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IN RE METHYL BUTYL ETHER

United States District Court, S.D. New York


May 10, 2005.

IN RE: METHYL TERTIARY BUTYL ETHER ("MTBE") PRODUCTS LIABILITY LITIGATION. This document relates to: County of Suffolk, et al.
v.
Amerada Hess Corp., et al., No. 04 Civ. 5424.

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

OPINION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

County of Suffolk and Suffolk County Water Authority (collectively, "Suffolk") bring this action to forestall the contamination of their groundwater with the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether ("MTBE"). Defendant Gulf Oil Limited Partnership ("GOLP") now moves for a more definite statement pursuant to Rule 12(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

  According to defendant, "GOLP is a regional distributor of gasoline that did not refine petroleum products, manufacture MTBE, or belong to the industry associations identified in the complaint."*fn1 GOLP asserts that it cannot formulate a responsive pleading because the complaint fails to identify which of the factual allegations and claims apply to GOLP, and because the allegations of wrongdoing "do not apply to, or make any sense as against, GOLP," since they are directed at refiners and manufacturers of MTBE.*fn2

  Suffolk responds that GOLP has sufficient notice of the claims against it, as demonstrated by the fact that GOLP moved to dismiss other, nearly identical complaints in this multi-district litigation ("MDL"). Suffolk also argues that the complaint properly states claims against GOLP as a blender of MTBE into New York gasoline, and as a distributor of MTBE-containing gasoline, which is a defective product.*fn3

  II. LEGAL STANDARD

  "The essence of a complaint is to inform the defendant as to the general nature of the action and as to the incident out of which a cause of action arose."*fn4 Rule 12(e) allows a party to move for a more definite statement "[i]f a pleading to which a responsive pleading is permitted is so vague or ambiguous that a party cannot reasonably be required to frame a responsive pleading."*fn5 The Rule "is designed to remedy unintelligible pleadings, not to correct for lack of detail."*fn6 "A motion pursuant to Rule 12(e) should not be granted `unless the complaint is so excessively vague and ambiguous as to be unintelligible and as to prejudice the defendant seriously in attempting to answer it.'"*fn7 Motions for a more definite statement are generally disfavored because of their dilatory effect.*fn8 "The preferred course is to encourage the use of discovery procedures to apprise the parties of the factual basis of the claims made in the pleadings."*fn9

  III. DISCUSSION

  In its complaint, Suffolk uses the term "Defendants" to refer to all defendants named in the complaint.*fn10 GOLP argues, based on Caraveo v. Nielsen Media Research, Inc.,*fn11 that a plaintiff must clearly identify which of its allegations and claims apply to each defendant in a multi-defendant suit. In Caraveo, a pro se plaintiff brought an employment discrimination action, asserting thirty claims against twenty-five defendants. The court granted the employer and the insurance carrier's motions for a more definite statement because the complaint was unclear as to which claims and fact allegations were being asserted against which defendants.

  GOLP's reliance on Caraveo is misplaced because in an employment discrimination case, differing conduct on the part of each defendant may give rise to different causes of action. For instance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's ("EEOC") failure to investigate a complaint would not give rise to a retaliation or a breach of insurance contract claim. In this case, although defendants may have played different roles in the petroleum industry, Suffolk alleges that all defendants placed gasoline containing MTBE into the stream of commerce, thereby causing Suffolk's injury. Moreover, in Caraveo, the complaint was ambiguous because the plaintiff did not necessarily mean all defendants when he used the term "defendants." For example, in "Count 1" alleging that the twenty-five defendants "discriminated and retaliated against plaintiff based on his disability," the facts set forth in the cause of action were only applicable to Caraveo's employer, and not to the insurance carrier or the EEOC. In other instances, when Caraveo referred to "defendants," it was unclear whether he meant the employer or the insurer.*fn12 Here, Suffolk specifically defined the term "Defendants" to mean all defendants, giving GOLP sufficient notice that every time the term is used, it applies to GOLP.*fn13 When plaintiffs intended to refer to individual defendants, they did so by using modifiers — e.g., "Defendant Chevron"*fn14 and "Defendant Arco."*fn15 While Suffolk did identify which claims and allegations apply to which defendants, a failure to do so would not require a more definite statement if GOLP was clearly notified of the nature of Suffolk's claims.*fn16

  GOLP next argues that it cannot formulate a responsive pleading because the complaint is focused on the conduct of refiners and manufacturers, whereas GOLP is a distributor of petroleum products. GOLP's argument is without merit. First, although GOLP attempts to cast itself as a mere gasoline distributor improperly joined in this litigation, it has previously represented in affidavit testimony that it blended MTBE into gasoline. For instance, in October 1994, GOLP "purchased approximately 7500 barrels of MTBE for addition to its gasoline inventory at its distribution facilities in Oceanside, New York ? and New Haven, Connecticut ?."*fn17 While this may not have been a regular part of its business, GOLP's blending of MTBE into gasoline would bring it within Suffolk's claims and allegations against "manufacturers, refiners, [and] formulators" of gasoline containing MTBE. In sum, the complaint provides sufficient notice to GOLP to permit it to frame an answer.

  Second, the claims and allegations in Suffolk's complaint are not limited to refiners and manufacturers of MTBE-containing gasoline. Suffolk alleges that "Defendants do business in New York as manufacturers, refiners, formulators, distributors, suppliers, sellers and/or marketers of MTBE and/or gasoline containing MTBE,"*fn18 and that "Defendants engaged in one or more phases of the petroleum business [including] . . . the distribution, marketing and retail sale of gasoline."*fn19 Furthermore, each of Suffolk's causes of action incorporates or refers to defendants' actions in distributing MTBE-containing gasoline.*fn20 Products liability claims are equally applicable to manufacturers and distributors.*fn21

  Third, Suffolk's complaint is sufficiently clear for GOLP to file an answer. The gist of GOLP's argument is not that the complaint is unintelligible, but that the claims and allegations do not apply to it. Defendant's argument that the complaint makes "no sense as applied to GOLP" because it "did not refine petroleum products, manufacture MTBE, or belong to industry associations identified in the complaint"*fn22 demonstrates that it has clear notice of the claims.*fn23 The complaint centers around three issues: (1) defendants' knowledge of MTBE's threat to groundwater;*fn24 (2) defendants' concealment of the risk;*fn25 and (3) defendants' placement of MTBE-containing gasoline into the stream of commerce.*fn26 The allegations and claims must be interpreted to include the conduct of distributors, such as GOLP. If GOLP concludes that distributors are not included, it should file an answer denying the allegations for this reason — not move for a more definite statement.*fn27 IV. CONCLUSION

  For the reasons set forth above, Gulf Oil Limited Partnership's motion for a more definite statement is denied. The Clerk of the Court is directed to close this motion.

  SO ORDERED.


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