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Thomas v. Ford Motor Company

April 11, 2001

ERIC V. THOMAS, D.M.D., INDIVIDUALLY, AS ADMINISTRATOR, AND ADMINISTRATOR AD PROSEQUEN-DUM OF THE ESTATE OF TRACY ROSE THOMAS, AND AS PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN OF ALIX THOMAS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY AND TRW, INC., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Orlofsky, District Judge

FOR PUBLICATION

HON. STEPHEN M. ORLOFSKY

OPINION

In this hotly contested products liability case, the parties have appealed and cross-appealed from a decision of United States Magistrate Judge Joel B. Rosen which requires this Court to examine the scope of New Jersey's so-called "litigation privilege" and the reach of the first clause of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2), a post Civil War civil rights statute, which prohibits conspiracies to intimidate or retaliate against parties, witnesses or grand or petit jurors in any court of the United States.

At its inception, this wrongful death products liability case, brought under New Jersey law, presented claims, defenses and issues typically associated with such an action. *fn1 In his original Complaint, Plaintiff Eric Thomas ("Thomas"), asserted claims relating to injuries that allegedly resulted from the improper activation of airbags in a low-speed automobile collision. Thomas is suing Defendants Ford Motor Company ("Ford") and TRW, Inc. ("TRW") *fn2 for injuries allegedly caused by airbags installed on Thomas's 1996 Ford Explorer. Specifically, Thomas contends that the Explorer's airbags deployed improperly when the Thomas family was involved in a minor traffic accident. Thomas claims that he suffered injuries as a result of the improper deployment of the airbags and that the airbags caused the death of his pregnant wife.

Throughout the course of discovery in this case, Ford has developed and asserted a defense theory that removes this case from the mainstream of unremarkable products liability actions. Ford contends that Thomas, and not any airbag, caused the death of his pregnant wife. In response to Ford's defense that Thomas caused the death of his wife, Thomas moved to amend his Complaint to assert claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation and a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2) against Ford. Thomas also seeks punitive damages stemming from those claims.

Presently before this Court is an appeal and a cross-appeal of Magistrate Judge Rosen's Opinion and Order of August 31, 2000, granting in part and denying in part Thomas's Motion for Leave to File a Second Amended Complaint. See Thomas v. Ford Motor Co., 111 F. Supp.2d 529 (D.N.J. 2000). Ford appeals from Magistrate Judge Rosen's decision to grant Thomas leave to amend his Amended Complaint to add claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation and punitive damages against Ford. Thomas cross-appeals from Magistrate Judge Rosen's denial of leave to amend to add a claim asserting a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2). This Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

For the reasons discussed below, Magistrate Judge Rosen's Opinion and Order of August 31, 2000 is AFFIRMED IN PART and REVERSED IN PART. Magistrate Judge Rosen's Opinion denying Thomas's motion for leave to amend to assert a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2) is AFFIRMED. Magistrate Judge Rosen's Opinion granting Thomas leave to amend to assert claims of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and for punitive damages stemming from such claims, is REVERSED.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The Proposed Second Amended Complaint alleges that on February 9, 1997, Thomas and his family were traveling in the Thomas's 1996 Ford Explorer on Hand Avenue in Cape May Court House, New Jersey. Prop. Second Am. Compl. at ¶ 14 (filed May 19, 2000). Thomas's wife, Tracy Rose Thomas ("Tracy Thomas"), who was six-months pregnant at the time, was driving. Id. Thomas and his daughter, Alix Thomas, were passengers. Id. Thomas claims that his wife noticed a deer in the road, and attempted to avoid hitting the deer, but in doing so struck a utility pole. Id. at ¶ 17. Thomas further alleges that the accident was a relatively minor one because his wife was driving slowly when the accident occurred because of inclement weather conditions. Id. at ¶¶ 16, 18, 19. Nevertheless, the Explorer's driver's side and passenger-side airbags deployed. Id. at ¶¶ 20, 23. Thomas alleges that the airbags should not have deployed because the accident involved a relatively low-speed collision with the utility pole. Id. at ¶¶ 20, 22, 23. He also claims that the deployment of the airbags proximately caused his wife's death and the death of his unborn child, as well as his and his daughter's injuries. Id. at ¶¶ 21-24. He filed this action on his own behalf, on behalf of the Estate of Tracy Rose Thomas, and on behalf of his daughter, Alix Thomas, Id. at ¶ 4, seeking recovery from Ford, the manufacturer of the Explorer, and from TRW, the alleged manufacturer of airbag components installed in the Thomas's Explorer. Id. at ¶¶ 5-6.

