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Gallon v. Harbor Freight Tools USA, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

April 7, 2017

BENJAMIN GALLON, Plaintiff,
v.
HARBOR FREIGHT TOOLS USA, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER

          SUSAN C. BUCKLEW UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This cause comes before the Court on Plaintiff's motion to remand (Doc. 6) and Defendant's response thereto (Doc. 11). When, as here, the complaint seeks an indeterminate amount of damages, the defendant seeking removal based on diversity jurisdiction must prove that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000 by a preponderance of the evidence. The evidence presented by Defendant, including a pre-suit demand for less than the jurisdictional amount, does not satisfy this burden. Accordingly, the Court remands this action to state court for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff initiated this personal injury action in state court on December 12, 2016. In the complaint, Plaintiff alleges that he was injured when an all-terrain vehicle winch cable purchased from Defendant snapped and struck Plaintiff on his neck and back. (Doc. 2). Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that he suffered “injuries including scarring” as well as “great bodily injury, resulting pain and suffering, disability, disfigurement, mental anguish and loss of capacity for enjoyment of life, aggravation of a pre-existing condition, expense of hospitalization, medical and nursing care and treatment, and loss of earnings and earning capacity.” (Id. at ¶¶ 7, 14, 26). The complaint states that damages exceed $15, 000, the jurisdictional minimum to be in Florida circuit court, but it provides no further specificity. (Id. at ¶ 3).

         Defendant's notice of removal is premised on diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. (Doc. 1). Because Defendant did not provide any basis for its claim that the amount in controversy exceeded $75, 000, the Court ordered Defendant to supplement its notice of removal with evidence supporting this assertion. (Doc. 3). In its supplement, Defendant notes that Plaintiff alleges “great bodily injury, resulting pain and suffering, disability, disfigurement, mental anguish, and loss of the capacity for enjoyment of life” in his complaint. (Doc. 5). Defendant further states that in addition to these intangible damages, Plaintiff's complaint includes a claim for loss of future income. (Id.). Attached to Defendant's supplement are portions of Plaintiff's pre-suit demand package including medical records and bids for jobs that Plaintiff allegedly took but was unable to complete due to his injuries. (Doc. 7).[1] The demand package states that Plaintiff suffered a minor traumatic brain injury and scarring as a result of the incident and is “suffering from headaches, insomnia, irritability, and anxiety.” (Id. at 5). It is further indicated that Plaintiff suffered $10, 584.93 in medical expenses and $7, 557.55 in lost wages. (Id.). All of this, according to Defendant, establishes that Plaintiff is seeking in excess of $75, 000. What Defendant conveniently fails to mention, however, is that the demand itself is for only $50, 000. (Id.).

         Plaintiff now seeks to remand this action to state court, arguing that Defendant has not met its burden of establishing that the amount in controversy exceeds the $75, 000 jurisdictional threshold. (Doc. 6). There is no dispute that complete diversity exists.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), a defendant can remove an action to a United States district court if that court had original jurisdiction over the action. District courts have original jurisdiction over all civil actions between parties of diverse citizenship where the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. 28 U.S.C. § 1332. When, as here, “the jurisdictional amount is not facially apparent from the complaint, the court should look to the notice of removal, ” along with other relevant evidence. Williams v. Best Buy Co., 269 F.3d 1316, 1319 (11th Cir. 2001). The Eleventh Circuit has “repeatedly held that the removing party bears the burden of proof to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional minimum.” Dudley v. Eli Lilly & Co., 778 F.3d 909, 913 (11th Cir. 2014) (citations omitted); see also Roe v. Michelin N. Am., Inc., 613 F.3d 1058, 1061 (11th Cir. 2010) (“If a plaintiff makes an unspecified demand for damages in state court, a removing defendant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy more likely than not exceeds the . . . jurisdictional amount.” (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)).[2]

         On the other hand, “a removing defendant is not required to prove the amount in controversy beyond all doubt or banish all uncertainty about it.” Pretka v. Kolter City Plaza II, Inc., 608 F.3d 744, 754 (11th Cir. 2010). “[A] court may rely on evidence put forward by the removing defendant, as well as reasonable inferences and deductions drawn from that evidence.” Dudley, 778 F.3d at 913 (quoting S. Fla. Wellness, Inc. v. Allstate Ins. Co., 745 F.3d 1312, 1315 (11th Cir. 2014)). However, “[c]onclusory allegations are insufficient to establish the amount in controversy.” Green v. Travelers Indem. Co., No. 3:11-cv-922-J-37TEM, 2011 WL 4947499, at *3 (M.D. Fla. Oct. 18, 2011). And “removal statutes are construed narrowly” with “uncertainties [] resolved in favor of remand.” Burns v. Windsor Ins. Co., 31 F.3d 1092, 1095 (11th Cir. 1994).

         III. Motion to Remand

         In response to Plaintiff's motion to remand, Defendant argues that the requisite amount in controversy is established because: 1) the demand package describes extensive symptoms associated with a head injury, concussion, and mild traumatic brain injury; 2) jury verdicts and settlements in other mild traumatic brain injury cases exceed $75, 000; and 3) Plaintiff has refused to state clearly that the amount in controversy does not exceed $75, 000. (Doc. 11). The Court finds this evidence insufficient to satisfy Defendant's burden.

         First, Defendant relies upon Plaintiff's pre-suit demand package to establish that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. Settlement offers are relevant, but not determinative, of the amount in controversy. Piazza v. Ambassador II JV, L.P., No. 8:10-cv-1582-T-23EAJ, 2010 WL 2889218, at *1 (M.D. Fla. July 21, 2010) (citing Burns, 31 F.3d at 1097). On its face, the demand package fails to establish the amount in controversy because Plaintiff demands $50, 000, which is less than the jurisdictional amount, and it substantiates just $10, 584.93 in past medical expenses and $7, 557.55 in past lost wages.

         In spite of this, Defendant urges the Court to instead focus on Plaintiff's allegations of permanent and continuing traumatic brain injury and physical injuries sufficient to interfere with Plaintiff's ability to earn income. Defendant points out that the demand package indicates that Plaintiff's “job is extremely physically demanding and since the accident [Plaintiff] has been unable to fulfill the physical requirements of his job.” Defendant essentially argues that notwithstanding the fact that the demand is for $50, 000 and substantiates only $18, 142.48 in damages, the amount in controversy is satisfied because Plaintiff alleges a serious injury and is seeking damages for loss of future income.

         But “mere allegations of severe injuries are insufficient to establish the amount in controversy.” Green, 2011 WL 4947499, at *3 (citations omitted). There is no information from which the Court can estimate the amount of any future medical expenses or future loss of income. And the Court will not speculate regarding the value of these claims or the value of any claims for pain and suffering. See Nelson v. Black & Decker (U.S.), Inc., 8:16-cv-869-T-24JSS, 2015 WL 12259228, at *3 (M.D. Fla. Aug. 30, 2016). The allegations of serious injury and loss of future income in the demand package, without evidence as to the value of these claims, are simply not enough to establish the jurisdictional amount by a preponderance of the evidence- especially given that the demand itself is for less than the jurisdictional threshold. In fact, in a case like this, in which the relied-upon demand substantiates less than $20, 000 in past damages and there are only conclusory allegations of future damages, the Court would be hard pressed to find that the amount in controversy was satisfied even if the demand itself were for more than the ...


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