A federal court in Alabama has determined that the representative of the estate of a man killed when a riding lawnmower he was using rolled over on him did not fraudulently join a non-diverse defendant and thus granted her motion to remand to state court. Lazenby v. ExMark Mfg. Co., Inc., No. 3:12-CV-82-WKW [WO] (U.S. Dist. Ct., M.D. Ala., E. Div., filed August 8, 2012).  

The plaintiff asserted a wantonness claim against the mower’s distributor, alleging that it “made a deliberate decision to market and sell the Quest ZTR with the knowledge that it had no [rollover protection system], and thus lacked an essential safety feature to protect ordinary homeowners and consumers.” According to the court, it is arguable that this cause of action involves conduct independent of the product’s design, i.e., “it is not the particular design flaw of the product that is the basis for the claim, but the decision of the defendant to sell a product (any product) it knows to be unreasonably dangerous.” Under Alabama law, whether this theory “is precluded because of its attenuated connection to the manufacture and design of the product is an unsettled question.”  

The court noted that a recent change in Alabama law barring products liability claims against distributors but not precluding claims against distributors for independent wanton conduct made the plaintiff’s wantonness claim against the product distributor, the non-diverse defendant, debatable. Thus, “it would be inappropriate for the court to determine that there is no basis for Plaintiff maintaining an action against [the distributor]. Plaintiff ‘need[s] only [to] have a possibility of stating a valid cause of action in order for the joinder to be legitimate.’ Plaintiff has presented an unsettled question of law, which favors remanding this case for the Alabama state courts to interpret the law,” the court said.