Sixth Circuit Puts Brakes on Pleading Requirements
Unless you have been under a rock for the past couple of years—or just actively avoid federal court—you are well aware of the impact of Iqbal and Twombly on pleading a cause of action in federal court. Depending on which side of a case you find yourself, you may believe that those decisions ask too much from plaintiffs at the beginning of the case, just the right amount, or even possibly too little. Regardless of where you find yourself in that debate, there is no doubt that those decisions raised the bar for pleading. Thus, we all stop and take notice when an appellate court warns that a district court has demanded too much from a plaintiff. That is exactly what happened in a recent decision by the Sixth Circuit.
In Jackson v. Ford Motor Co., the plaintiff and her husband were traveling down U.S. Highway 70 when the couple lost control of their 2012 Ford Focus. The wife survived the crash, but the husband did not. The plaintiff brought suit against Ford, alleging a defect in the vehicle’s “Electronic Power Assisted Steering” (“EPAS”) system. Ford ultimately moved to dismiss, and the district court granted Ford’s motion.
The issue before the Sixth Circuit was simple: Did the plaintiff allege sufficient facts to establish proximate cause? In short, a unanimous panel found that the plaintiff did. The crux of the decision fell on two of the three factors required for establishing proximate cause in a products liability case—namely, was the alleged defect a substantial factor in causing the accident and was the accident reasonably foreseeable. What is particularly interesting is that plaintiff satisfied the substantial-factor element based on the “apparent litany of other accidents identified by [the plaintiff] where the EPAS system allegedly failed” and the alleged “dart[ing] [of the vehicle] left across the center line into oncoming traffic.” The court, likewise, found very few allegations necessary to satisfy the second foreseeability prong, relying mostly on allegations concerning potentially defective components of the EPAS system.
This decision could be dismissed as a niche matter involving causation for products liability cases in Tennessee, or part of the line of cases specific to EPAS system litigation. However, I submit that such a narrow view would be a mistake. Indeed, the court noted early on that it had “followed the standard set forth in Iqbal and Twombly in other products liability cases.” Rather, I think that the court made its intention quite clear that “causal weaknesses will more often be fodder for a summary-judgment motion” than a motion to dismiss.
The takeaway from Jackson probably will not be clear for a while. However, I think it is a fair assumption that Jackson might start appearing in responses to motions to dismiss, especially in products liability cases. The real question is whether this decision will have broader implications in terms of pleading causation. Needless to say, Jackson is a case to watch.