On October 17, 2019, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Jacksonville Division, dismissed sua sponte the complaint filed by plaintiff Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance, Inc. against defendants CSX Corp., CSX Transportation, Inc. (collectively referred to as “CSX”) and Savage Services Corp. (“Savage”) because the district court considered it to be an impermissible “shotgun pleading.” Citing to Eleventh Circuit precedent, the district court defined a shotgun complaint as a pleading which contains multiple counts where each count repeats and realleges the allegations of all preceding counts. In the district court’s view, this type of pleading leads to “irrelevant factual allegations and legal conclusions” which shifts the responsibility of determining which facts are relevant to a particular cause of action onto the district court, which is “altogether unacceptable.” As justification for its ruling, the district court suggested that such a pleading would waste judicial resources and cause litigants to waste time and money conducting unnecessary discovery. The district court gave plaintiff until October 31, 2019 to file an amended complaint which complied with its October 17th order.

The text of the complaint seeks a recovery of roughly USD 4.2 million for the loss of automobile parts which were damaged during a train collision and derailment in Marysville, Ohio. The complaint alleges that the automobile parts were loaded in good order and condition into thirty containers in Tokyo, transported via ocean carrier to Tacoma, Washington where the shipment was delivered in good order and condition to defendants; thereafter, the shipment travelled by rail from Tacoma to Marysville, Ohio on rail lines owned and operated by CSX. The complaint goes on to allege that CSX permitted another defendant, Savage, to move railcars for a non-party, Scotts Miracle-Grow, on the same CSX rail lines in Marysville. Plaintiff alleges that Savage left a rail switch in the open position which improperly diverted the railcars transporting the containers containing plaintiff’s cargo onto a siding where they collided with other unattended rail cars, resulting in the claimed damages.

In the complaint in question, plaintiff asserted over twenty detailed factual allegations concerning the relationships of the various parties and the facts and circumstances of how the casualty occurred. Plaintiff further asserted two causes of action. The first cause of action asserted negligence against all named defendants and the second cause of action asserted a breach of contract of carriage claim against CSX only. The district court specifically objected to plaintiff’s use of “repeats and realleges each and every allegation of Paragraphs 1 through 30 as if fully set forth herein” in the first paragraph of Count Two because, in the district court’s view, it should be up to the plaintiff to lay out with specificity those factual allegations which apply to a particular cause of action.

When pleading cargo damage claims, shippers generally do not have direct access to: (a) the aircraft, vessels or trains carrying their cargo; (b) the employees operating the equipment moving the cargo; or (c) the documents generated during transit. As such, shippers often have no choice but to allege causes of action in a generalized format because carriers usually refuse to voluntarily provide more detailed information. Sometimes, until a carrier is compelled to produce documents through discovery, a shipper cannot identify with specificity the wrongs the relevant defendants have allegedly committed.

The second cause of action against CSX, a common carrier, need only allege a prima facie case for liability, i.e. receipt of cargo by the carrier in good order and condition and delivery to the plaintiff in a damaged or lost condition. The complaint appears to adequately allege these facts. Nevertheless, the district court dismissed plaintiff’s complaint.

This case stands as a warning to prospective plaintiffs that federal courts require more detail than a “notice pleading” jurisdiction, and that the degree of detail required in the complaint is largely left to the discretion of the judge hearing the case. Although under normal circumstances, Rule 15 of the Fed. R. Civ. Pro. permits any party to amend its pleading once as a matter of right within twenty one days of service and, thereafter, by consent of the parties or order of the court, this case illustrates, that you may not get this opportunity prior to having your complaint dismissed under the shotgun pleading rule applicable in the Eleventh Circuit. In the instant case, the district court did qualify the dismissal by allowing the plaintiff to file an amended complaint consistent with its October 17th order. It remains to be seen whether plaintiff will appeal the judge’s ruling, move for reargument or file a more detailed complaint. Cozen O’Connor will continue to monitor all changes that might be of interest to the bar and clients generally.