“Dude, Where’s My Car?”: Federal Court in Pennsylvania issues reminder that causation is king
In the 2000 film Dude, Where’s My Car? the primary characters wake up after a night of partying wondering what transpired the night before, or, as Ashton Kutcher said it best, “Dude, where’s my car?” In a recently decided matter in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, the court made it clear that a plaintiff can’t leave these types of questions unanswered and must be able to piece together the chain of events leading to an injury to sustain a cause of action.
In Ruiz-Rivera v. York College, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31647, *3, 2020 WL 905587 (M.D. Pa Feb. 25, 2020), the court was faced with facts reminiscent of the film. On a Friday night in September 2017, Savannah Ruiz-Rivera (“Ruiz-Rivera”), a member of a sorority at York College, attended a mixer with her sorority and a fraternity on campus. Ruiz-Rivera’s complaint alleged that the Greek organizations served underage and/or visibly intoxicated mixer attendees alcohol and illicit drugs. Ruiz-Rivera alleged that she left the mixer and went to several other Greek housing locations and, lastly, to an apartment building operated by York College, at each of which she was served alcohol.
After alleging her attendance and ingestion of alcohol and illicit drugs at these locations, Ruiz-Rivera’s complaint fast forwards, in the very next paragraph, to the next morning, claiming “[i]n the early morning hours of September 23, 2017, plaintiff was found on the ground below the balcony of the Spring Garden Apartments on the campus of York College of Pennsylvania.” Ruiz-Rivera’s complaint continued to allege personal injuries and asserted counts of negligence and dram shop liability against the Greek organizations whose houses she attended the night before as well as York College. What the complaint did not include were allegations of what or whose conduct caused Ruiz-Rivera to end up on the ground below the balcony.
The defendants filed various motions to dismiss Ruiz-Rivera’s complaint as well as motions for a more definite statement on the basis that the complaint did not meet the requirements of pleading under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 dictating that a claim for relief must contain, among other things, “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.”
Specifically, York College argued that the assertion that Ruiz-Rivera “was found on the ground below the balcony” was insufficient to establish liability because the allegation failed to identify why the defendants were responsible for her injuries. Ruiz-Rivera conceded in her motion papers that she did not know how she ended up on the ground under the balcony and “has no recollection of what occurred immediately prior to her fall.”
The court reached the conclusion that Ruiz-Rivera’s complaint did nothing more than suggest that defendants’ liability was a “sheer possibility.” Recognizing that the elements of a negligence claim require the pleading of a duty recognized by law, a breach of that duty, a causal connection between the conduct and the injury, and proof of actual injury, the court held that Ruiz-Rivera’s complaint did no more than imply that defendants’ conduct aided in her intoxication because she failed to state that any specific conduct caused her injury.
The court was also unconvinced by Ruiz-Rivera’s argument that defendants’ motions were premature because discovery might unearth evidence to support the elements of her claim. Instead, the court dismissed the complaint as a “fishing expedition.” Allowing Ruiz-Rivera’s case to continue, would “embrace a wild goose chase” for a cause of action and plaintiffs who fail to properly plead causation like Ruiz-Rivera cannot “discover [their] way into a lawsuit.”
The court likewise rejected the possibility of maintaining Ruiz-Rivera’s action under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor (the legal doctrine permitting an inference that a plaintiff’s harm was caused by another) because Ruiz-Rivera did not identify why the negligence alleged in her complaint was likely committed by any of the named defendants as opposed to “her own malfeasance or inadvertence.” As Ruiz-Rivera did not rule out other responsible causes, including her own conduct or the conduct of third parties, the court was unwilling to apply the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor to her case.
• Be alert for “Dude, where’s my car?” questions in pleadings: where a complaint or pleading makes a sudden factual leap, leaving questions as to how one fact logically leads to another, there may be an opportunity for a motion to dismiss.
• A plaintiff must rule out his or her own negligence in the complaint for the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor to apply.