United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Columbus Division
FELICIA CHRISTIAN, individually and as administratrix of the estate of JALIN TERRELL LAWSON, and JULLIA ALEXANDRIA MORRIS, Plaintiffs,
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, GOODYEAR TIRE & RUBBER COMPANY, FARMER'S TIRE CENTER, LLC, and EDDIE CHRISTIAN, Defendants.
D. LAND, CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.
originally brought this action in the Superior Court of Clay
County, Georgia. Ford Motor Company removed it to this Court,
contending that the only non-diverse Defendant, Eddie
Christian, was fraudulently joined. Goodyear Tire &
Rubber Company consented to removal. Plaintiffs now seek to
remand the action back to the Superior Court, and Ford and
Goodyear oppose remand. For the following reasons, the Court
finds that complete diversity of citizenship is lacking, and
therefore, this Court does not have subject matter
jurisdiction over this action. Accordingly, Plaintiffs'
motion to remand (ECF No. 9) is granted.
allege the following facts in their Complaint. In 2017, Eddie
Christian purchased tires for his 2001 Ford Explorer. Instead
of purchasing four new tires, Eddie Christian purchased three
new tires and had mechanics install his spare tire on the
vehicle in place of a fourth. Although the car's spare
tire looked new, it was older and should have been discarded.
Later that year, Eddie Christian's grandson, Jalin
Lawson, was driving the Ford Explorer when the spare
tire's tread separated and caused a wreck. Lawson was
killed and his passenger, Jullia Morris, was seriously
and Felicia Christian, Lawson's mother, filed this action
in the Superior Court of Clay County, Georgia to recover
damages stemming from the wreck. They brought claims against
Ford Motor Company, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company,
Farmer's Tire Center, LLC, and Eddie Christian.
Plaintiffs alleged that jurisdiction was not proper in
federal court because Eddie Christian and both Plaintiffs
were residents of Georgia, and, therefore, there was no
complete diversity of citizenship.
allege that Eddie Christian “negligently failed to
independently research and become aware that the spare tire
[on the Ford Explorer that he loaned to Lawson], while
looking new, was in fact an older tire and was due to be
discarded and not used.” Compl. ¶ 49, ECF No. 1-1.
On June 29, 2018, Ford received a sworn interrogatory from
Felicia Christian stating that Eddie Christian gave the
Explorer to Lawson to drive. Ford claims that this was the
first time it had reason to believe that Plaintiffs could not
recover against Eddie Christian under their negligence theory
because Eddie was a gratuitous bailor and, therefore, did not
owe a duty to inspect his vehicle for defects.
thirty days of receiving the interrogatory, Ford removed this
case to federal court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction,
claiming that Eddie Christian had been fraudulently joined.
Plaintiffs then filed the motion to remand.
courts have diversity jurisdiction over “all civil
actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or
value of $75, 000 . . . and is between . . . citizens of
different States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1).
“If a case is removed to federal court based on
diversity jurisdiction, the federal district court must
remand the case back to state court if complete diversity
between the parties does not exist.” Kimball v.
Better Bus. Bureau of W. Fla., 613 Fed.Appx. 821, 822
(11th Cir. 2015)(per curiam). Here, complete diversity does
not exist because Eddie Christian is a non-diverse defendant.
Therefore, remand is presumptively required. “However,
if a defendant shows that ‘there is no possibility the
plaintiff can establish a cause of action against [a
non-diverse] defendant,' then the plaintiff is said to
have fraudulently joined the non-diverse defendant.”
Florence v. Crescent Res., LLC, 484 F.3d 1293, 1297
(11th Cir. 2007)(quoting Henderson v. Wash. Nat'l
Ins. Co., 454 F.3d 1278, 1281 (11th Cir. 2006)).
“In that situation, the federal court must dismiss the
non-diverse defendant and deny any motion to remand the
matter back to state court.” Id. Here, Ford
and Goodyear argue that federal jurisdiction is proper
because Eddie Christian, the only non-diverse defendant in
the case, was fraudulently joined.
burden of proving that a non-diverse defendant was
fraudulently joined “is a ‘heavy one.'”
Crowe v. Coleman, 113 F.3d 1536, 1538 (11th Cir.
1997)(quoting B, Inc. v. Miller Brewing Co., 663
F.2d 545, 549 (5th Cir. Unit A 1981)). “If there is
even a possibility that a state court would find that the
complaint states a cause of action against . . . the resident
defendant, the federal court must find that joinder was
proper and remand the case to state court.”
Id. (quoting Coker v. Amoco Oil Co., 709
F.2d 1433, 1440-41 (11th Cir. 1983), superseded by
statute on other grounds as stated in Georgetown Manor, Inc.
v. Ethan Allen, Inc., 991 F.2d 1533 (11th Cir. 1993)).
When analyzing a claim of fraudulent joinder, “the
district court must evaluate the factual allegations in the
light most favorable to the plaintiff and must resolve any
uncertainties about state substantive law in favor of the
Ford and Goodyear ague that there is no possibility the
Superior Court of Clay County will find that Plaintiffs have
a cause of action against Eddie Christian. Defendants
exaggerate the implausibility of Plaintiffs' claim.
