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Whitaker v. Hyundai Motor Co.

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

July 27, 2017

CLARENCE EDWARD WHITAKER, for himself and as Administrator of the Estate of Shannon Marie Whitaker, deceased, Plaintiff,


          Hon. Glen E. Conrad United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff, Clarence Edward Whitaker, as executor of the estate and as representative of the heirs and next of kin of Shannon Marie Whitaker, brings this diversity action arising out of an incident in which Shannon Whitaker was killed. The matter is currently before the court on defendants' partial motions to dismiss.[1] For the reasons stated, the motions will be granted.


         The following summary of the facts, taken from the plaintiffs complaint, is accepted as true for purposes of the defendants' motions to dismiss, See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007).

         On or about March 24, 2015, plaintiff and his wife, Shannon, ("the Whitakers") purchased a used 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe vehicle ("the vehicle") from Motor Mile Kia, a dealer authorized by Hyundai Motor America, Inc. ("HMA"). Compl. ¶ 8, Docket No. 1. The Whitakers purchased the vehicle used without substantial modifications or alterations from its original condition. Id. ¶ 9. On October 16, 2015, the vehicle, with its engine turned off and the key removed from the ignition cylinder, rolled forward from the driveway of the Whitakers' residence towards the side of the house, pinning Shannon Whitaker's head and neck between the car door and the vehicle frame. The Whitakers' two minor children found their mother trapped and called 911. Compl. ¶ 11-12. Clarence Whitaker arrived at the scene approximately fifteen minutes later, where he found rescue personnel attempting to free Shannon Whitaker, who was already determined to be deceased. Id., Shannon Whitaker died at age 42, and her cause of death was asphyxia due to torso compression by the vehicle. Id. ¶ 14. When Shannon Whitaker died, the ignition cylinder was in a position other than "LOCK" and the gear shift selector was in a position other than "Park, " despite the ignition key not being in the ignition cylinder. Id. ¶15.

         Several years prior to this incident, on April 15, 2009, Hyundai Motor Company ("HMC") notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it was conducting a safety recall so that it could replace the stop lamp switches on some of its vehicles, including the 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe model. Id. ¶ 18. According to the recall notice, the defect in the stop lamp could cause "interference with proper functioning of the antilock brakes." Id. ¶ 19. HMC failed to include the vehicle purchased by the Whitakers in this recall. Id. ¶ 18.

         Defendants HMC and HMA issued other safety recalls in March and April of 2013, also because of a potentially malfunctioning stop lamp, which "when the ignition is in the 'ON' position, the transmission shifter may be able to be moved out of Park without first applying the brake . . ., [which] may lead to unintentional movement of the car." Id. ¶ 20. The safety recalls in 2013 did not apply to the Whitakers' vehicle, as it only applied to Santa Fe vehicles made after April 1, 2007, and the Whitakers' Santa Fe was made prior to April 1, 2007. Id. ¶ 21.

         Plaintiff alleges the following counts: (I) that defendants negligently designed, manufactured, distributed, and placed the Whitaker's vehicle into the stream of commerce; (II) that defendants breached the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose; (III) that defendants failed to warn foreseeable consumers despite the fact that they knew or should have known of the defective and unreasonably dangerous condition of the Santa Fe vehicles generally; (IV) that defendants failed to warn the Whitakers about the unreasonably dangerous condition of the specific vehicle that the Whitakers bought; (V) that defendants' breach of their duty to exercise ordinary care in the design, manufacture, distribution, and sale of a product that is reasonably safe for the purpose for which it was intended and defendants' failure to warn proximately caused Shannon Whitaker's death; and (VI) that defendants acted with willful and wanton negligence in conscious disregard or reckless indifference to the consequences. Plaintiff seeks $17.5 million in compensatory damages and $350, 000 in punitive damages. The defendant seeks to dismiss a part of count II and the request for punitive damages in count VI. The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for review.

         Standard of Review

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a party to move for dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. To survive dismissal for failure to state a claim, a plaintiff must establish "facial plausibility" by pleading "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). In ruling on a 12(b)(6) motion, all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint are taken as true and all reasonable factual inferences are drawn in the plaintiffs favor. Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999). However, "[a]t bottom, a plaintiff must 'nudge[] [his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible' to resist dismissal." Wag More Dogs, LLC v. Cozart, 680 F.3d 359, 364-65 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The complaint must contain sufficient facts "to raise a right to relief above the speculative level" and "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 570.


         I. Implied Warranty of Fitness for a Particular Purpose

         Defendants have each moved, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, to partially dismiss count II. Defendants argue that the complaint does not and cannot allege the requisite facts to sustain a claim of breach of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, and that the complaint fails to allege willful or wanton misconduct or actual malice required for punitive damages.

         To recover for breach of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, a plaintiff must demonstrate that "(1) the seller had reason to know the particular purpose for which the buyer required the goods, (2) the seller had reason to know the buyer was relying on the seller's skill or judgment to furnish appropriate goods, and (3) the buyer in fact relied upon the seller's skill or judgment." Medcom, Inc. v. C. Arthur Weaver Co., 348 S.E.2d 243, 246 (Va. 1986). "A claim for breach of warranty for a particular purpose requires a plaintiff to allege that the product failed to serve a purpose other than its ordinary purpose and peculiar and unique to the plaintiff." AIU Ins. Co. v. Omega Flex, Inc., No. 3:11CV00023, 2011 WL 2295270, at *2 n.2 (W.D. Va. June 9, 2011) (citing Va. Code ยง 8.2-315 cmt. 2) (Moon, J.). "A 'particular purpose' differs from the ordinary purpose for which the goods are used in that it envisages a specific use by the buyer which is peculiar ...

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