of the defense of `lack of causal relation' provided to retail sellers under the AEMLD, as set forth in Atkins v. American Motors Corp., 335 So.2d 134 (Ala. 1976)."

Only the consumers, TexAmerican Food Blending, and Wright Enrichment, Inc., have filed briefs with this Court.

Discussion

In Bradford v. Moore Brothers Feed & Grocery, 268 Ala. 217, 105 So.2d 825 (1958), this Court recognized the availability of the sealed-container doctrine to claims asserting the breach of implied warranties against retail sellers arising under the Uniform Sales Act.3 The view that the sealed-container defense survived the creation of implied warranties under the Uniform Sales Act has been described as the minority view. See Sams v. Ezy-Way Foodliner Co., 157 Me. 10, 18-19, 170 A.2d 160, 165 (1961), citing Kirkland v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., 233 Ala. 404, 171 So. 735 (1936); Bradford v. Moore Bros. Feed & Grocery, supra; Wilkes v. Memphis Grocery Co., 23 Tenn.App. 550, 134 S.W.2d 929 (19...

To continue reading

Request your trial
5 cases

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT