Shotgun Pleadings in Federal Court

Posted in truck accident,wrongful death on September 28, 2021

Will a “Shotgun Pleading” Allege Sufficient Facts To Avoid Dismissal in a Semi Accident?

A shotgun pleading is one that doesn’t have sufficient clarity to provide the other side with fair notice of the claims or defenses against them. As a result, a shotgun pleading violates the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

What is a Shotgun Pleading?

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes the federal courts in Georgia) says that shotgun pleadings contain several counts, each one incorporating by reference the allegations of its predecessors, leading to a situation where most of the counts (i.e., all but the first) contain irrelevant factual allegations and conclusions. That court identifies four kinds of shotgun pleadings:

  • A complaint with numerous counts that incorporate the allegations of every preceding one;
  • A complaint with conclusory, vague, or immaterial facts not associated with a specific claim;
  • A complaint that fails to set out each claim into a different count; and
  • A complaint with multiple claims against multiple defendants without specifying which defendant is responsible for an act or omission, or which defendant a claim is against.

Georgia Federal Court Asked to Dismiss Shotgun Pleading

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia ruled recently on a “Pre-Answer Motion for Partial Dismissal Under Rule 12(b)(6)” filed by a defendant asking the court to dismiss the plaintiff’s independent negligence claims based on an alleged failure to meet the pleading standards required by the federal rules.

In an action that arose from a semi accident, the plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that Greenwood Motor Lines “was negligent in its own right under the Doctrine of Negligent Entrustment, Negligent Hiring, Negligent Retention, Negligent Training, Negligent Controlling, and Negligent Supervision of its employees,” including and specifically the defendant semi driver.

The Details of the Big Rig Accident

On the evening of August 24, 2018, Plaintiff Grady Bryan was injured in a vehicle accident that occurred on the U.S. Highway 84 bypass/Georgia State Road 38 in Thomasville, Georgia. He was doing maintenance on a traffic light in a suspended lift bucket attached to a Georgia DOT utility-boom truck when the truck was struck by a semi. The driver of the tractor-trailer, David Swisher, was driving for his employer Greenwood.

Grady was thrown from the utility-boom truck’s bucket on impact, causing him to fall 25 feet to the ground. As a result, he alleged he sustained serious physical and mental injuries from the fall, which have a great effect on his ability to work and care for himself. Grady sought damages in excess of $10 million including medical expenses, lost past and future wages, lost earnings capacity, and past and future pain and suffering.

His wife Kristi sought an unspecified award for compensatory damages based on a loss of consortium due to her husband’s injuries.

Federal Rules Say that a Pleading Must Contain a Short and Plain Statement

United States District Court Judge W. Louis Sands, Sr. explained that  the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a pleading contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. While  this doesn’t require that a pleading contain ‘detailed factual allegations, but it does demand more than “an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.”

Moreover, a complaint must contain sufficient facts that “‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face'” to avoid dismissal for failure to state a claim for relief under Rule 12(b)(6). A claim is facially plausible when “the court [can] draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged,” the judge wrote, quoting another 2021 decision. As a result, factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.

Greenwood moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ “independent negligence claims” in the complaint, contending that they were conclusory and failed to satisfy the requirements because they lack support.

Judge Sands wrote in his opinion that after providing a brief factual background of the events that transpired on the day of the injury, the complaint states that the “Plaintiffs hereby incorporate by reference” the previous twenty-eight paragraphs of the complaint “as if more fully alleged herein” for the basis of recovery.

The complaint said that the semi driver, while in the course and scope of his employment with Greenwood, was driving a tractor trailer that ultimately struck the utility-boom truck from which Grady was suspended. In the portion of the complaint in which Plaintiffs make their claims for relief against Greenwood, Plaintiffs rely on the incorporated information from previous paragraphs of the complaint and assert that because the truck driver was “operating the vehicle while transacting business on behalf of Defendant Greenwood with either the authority, or the scope of apparent authority, and Defendant Greenwood [is] vicariously liable through the employer/employee agency which resulted therein and under the theory of respondeat superior.”

The complaint then alleged six independent claims in one sentence.

Judge Sands didn’t find that Plaintiff’s independent negligence claims listed in the complaint were facially plausible as to avoid dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6). Though the complaint did assert claims for Greenwood’s potential liability in the portion of the complaint discussing relief, Judge Sands didn’t find that the claims were facially plausible based on those statements alone.

While the factual allegations and claims did sufficiently allege general negligence against Greenwood, there simply wasn’t enough support for the specific claims.

Shotgun Pleadings Disfavored, Judge Says

Judge Sands said that in its current form, the specific allegations amounted to a shotgun pleading, or a pleading with multiple claims in a single count. “Such pleadings are historically disfavored,” the judge said, because it becomes “virtually impossible to know which allegations of fact are intended to support which claims for relief.” Because Plaintiffs are asserting multiple claims for relief against Greenwood, “a more definite statement, if properly drawn, will present each claim for relief in a separate count, as required by Rule 10(b), and with such clarity and precision that the defendant will be able to discern what the plaintiff is claiming and to frame a responsive pleading.”

Rule 10(b) says that “[a] party must state its claims or defenses in numbered paragraphs, each limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances. A later pleading may refer by number to a paragraph in an earlier pleading. If doing so would promote clarity, each claim founded on a separate transaction or occurrence–and each defense other than a denial–must be stated in a separate count or defense.”

Therefore, the Court grants Greenwood’s motion. Bryan v. Swisher, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 181730 (M.D. Ga. September 23, 2021).

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