Thomas filed his initial Complaint on February 1, 1999. This Court issued an Opinion and Order on Ford and TRW's motions to dismiss on November 18, 1999. See Thomas v. Ford Motor Co., 70 F. Supp.2d 521 (D.N.J. 1999). Thereafter, Thomas filed an Amended Complaint on December 8, 1999. Since then, the parties have engaged in contentious discovery proceedings. Throughout discovery, Ford has developed and maintained its theory that Thomas, and not the airbags, caused the death of his wife, Tracy Thomas.

Thomas filed a Motion for Leave to File a Second Amended Complaint on May 19, 2000. The proposed amendments to Thomas's Complaint are based on alleged acts of Ford during the course of discovery in this case. Thomas alleges that Ford contacted the Office of the Prosecutor for Cape May County, the Office of the County Medical Examiner for Cape County and the Middle Township Police Department (the "local authorities") in an attempt to persuade these entities that Thomas killed his wife, Tracy Thomas. Prop. Second Am. Compl. at ¶ ¶ 79-80. Through his proposed amendments Thomas alleges that by contacting these entities and asserting that Thomas killed his wife, Ford violated his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2), caused him emotional distress and committed the tort of defamation. Id. at ¶ ¶ 89-92, 93-97 and 98-106.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Federal Magistrates Act of 1968 (the "FMA") created the position now known as Magistrate Judge and allowed District Courts to refer a host of matters to Magistrate Judges for determinations subject to various levels of review by the District Courts. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

Subparagraph A of § 636(b)(1) provides for a District Court to review a Magistrate Judge's determination of a non-dispositive order, while subparagraph B governs the review of a Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation concerning a dispositive order. *fn3 The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Local Civil Rules of the District of New Jersey each contain corresponding provisions. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a), 72(b); Local Civ. R. 72.1(c)(1), 72.1(c)(2).

The FMA requires a District Court to review a Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation de novo. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B); accord Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b); Local Civ. R. 72.1(c)(2). Regarding non-dispositive motions, the FMA provides that a District Court may reverse a Magistrate Judge's determination only if it is "clearly erroneous or contrary to law." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A); accord Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a); Local Civ. R. 72.1(c)(1).

Thus, on a non-dispositive motion, this Court will review a Magistrate Judge's findings of fact for clear error. See Lithuanian Commerce Corp. v. Sara Lee Hosiery, 177 F.R.D. 205, 213 (D.N.J. 1997) (Orlofsky, J.); Lo Bosco v. Kure Engineering Ltd., 891 F. Supp. 1035, 1037 (D.N.J. 1995). A finding is clearly erroneous only "when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Lo Bosco, 891 F. Supp. at 1037 (quoting United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948)). In reviewing a Magistrate Judge's factual determinations, a District Court may not consider any evidence which was not presented to the Magistrate Judge. See Haines v. Liggett Group, Inc., 975 F.2d 81, 92 (3d Cir. 1992).

Where a Magistrate Judge is authorized to exercise his or her discretion in determining a non-dispositive motion, the decision will be reversed only for an abuse of that discretion. See Lithuanian Commerce Corp., 177 F.R.D. at 214; see also Kresefky v. Panasonic Communications and Sys. Co., 169 F.R.D. 54, 64 (D.N.J. 1996).

On the other hand, this Court will conduct a de novo review of a Magistrate Judge's legal conclusions reached in considering a non-dispositive motion. See Lithuanian Commerce Corp., 177 F.R.D. at 214; see also Haines, 975 F.2d at 91 ("the phrase `contrary to law' indicates plenary review as to matters of law").

Motions to amend are usually considered non-dispositive motions. Because Magistrate Judge Rosen's order disposed of Thomas's proposed claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2), however, his decision does contain dispositive elements. Because, as explained below, the issues on appeal here involve Magistrate Judge Rosen's legal conclusions, the proper standard of review is de novo, whether his decision below is considered dispositive or non-dispositive. Accordingly, I will review Magistrate Judge Rosen's legal conclusions de novo.

III. DISCUSSION

A. The Legal Standard Governing Motions to Amend

The legal standard governing a Motion to Amend is well settled. Leave to file an amended pleading "shall be freely given" where there is no "undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, repeated failure to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed, undue prejudice to the opposing party by virtue of allowance of the amendment, [or] futility of the amendment." Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962). "`Futility' means that the complaint, as amended, would fail to state a claim upon which relief could be granted." In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1434 (3d Cir. 1997).

B. Ford's Appeal

1. Magistrate Judge Rosen's ...


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