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Brown v. Miller Brewing Co.

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

January 17, 2014

KEITH A. BROWN, JEREMY J. BROWN, CORY A. BAUGH, WOODROW J. GRANT, and STEVEN T. THOMPSON, Plaintiffs,
v.
MILLER BREWING CO., ANHEUSER-BUSCH CO., ADOLPH COORS CO., BROWN-FURMAN CO., AMERICAN BRANDS INC., PEPSI-COLO (Pepsico), R.J.R. NABISCO, GALLO WINERY'S (Ernest and Julio Gallo), Defendants.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

RONALD E. BUSH, Magistrate Judge.

Pending before the Court are several motions ripe for decision, including Defendants' Joint Motion to Dismiss the Complaint for Failure to State a Valid Claim. (Dkt. 53.) All parties that have appeared in this action have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge to enter final orders in this case. (Dkt. 84.) See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73. Having reviewed and fully considered the current record, the Court enters the following Order dismissing Plaintiffs' Complaint and addressing all other pending motions.

SUMMARY OF DECISION

Plaintiffs Keith A. Brown, Jeremy J. Brown, Woodrow J. Grant, and Steven T. Thompson are four Idaho Department of Correction inmates, and Plaintiff Cory A. Baugh is a former inmate. Each alleges to have starting drinking as a youth and to have become an alcoholic. Together, they bring a tort action sounding in products liability law against several manufacturers and distributors of alcoholic beverages (the "manufacturers"), who allegedly failed to warn Plaintiffs that consuming alcohol can be habit-forming or addictive, with the risk of causing far-reaching personal injuries and other harm, including lengthy periods of incarceration. (Dkt. 1.)

Plaintiffs acknowledge that a key element in supporting a failure-to-warn claim is alleging facts demonstrating that the manufacturers had a duty to warn consumers that alcohol can be habit-forming and addictive. They agree that the current state of the law is that manufacturers have no legal duty to warn of the commonly-known dangers of alcohol abuse. They ask the Court to draw a distinction between the commonly-known dangers of alcohol abuse, and what they allege is a non-obvious danger, i.e., that some individuals are predisposed to alcoholism, and that persons so predisposed may become addicted upon their first drink, regardless of their intention to drink responsibly. Plaintiffs seek $1 billion in damages, injunctive relief in the form of a new label to be required upon all alcoholic beverages warning that alcohol is habit-forming and addictive, and a judicial declaration that alcohol is habit-forming and addictive.

Because this is a civil dispute between citizens of different states, it is brought under the federal diversity jurisdiction statute, which means that the Court applies the substantive law of the state of Idaho to decide Plaintiffs' tort claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Idaho products liability law, which draws directly upon Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, requires a warning only if the danger of using a particular product is not obvious. Although the Idaho Supreme Court has not yet addressed a case factually similar case to this one, the Court concludes from its review of current Idaho products liability law that the Idaho Supreme Court would not depart from the common law rule that the dangers of alcohol, including the risk of becoming an alcoholic, are obvious, regardless of whether one is predisposed to that disease, and that manufacturers need not warn of obvious dangers.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court draws support from factually similar cases from jurisdictions across the United States. While several intermediate state courts have proposed an expansion of the duty of alcoholic beverage manufacturers to answer to different types of alcohol abuse - the dangers of which were not actually known or heeded by injured or deceased drinkers - no highest level state appellate court has upheld such an expansion, relying on the obviousness of the dangers associated with alcoholic beverages, known to mankind for ages.

After a thorough review of Idaho law and the law of other jurisdictions, the Court concludes, as a matter of law, that manufacturers have no duty to warn in the manner alleged in the Complaint, because it is commonly known to the public that alcohol poses an obvious danger - encompassing many different subcategories of danger - to those who choose to consume it. The Court declines to draw subtle distinctions among the various dangers associated with alcohol, because each distinct danger derives from the same obvious danger. In addition, because the distinctions from which a new duty might arise are myriad, the Court concludes that requiring a warning for each distinction is impracticable.

Further, the Court concludes that manufacturers' efforts to persuade the public to purchase their products by using enticing alcoholic beverage advertisements do not mask the obvious dangers of consuming alcohol and do not give rise to a higher duty of the manufacturers of alcohol. Modern society has elected to permit alcohol as a legal substance available to consumers, albeit with restrictions upon age, amount, and location. In so doing, society has placed responsibility in legislative bodies to regulate the manufacture, sale, and use of alcohol, and to define the legal consequences of drinking alcohol.

For all of these reasons, the Court will not recognize a common law duty different from or beyond that already put in place by state and federal legislatures. Consequently, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is granted. Plaintiff's Complaint is dismissed with prejudice, without opportunity to amend, because the Court has determined that amendment would be futile.