Plaintiffs' only claim against Eddie is for negligence.
To recover for negligence in Georgia, a plaintiff must prove
that the defendant breached a duty of care. Shortnacy v.
N. Atlanta Internal Med., P.C., 556 S.E.2d 209, 213
(Ga.Ct.App. 2001)(“A plaintiff must come forward with
specific facts establishing a breach of duty [to recover for
negligence].”). Plaintiffs argue that Eddie breached
the duty of reasonable care imposed under the common law and
breached a duty of care established under Georgia statutory
law. Because Plaintiffs have alleged a plausible claim for
Eddie's breach of a statutory duty, Eddie was not
fraudulently joined, and remand is required.
Georgia law, “[a] violation of the Uniform Rules of the
Road prima facie establishes negligence per se in the absence
of a valid defense.” Harden v. Burdette, 420
S.E.2d 626, 628 (Ga.Ct.App. 1992)(quoting Arnold v.
Arnold, 397 S.E.2d 724, 727 (Ga.Ct.App. 1990)).
“Once a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of
negligence per se, the ‘burden shifts to the defendant
to show that the violation was unintentional and in the
exercise of ordinary care.'” Whole Foods Mkt.
Grp., Inc. v. Shepard, 775 S.E.2d 616, 619 (Ga.Ct.App.
2015)(quoting Harden, 420 S.E.2d at 628). Here,
Plaintiffs assert that Eddie violated Georgia's general
safe vehicle statute, O.C.G.A. § 40-8-7. This statute
prohibits owners of vehicles from “caus[ing] or
knowingly permit[ting] to be driven or moved, on any street
or highway any vehicle . . . [w]hich is in such unsafe
condition as to endanger any person.” O.C.G.A. §
40-8-7(b). Plaintiffs assert that by knowingly permitting his
grandson to drive his Ford Explorer on the roads without
inspecting his spare tire to ensure that it was in good
condition, Eddie Christian permitted it to be driven or moved
on the streets in an unsafe condition, in violation of the
and Goodyear argue that Plaintiffs cannot establish Eddie
Christian violated this statute because Plaintiffs do not
assert that Eddie Christian knew his Ford Explorer was in an
unsafe condition. They argue that knowledge of a
vehicle's defective condition is an essential element of
the statute. Georgia substantive law, however, does not
clearly establish this requirement. Ford and Goodyear point
to no Georgia case law interpreting the statute to require
knowledge of a vehicle's defective condition, and the
language of the statute does not clearly establish such an
element. “Knowingly” in the statute arguably
modifies the word “permit, ” not the word
“unsafe.” See, e.g., Coates v.
State, 453 S.E.2d 35, 37 (Ga.Ct.App. 1994)
(“[C]rimes relating to equipment and inspection of
motor vehicles are violations of strict liability criminal
statutes, which means that although the State must prove that
the accused intended to do the acts or make the omissions
that are prohibited, the State does not have to prove a
mental fault.”). “It is well-settled that
‘[s]tate courts have the right to construe their own
statutes.'” Cotton States Mut. Ins. Co. v.
Anderson, 749 F.2d 663, 667 (11th Cir. 1984)(quoting
Bank of Heflin v. Miles, 621 F.2d 108, 113 (5th Cir.
1980)). Accordingly, the Court “must resolve any
uncertainties about state substantive law in favor of the
plaintiff.” Crowe, 113 F.3d at 1538; see
also Florence, 484 F.3d at 1298-99 (reversing a district
court for interpreting a Florida statute to contain a
causation requirement that was not in the statute's plain
language or Florida case law, noting that “any
ambiguity or doubt about the substantive state law favors
remand” (quoting Crowe, 113 F.3d at 1539)).
Therefore, Ford and Goodyear have not met their “heavy
burden” of showing fraudulent joinder. Crowe,
113 F.3d at 1538.
and Goodyear also argue that the Georgia Court of Appeals in
Almassud v. Mezquital ruled that a lack of knowledge
of a vehicle's defect is a complete defense to an action
for negligence per se under O.C.G.A. § 40-8-7. 811
S.E.2d 110 (Ga.Ct.App. 2018). However, Almassud
established no such rule. In Almassud, a plaintiff
offered evidence that the defendant violated O.C.G.A. §
40-8-7, among other statutes, at trial, and the defendant
offered evidence in rebuttal suggesting that he did not know
his car was defective prior to the accident. The Georgia
Court of Appeals ruled that the defendant was entitled to a
jury instruction explaining that after a plaintiff
establishes the defendant violated a statute, the defendant
has the burden of producing evidence “to show that the
violation was unintentional and in the exercise of ordinary
care. Otherwise [the prima facie showing would] be
conclusive.” Id. at 112 (quoting Williams
v. Calhoun, 333 S.E.2d 408, 411 (Ga.Ct.App.
1985)(alteration in original)). Here, under