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James v. Subaru of America, Inc.

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

January 16, 2020


          Francis H. Casola and J. Walton Milam, III, Woods Rogers, PLC, Roanoke, Virginia, for Plaintiff

          Christopher C. Spencer and Mark C. Shuford, Spencer Shuford LLP, Richmond, Virginia, for Defendant.


          James P. Jones, United States District Judge.

         In this products liability case removed from state court, defendant Subaru of America, Inc. has moved to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. For the reasons that follow, I will deny the defendant's Motions to Dismiss.[1]


         The Complaint alleges the following facts, which I must accept as true in considering the Motion to Dismiss.

         On August 7, 2017, the plaintiff, Rebecca Rentz James, was driving a 2011 Subaru Outback. While she was making a right turn, the right front fender made brief contact with a tree adjacent to the road. This brush with the tree caused only minor damage to the fender and posed no risk of harm to James. After the vehicle contacted the tree, James was able to correct the vehicle's direction and bring it to a stop in the right lane.

         Although the passenger side of the vehicle had touched the tree only lightly, the vehicle's driver side curtain airbag deployed. The airbag struck James on the upper left side of her body and injured her cervical spine and neck. James alleges that such a minor accident was foreseeable to Subaru of America[2] and that the brief, non-dangerous contact should not have triggered deployment of the airbag. She further alleges that the airbag deployed with excessive and dangerous force. It was foreseeable to the defendant that such an unnecessary deployment of the airbag posed an unreasonable risk of harm.

         The Complaint asserts claims of breach of the implied warranty of merchantability (Count I), negligence (Count II), and failure to warn (Count III). James seeks compensory damages.


         Federal pleading standards require that a complaint contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint to determine whether the plaintiff has properly stated a claim. See Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). In order to survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must “state[] a plausible claim for relief” that “permit[s] the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct” based upon its “judicial experience and common sense.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). In evaluating a pleading, the court accepts as true all well-pled facts. Id.

         A complaint does not need detailed factual allegations to survive a motion to dismiss; however, it must have more than labels and conclusions or a recitation of the elements of the cause of action. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “To satisfy this standard, a plaintiff need not forecast evidence sufficient to prove the elements of the claim.” Walters v. McMahen, 684 F.3d 435, 439 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         Because this is a diversity case and the relevant events occurred in Virginia, the substantive law of Virginia applies. See, e.g., Redman v. John D. Brush & Co., 111 F.3d 1174, 1177 (4th Cir. 1997); Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78-79 (1938). “Virginia has not adopted a strict liability regime for products liability. When alleging that a product suffered from a design defect, a plaintiff may proceed under a theory of implied warranty of merchantability or under a theory of negligence.” Evans v. Nacco Materials Handling Grp., Inc., 810 S.E.2d 462, 469 (2018). Here, the plaintiff proceeds under both theories. A manufacturer breaches its duty to warn if it has reason to know that a product is dangerous for the use for which it is supplied, has no reason to believe the user will realize the dangerous condition, and fails to exercise reasonable care to inform users of the dangerous condition. Jones v. Ford Motor Co., 559 S.E.2d 592, 600 (Va. 2002).

         To recover in a Virginia products liability case, a plaintiff must plead and prove that the product in question contained a defect that rendered it unreasonably dangerous for ordinary or foreseeable use. Alevromagiros v. Hechinger Co., 993 F.2d 417, 420 (4th Cir. 1993). The plaintiff must also establish “that the unreasonably dangerous condition existed when the goods left the defendant's hands.” Logan v. Montgomery Ward & Co., 219 S.E.2d 685, 687 (Va. 1975). In determining whether a product contained a defect rendering it unreasonably dangerous, the “court will consider safety standards promulgated by the government or the relevant industry, as well as the reasonable expectations of consumers.” Alevromagiros, 993 F.2d at 420. In this case, James relies on consumer expectations rather than government or industry standards. The defendant contends that she has not ...

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