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Court Dismisses Claims of Battery, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, Res Ipsa Loquitur and Punitive Damages in Case Involving Sale of Diseased Rats
Siarkowski v. Petco Animal Supplies Stores, Inc,. et al.
Available at: https://ecf.mdd.uscourts.gov/doc1/09317239545
In Siarkowski v. Petco Animal Supplies, Inc., et al., the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland considered motions to dismiss filed by Defendant SunPet LTD (“SunPet”) and Defendant Petco Animal Supplies Stores (“Petco”).
Plaintiff Anna Siarkowski (“Ms. Siarkowski”) purchased two (2) small pet rats from a Petco store in November and December 2013. Ms. Siarkowski and her two (2) minor children (collectively, “the Plaintiffs”) were frequently exposed to both rats, being scratched by them and coming into contact with secretions from the rats. The Plaintiffs alleged that both rats carried a bacterium called streptobacillus moniliformis, commonly known as “rat bite fever.” The Plaintiffs allege that after coming into contact with the rats, they suffered rash, inflammation, sores, chills, fever, vomiting, headaches and muscle aches, joint pain and swelling, and other flu-like symptoms that required medical treatment. The Plaintiffs alleged that they would require medical treatment in the future as a result of their respective bacterial infections.
Plaintiffs filed a complaint against Petco and SunPet, a company that regularly sells rats to the Petco store where Plaintiffs purchased their rats. Plaintiffs asserted twenty-one (21) counts against Defendants (the same seven on behalf of each Plaintiff): assault, battery, negligence, products liability, intentional infliction of emotional distress, gross negligence, and res ipsa loquitur. Plaintiffs sought damages in excess of seventy-five thousand dollars ($75,000) in addition to punitive damages.
Defendants filed two (2) separate, but nearly identical, motions to dismiss the assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and res ipsa loquitur counts. Both Defendants also sought to dismiss Plaintiffs’ demands for punitive damages. Plaintiffs consented to the dismissal of the assault counts.
The Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ battery claims. The Court began by noting battery occurs, under Maryland law, “when one intends a harmful or offensive contact with another without that person’s consent.” (emphasis added) The intent element of battery requires “a general intent to unlawfully invade another’s physical well-being through harmful or offensive contact.” The Plaintiffs argued that the Defendants intentionally “touched” them through the sale of, and subsequent scratching by, their rats. Defendants countered that they were merely engaged in “simple sales transactions,” which could never amount to battery. Here, the Court reasoned, that to find a retailer liable for battery based on the subsequent use of something it sold “would expose the courts to a flood of farfetched and nebulous litigation.” Finding that the complaint failed to allege the elements of battery, the Court dismissed the claim.
Next, the Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. The Court described the elements of such a claim as follows: (1) intentional or reckless conduct that is (2) outrageous and extreme (3) causally connected to (4) extreme emotional distress. The Court emphasized that each of these elements must be pled and proven with specificity, and that “[this] tort is rarely viable in Maryland.” Plaintiffs alleged that selling diseased rats to a family with children “shocks the conscious.” Even if Defendants’ conduct was intentional or reckless, the Court noted, it did not rise to the level of “extreme or outrageous” so as to “go beyond all possible bounds of decency.” Accordingly, the Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ claims.
Because it did not “present a distinct cause of action, separate from negligence,” the Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ res ipsa loquitur claims. The Court noted that “a Plaintiff seeking to invoke res ipsa loquitur must present evidence of (1) a casualty of a kind that does not ordinarily occur absent negligence; (2) that was caused by an instrumentality exclusively within the defendant’s control; and (3) that was not caused by an act or omission of the plaintiff.” The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur allows a plaintiff to use circumstantial evidence to establish a prima facie case of negligence. The doctrine “merely provides plaintiffs a way to prove their negligence claims.” It is not, however, a separate claim apart from negligence. Here, neither Defendant moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ negligence counts. The Court concluded that any discussion of res ipsa loquitur must be included in a broader discussion of Plaintiffs’ negligence claims, which are not at issue in the motions to dismiss. The Court found the discussion of the viability of res ipsa loquitur to be premature, and noted that it would consider them along with Plaintiffs’ negligence claims, when appropriate. Ultimately, the Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ res ipsa loquitur claims from a procedural standpoint but not from a substantive standpoint because Plaintiffs need not plead res ipsa loquitur separate from the negligence count..
Finally, the Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ punitive damages claims. Under Maryland law, an award of punitive damages requires the plaintiff to prove “actual malice,” meaning “conscious and deliberate wrongdoing, evil or wrongful motive, intent to injure, ill will, or fraud.” In the context of a products liability claim, a plaintiff can prove actual malice by showing that the defendant “made a bad faith decision to market a product, knowing of the defect and danger, in conscious or deliberate disregard of the threat to the safety of the consumer.” The Plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that the Defendants “knowingly and intentionally sold diseased rats to the public” and that the Defendants breached their duty to inspect the rats for disease. The Court concluded that the Plaintiffs, in their complaint, did not plead enough facts to establish a punitive damages claim. Specifically, the complaint did not allege facts indicating that the Defendants actually knew the rats sold to the Plaintiffs were diseased. Without such an allegation, the Court concluded that the Plaintiffs’ complaint failed to show that Defendants acted with actual malice and dismissed the claims for punitive damages.
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