James George suffered severe burns when one leg of the landing gear on a tanker-trailer detached from its tractor and sank into a gravel surface, causing the tanker-trailer, filled with scalding water, to tip over and to spill its contents onto him. George brought a premises defect claim against the owner of the property and products liability claims against the owner of the tanker-trailer and three companies involved in designing, distributing, or manufacturing the tanker-trailer. The District Court dismissed his products-liability claims on the pleadings and his premises-defect claim on summary judgment.
The U.S. Fifth Circuit reversed:
According to George’s complaint, the tanker-trailer suffered from a marketing defect. As the companies that had designed, tested, assembled, manufactured, marketed, distributed, and/or sold the tanker trailer that injured George, Bulk Tank International, Bulk Solutions, and Brenner Tank should have warned users against detaching the trailer unless there was a concrete slab (or other level foundation) to support the feet of the trailer. Those warnings should have appeared on the front, back, sides, and specifically in the areas where users of the trailer would work when detaching the trailer from the tractor (at or around the feet of the trailer). Without those warnings, it was reasonably foreseeable that users would park the trailers (both full or empty) on dirt, gravel, or other unpaved surfaces. The tanker-trailer was also defectively designed, according to the complaint. First, each foot or pad of the landing gear should have been designed with a greater surface area that better distributed the load weight and made the trailer more stable. This design was feasible to accomplish, would not have made the trailer materially more expensive to design, and would also not have affected the utility of the landing gear pads to work properly. Second, the legs of the landing gear should also have been designed to be wider, or stated differently, further apart from one another. Bulk Tank International, Bulk Solutions, and Brenner Tank had the ability to create wider landing gear, and doing so would not have made the trailer materially more expensive.
“Notwithstanding it was addressing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the district court went beyond the pleadings. For example, the district court relied on what Brenner Tank testified and an inspection that revealed no evidence to conclude that George had failed to plead plausible claims. It further pointed to the absence of data to support the allegation that the tanker-trailer’s legs were unsafe. And it observed that, in its view, George’s speculations about the designer, manufacturer, and distributor are the only evidence of a defect in the trailer. These statements suggest that the district court put George to his proof. The existence vel non of proof that the tanker-trailer was defective, however, is a merits inquiry for summary judgment and, if necessary, for trial – not for the Rule 12(b)(6) stage. It was inappropriate for the district court to require data, to rely on testimony, and to cite the failure to produce evidence at this Rule 12(b)(6) stage.
“Still further, some of the claims the district court dismissed were not the claims George had pleaded. For example, the district court concluded that George failed to plead a marketing-defect claim against Bulk Solutions and Brenner Tank because Bulk Solutions and Brenner Tank could not have warned of the possibility of an underground water leak. But that is not the claim George pleaded: George alleged that Bulk Solutions and Brenner Tank failed to warn that the tanker-trailer should not be unhitched from the tractor unless the tanker-trailer’s legs can rest on a level foundation. This marketing-defect claim was not grounded on the failure to warn of an underground water leak, obviously unforeseeable to the designer, distributor, or manufacturer of the tanker-trailer. Yet the district court recast the claim as if it were. And the district court made the same error with respect to an unpleaded negligence claim against Brenner Tank.”
George v. SI Group, No.20-40427, 2022 WL 1817714 (5th Cir. June 3, 2022).
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