PLAINTIFFS' PRELIMINARY MOTIONS

1. Plaintiffs' Motion for Sanctions (Dkt. 43)

Plaintiffs argue that, because Defendants Brown-Forman Corporation, Anheuser-Busch Companies, LLC, and E. & J. Gallo Winery did not seek an extension of time to answer the Complaint until the last day of the answer period (Dkt. 35), those Defendants should be sanctioned by being ordered to return the cost of service to Plaintiffs. However, Defendants need show only good cause for such an extension of time when the request is filed within the answer period. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 6(b)(1)(A). Defendants asked for an extension within the answer period, and have put forward good cause for their request. Accordingly, the Motion for Sanctions is denied.

2. Plaintiffs' Motion for Entry of Default (Dkt. 44)

Defendants Brown-Forman Corporation and Anheuser-Busch Companies, LLC, were granted an extension of time to file an answer or motion to dismiss on September 10, 2013, and the Court specifically ordered that no motions for entry of default be filed. (Dkt. 39.) Nonetheless, Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Entry of Default on September 16, 2013. (Dkt. 44.) Such Motion has no adequate legal and factual basis, and it is denied.

3. Plaintiffs' Motion for Extension of Time to Respond to Motion to Dismiss (Dkt. 60)

Plaintiffs sought additional time to respond to the Motion to Dismiss. (Dkt. 60.) The Response was filed on November 25, 2013. (Dkt. 64.) Good cause appearing, the Motion is granted and the Response is deemed timely filed.

DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

Brown-Forman Corporation (sued as "Brown-Furman Co."), Anheuser-Busch Companies, LLC (sued as "Anhesuer-Busch Co."), and E. & J. Gallo Winery (sued as "Gallo Winery's, Ernest and Julio Gallo), joined by PepsiCo (sued as "Pepsi-colo"), move the Court for dismissal of the Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. (Dkt. 53, 67.) In addition, PepsiCo moves for dismissal based upon failure to serve in a timely manner. (Dkt. 67.)

1. Standard of Law under Rule 12

As a general proposition, to survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12, a complaint must contain 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 omitted). Dismissal is appropriate if there is a lack of any cognizable legal theory or a failure to plead sufficient facts to support a cognizable legal theory. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990).

In deciding a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court generally should not consider materials outside the complaint and pleadings. See Cooper v. Pickett, 137 F.3d 616, 622 (9th Cir. 1997). However, the court may consider attachments to the complaint and any document referred to in (even if not originally appended to) the complaint, when the authenticity of such a document is not in question. Id. at 622-23. A court may also take judicial notice of matters of its own records, In re Korean Air Lines Co., Ltd., Antitrust Litigation, 642 F.3d 685, 689 n.1 (9th Cir. 2011), and public records, such as records and reports of administrative bodies, Barron v. Reich, 13 F.3d 1370, 1377 (9th Cir. 1994).

Plaintiffs have filed a Response to the Motion to Dismiss that includes exhibits. They also have filed a Sur-reply, and a document entitled "Issues of Material Facts in Dispute." (Dkts. 60-1, 64, 80, 81.) In their Reply to those filings, the Defendants ask the Court to strike the "Issues of Material Facts in Dispute, " because the pending motion is filed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b), rather than as a motion for summary judgment filed under Rule 56. (Dkt. 71, p. 2., n. 2.) Even so, to protect their interests in the event that the Court considers the motion under Rule 56, Defendants have filed a response to Plaintiffs' "Issues of Material Facts in Dispute." (Dkt. 70.)

Plaintiffs have not sought leave to convert the Motion to Dismiss into a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56. Defendants argue that the Plaintiffs' submissions are improper in the context of a motion to dismiss, which is to be determined solely upon the pleadings and attached exhibits.

When the party filing or responding to a motion to dismiss submits exhibits beyond the pleadings, the Court has the discretion to decide whether to exclude or consider those exhibits in deciding the motion to dismiss. If the exhibits are considered, then the Court must give notice to the parties that it intends to convert the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. See Swedberg v. Marotzke, 339 F.3d 1139, 1144-45 (9th Cir. 2003).

The threshold question presented in the Motion to Dismiss - that is, whether Defendants had a duty to warn the general public of the habit-forming and addictive nature of alcoholic beverages, or whether they had no duty because of the obviousness of the danger - is a matter of law to be decided by the Court.[1] This includes the sub-issue of whether it is common knowledge among the general public that alcohol may be habit-forming and addictive. See Puckett v. Oakfabco, Inc., 979 P.2d 1174, 1182 (Idaho 1999) (the risks that a ladder might slip or a person might fall from the ladder are so obvious that, as a matter of law, the defendant had no obligation to warn of them); Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Inc. v. McGuire, 814 S.W.2d 385, 387 (Texas 1991) (under Texas law, the existence of a duty to warn or instruct as to the proper use of a product is a question of law).

The exhibits submitted with Plaintiffs' response consist of alcoholic beverage magazine advertisements, photographs of alcoholic beverage containers, articles about alcoholism, and copies of various laws and regulations. Because these are not exhibits to a pleading, the Court in the exercise of its discretion will exclude them as evidentiary submissions. To the extent that Plaintiffs intend to rely on the exhibits to support the merits of their claims, the submissions are inappropriate at the motion to dismiss stage. Plaintiffs must first ...


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