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Plaintiff Denied Review of Huffing Death Case Dismissal

ABSTRACT: This post is an update to a prior blog post where we discussed a Kansas federal court dismissing a plaintiff’s product liability claims based on Kansas’s illegality defense. That case was noteworthy because it was the first time any court had applied Kansas’s illegality defense to bar product liability claims.

On June 30, 2023, Judge Crabtree of the District of Kansas dismissed product liability claims against a defendant-manufacturer based on the decedent’s illegal conduct that caused the death.  A few weeks after the ruling, the remaining defendants filed identical Motions to Dismiss based on the same argument.  A few weeks after that, the plaintiff filed a Motion to Certify the question to the Kansas Supreme Court.

In an October 20, 2023 ruling, the Kansas federal district court granted the remaining defendants’ Motions to Dismiss, and denied the plaintiff’s Motion to Certify, effectively ending the case, pending an appeal.

The Court noted that it had discretion whether to certify the question to the Kansas Supreme Court, based on Kansas and Tenth Circuit law, and “decisions of other states, federal decisions, and the general weight and trend of authority.”  As our prior blog post described, the Court in its initial order dismissing the first defendant, did just that.  It analyzed decisions from Mississippi, Michigan, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Florida, and federal court decisions from the Tenth Circuit and the Eastern District of Kentucky and found that these cases represented the general weight and trend of authority.  Thus, the Court predicted that the Kansas Supreme Court would follow suit and apply the illegality defense to plaintiff’s product liability claims.

The Court ruled that its prior decision had properly predicted the outcome, rather than certifying the question, based on the federal standards to certify questions to the appropriate state supreme court.   The Court further stated that the question here was not “novel and important” enough to certify to the Kansas Supreme Court.  It said, “to decipher novelty and importance, . . . this court [should] consider actions by the relevant state institutions, including those of the state supreme court and legislature.”   The plaintiff had argued that the question was novel and important because of the alleged “lack of consensus in this Court and lack of guidance from the Kansas state courts.” 

The Court disagreed and said that to determine whether a question is novel and important, it must decide “whether state institutions have indicated that the pertinent law is important and unsettled.”  The plaintiff was unable to point to a Kansas Supreme Court case or any activity in the Kansas Legislature expressing a strong policy preference on the question at bar.  Thus, the Court ruled that the Kansas illegality defense barring product liability claims was not of such novelty and importance to certify the question to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Finally, the Court considered the suspect timing of the plaintiff’s Motion to Certify.  The Court found that the plaintiff could have filed the motion in the six-month window between when it was on notice that the first defendant would rely on the illegality defense, and when the plaintiff filed the Motion to Certify.  After identifying Tenth Circuit precedent that “disfavors granting plaintiff’s motion directly after the district court’s adverse decision,” the Court ruled that “the plaintiff put the motion into the rarely granted and generally disapproved categories of certification questions,” because the plaintiff filed the Motion to Certify after it had lost the first Motion to Dismiss and after the other defendants moved to dismiss on the same grounds.

The Court was not done.  It went on to grant the remaining defendant’s Motion to Dismiss and Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, respectively.  Because the plaintiff’s claims were “identical in composition,” and did not differentiate its allegations as against individual defendants, the illegality defense applied equally to all defendants.  Thus, the illegality defense precluded the product liability claims against the remaining defendants, as well.

The plaintiff may still seek certification through an appeal to the Tenth Circuit.  We will keep readers updated with further developments in this litigation.