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Craten v. Foster Poultry Farms Inc.

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 13, 2018

James Craten, et al., Plaintiffs,
Foster Poultry Farms Incorporated, Defendant.


          Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge

         On January 31, 2018, Defendant Foster Poultry Farms (“Foster Farms”) filed a Pretrial Motion for Judgment as Matter of Law Regarding Plaintiff's Punitive Damages Claim. (Doc. 275.) The motion seeks judgement under either Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 or Rule 12(c). During the final pretrial conference, the Court set an expedited briefing schedule on the motion to ensure that the issue could be resolved prior to the start of trial.

         After receiving full briefing (Docs. 280, 283), the Court issued an order denying Foster Farms' motion to the extent it is brought under Rule 50 because, in the Ninth Circuit, a court “may not grant a motion filed under Rule 50 prior to the presentation of any evidence in a case.” McSherry v. City of Long Beach, 423 F.3d 1015, 1021 (9th Cir. 2005); see also Ervco, Inc. v. Texaco Refining and Marketing, Inc., 428 Fed. App'x 725, 727 (9th Cir. 2011) (“Our circuit law clearly holds that Rule 50 [judgment as a matter of law] . . . cannot be granted before the trial has begun and the party's evidence on that issue has been fully heard by the jury.” (emphasis in original)). The Court noted, however, that Foster Farms is not without a remedy. “Among the panoply of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are several mechanisms for a party to obtain a pre-trial dismissal of an action . . .: a motion for dismissal for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c), and a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56.” McSherry, 423 F.3d at 1020.

         Accordingly, on the morning of February 13, 2018, prior to the start of trial, the Court heard oral argument on Foster Farms' Rule 12(c) motion. After hearing from the parties, the Court granted Foster Farms' motion from the bench and advised that this written order would follow.

         I. Background

         In 2013, then 17 month-old Plaintiff N.C. contracted salmonellosis and subsequently experienced severe complications. N.C. 's parents, Plaintiffs James and Amanda Craten, believe N.C. 's illness was caused by raw chicken processed by Foster Farms. In December 2015, the Cratens brought this action on behalf of N.C., alleging negligence, strict liability, and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability claims against Foster Farms. Foster Farms moved for summary judgment on all claims in March 2017.

         In July 2017, two weeks after responding to Foster Farms' motion, the Cratens moved for leave to amend their complaint to add a prayer for punitive damages. Foster Farms opposed the Cratens' motion, arguing that the proposed amendment was untimely, futile, and prejudicial because Foster Farms had already moved for summary judgment and, therefore, would be deprived of the opportunity to dispose of the punitive damages issue as a matter of law. The Court ultimately granted the Cratens' motion. In so doing, the Court acknowledged that a degree of prejudice will result from Foster Farms' inability to move for summary judgment on the punitive damages issue. The Court reasoned, however, that the prejudice did not outweigh the liberal amendment policy of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in part because the issue would become moot if Foster Farms prevailed on its motion for summary judgment, and because Foster Farms still could obtain judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50 should the Cratens fail to present sufficient evidence to support their punitive damages request at trial.

         As it turns out, the first of these circumstances did not come to pass. In January 2018, the Court granted summary judgement for Foster Farms on the Cratens' strict liability and breach of implied warranty claims, but denied the same with respect to the Cratens' negligence claim to the extent it is based on state law duties that parallel the requirements of the Poultry Products Inspect Act. As a result, punitive damages remain at issue. Foster Farms now seeks to dispose of the punitive damages issue as a matter of law before the presentation of evidence.

         II. Legal Standard

         A motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) “is properly granted when, taking all the allegations in the non-moving party's pleadings as true, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fajardo v. Cty. of L.A., 179 F.3d 698, 699 (9th Cir. 1999). “Rule 12(c) is ‘functionally identical' to Rule 12(b)(6) and . . . ‘the same standard of review' applies to motions brought under either rule.” Cafasso v. Gen. Dynamics C4 Sys., 637 F.3d 1047, 1054 n.4 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting Dworkin v. Hustler Magazine Inc., 867 F.2d 1188, 1192 (9th Cir. 1989)). Thus, a motion for judgment on the pleadings should not be granted if the complaint is based on a cognizable legal theory and contains “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). When ruling on a Rule 12(c) motion, the Court limits its review to the content of the pleadings and matters properly subject to judicial notice. See Intri-Plex Tech., Inc. v. Crest Grp., Inc., 499 F.3d 1048, 1052 (9th Cir. 2007); Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir. 2001).

         III. Discussion

         Preliminarily, Rule 12(c) allows a party to move for judgment “[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial.” The Cratens filed their amended complaint on November 6, 2017, and the pleadings closed with Foster Farms' answer on November 20, 2017. Because the punitive damages issue would have been moot if Foster Farms obtained summary judgment on all claims, it was reasonable for Foster Farms to wait until after the Court resolved its summary judgment motion before taking further action. The Court issued its ruling on the summary judgment motion on January 19, 2018, and Foster Farms filed the instant motion less than two weeks later. Further, the Court set an expedited briefing schedule to ensure that the motion would not delay trial. The Court therefore finds that Foster Farms' Rule 12(c) motion is timely and, in fairness, should be resolved before trial.

         On the merits, Foster Farms argues that the Cratens are not entitled to punitive damages as a matter of law because (1) Arizona law expressly prohibits recovery of punitive damages against a seller that sells a product with the approval or conditional approval of a government agency and (2) no reasonable jury could conclude that Foster Farms acted outrageously or with an evil mind. (Doc. 275 at 9-10.) Foster Farms contends that the Court may grant its motion based solely on the pleadings and three facts properly subject to judicial notice: (1) “[the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service (“USDA-FSIS”)] approved for sale all chicken products that Foster Poultry Farms sold in the marketplace during the relevant time period, ” (2) “Salmonella bacteria are killed with proper cooking, ” and (3) “USDA-FSIS approves for sale raw chicken meat that contains Salmonella.” (Doc. 283 at 4.)

         The Court doubts that it may find for Foster Farms on its second, alternative argument regarding the sufficiency of the Cratens' evidence without considering matters outside the pleadings. The Court need not address this argument, however, because it agrees that Arizona law expressly prohibits punitive damages under these ...

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