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FIU Footbridge Collapse Case Dismissed as “Shotgun Complaint” Fails to Differentiate Between Defendants

3/12/21

By: Tom McCraw

The US District Court for the Southern District of Florida recently dismissed a complaint without prejudice because the plaintiff failed to allege distinct conduct by the multiple defendants.  Instead, the plaintiff alleged facts concerning the defendants collectively, failing to satisfy the pleading requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) and 9(b).

The case arose from the fatal collapse of the footbridge at Florida International University (“FIU”) in March 2018. FIU had retained Magnum Construction Management, LLC (“Magnum”), as the design-build entity for the project. Magnum in turn retained FIGG Bridge Engineers, Inc. (“FIGG”), to perform all engineering services concerning the bridge.  Magnum also retained the Louis Berger Group, Inc. (“Louis Berger”), to conduct a peer review of FIGG’s designs. 

After the bridge collapsed, FIU settled with Magnum and other parties including Magnum’s surety, Travelers.  As part of that settlement, FIU assigned to Travelers any claims it had against any non-settling parties, including the defendants to this lawsuit.  Travelers then assigned to Magnum its rights against Louis Berger. 

Magnum brought claims for negligence and negligent misrepresentation against four defendants:  WSP USA Solutions, Inc.; Louis Berger U.S., Inc.; Louis Berger; and Amman & Whitney, Inc.  Magnum alleged that the defendants had misrepresented that they were pre-qualified to perform the peer review of FIGG’s designs for the bridge as required by state law, and that they failed to perform the peer review properly pursuant to federal law.  Magnum also sought contribution and equitable subrogation to recover the settlement paid by Magnum and Travelers to FIU.   

Magnum’s complaint, however, referred to the defendants collectively as “Louis Berger,” and did not include any “individualized allegations” delineating specific claims as to conduct by the particular defendants.  Moreover, the complaint alleged that Louis Berger was an entity separate and distinct from the other defendants.  The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint as a “shotgun pleading,” among other things – including the fact that Louis Berger was the only defendant retained by Magnum to perform the peer review of FIGG’s designs for the project.  Magnum objected, noting that the four defendants were all merged or successor entities to each other, such that reference to them collectively as “Louis Berger” was appropriate.

The court granted the defendants’ motion, holding that the complaint was indeed a “shotgun pleading” failing to “give the defendants adequate notice of the claims against them and the grounds upon which each claim rests.”  The court was unpersuaded by Magnum’s argument that the defendants “had no separate and distinct corporate identities” in light of the fact that Magnum’s own “allegations in the Complaint state otherwise.”  Having failed to allege the interrelationship of the defendants in the complaint, Magnum’s collective treatment of them as a single entity – without any differentiation between them – was its undoing.  The court dismissed the case but gave Magnum leave to amend its complaint within 14 days.  See Magnum Construction Management, LLC v. WSP USA Solutions, Inc., et al., Case No. 20-24684-CIV ALTONAGA/Torres, March 2, 2021.

The Magnum decision is instructive not only to plaintiffs as to the perils of poorly pleaded allegations, but also to the defense bar as an illustration of the avenues of dismissal when the complaint is so scattershot as to fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

For more information, please contact Tom McCraw at [email protected].