United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
ORDER DENYING MOTION TO DISMISS
S. Lasnik United States District Judge.
matter comes before the Court on defendant Alpha Epsilon Pi
Fraternity, Inc.'s “Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to
F.R.C.P. 12(b)(6).” Dkt. # 13. For the reasons
explained below, the motion is DENIED.
case arises out of an injury that plaintiff Evan Carnahan
allegedly suffered at the hands of a fraternity brother,
which required Carnahan to undergo long-term medical care and
forced him to drop out of the University of Washington.
Carnahan filed a complaint alleging negligence on the part of
the fraternity brother, David Leon, and negligence and breach
of contract on the part of the national fraternity, Alpha
Epsilon Pi Fraternity, Inc. (AEP).
moves to dismiss the complaint, arguing that Carnahan
erroneously sued the national organization instead of its
local chapter, that the national fraternity owed Carnahan no
duty of care, and that Carnahan did not sufficiently allege
facts for a breach-of-contract claim.
pleading rules require that a complaint include “a
short and plain statement of the claim showing that the
pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).
This requirement serves to “give the defendant fair
notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it
rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S.
544, 545 (2007) (internal marks and citation omitted). A
complaint's factual allegations need not be detailed, but
they must sufficiently state a “plausible” ground
for relief. Id. at 544. “A claim has facial
plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that
allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the
defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). When
deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court accepts
all well-pleaded allegations of material fact as true and
construes those facts in the light most favorable to the
non-moving party. Manzarek v. St. Paul Fire & Marine
Ins. Co., 519 F.3d 1025, 1031 (9th Cir. 2008).
“Dismissal is proper only where there is no cognizable
legal theory or an absence of sufficient facts alleged to
support a cognizable legal theory.” Taylor v.
Yee, 780 F.3d 928, 935 (9th Cir. 2015).
The Propriety of Alpha Epsilon Pi, Inc. as a
defendant argues Carnahan sued the national fraternal
organization AEP, when the complaint's allegations, in
context, indicate Carnahan actually meant to sue the
fraternity's local chapter. Carnahan responds that he
did, in fact, intend to sue the national organization and
further asserts that, at the time of his injury, the national
fraternity and its local chapter were legally
Court finds no flaw with Carnahan's choice of defendants.
AEP cites no legal authority in its argument that Carnahan
named the wrong defendant. To dismiss Carnahan's
complaint on this basis would contravene courts'
longstanding practice of deferring to the choices in a
plaintiff's complaint. See Beneficial Nat. Bank v.
Anderson, 539 U.S. 1, 12 (2003) (“The
well-pleaded-complaint rule makes the plaintiff the master of
the claim.” (citations and alterations omitted)).
Indeed, “the plaintiff is the master of the complaint
and has the option of naming only those parties the plaintiff
chooses to sue.” Lincoln Prop. Co. v. Roche,
546 U.S. 81, 91 (2005) (quoting 16 J. Moore et al.,
Moore's Federal Practice § 107.14 (3d ed.
2005)). The Court finds no reason to dismiss Carnahan's
complaint on this ground, and AEP will have ample opportunity
to distinguish its national and local entities in a motion
for summary judgment.
AEP argues Carnahan's negligence claim should be
dismissed because AEP did not owe Carnahan a duty of care. A
duty of care is an essential element of a negligence claim.
Nivens v. 7-11 Hoagy's Corner, 133 Wn.2d 192,
198 (1997). A defendant “has a duty to exercise
reasonable care when the [defendant's] conduct creates a
risk of physical harm.” Michaels v. CH2M Hill,
Inc., 171 Wn.2d 587, 608 (2011) (quoting Restatement
(Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical & Emotional Harm
§ 7(a) (Am. Law. Inst. 2010)). For example, when
developers undertake the construction of a building, they are
under a duty to design and construct it with the same level
of skill, care, and learning as their professional peers.
defendant's conduct did not create a risk of physical
harm, the defendant is generally under no duty to protect a
plaintiff, but an affirmative duty to protect may proceed
from a “special relationship” either between the
defendant and the plaintiff or between the defendant and a
third party who harms the plaintiff. Petersen v.
State, 100 Wn.2d 421, 426 (1983). For example, a
business owner has a duty to take reasonable steps to protect
customers from foreseeable physical assaults on business
premises. See Nivens, 133 Wn.2d at 202. Other
examples of special relationships include “common
carrier and passenger; employer and employee; psychotherapist
and patient; hospital and patient; innkeeper and guest; and
school and student.” Id. at 201 (citations
omitted). When determining whether a special relationship
exists, courts look to the plaintiff-defendant relationship,
the defendant-tortfeasor relationship, the defendant's
knowledge of the risk posed, and the defendant's ability
to prevent it. See C.J.C. v. Corp. of Catholic Bishop of
Yakima, 138 Wn.2d 699, 721-24 (1999).
Carnahan has pleaded facts sufficient to infer a duty of due
care based on traditional principles of negligence and based
on a special relationship. Regarding traditional negligence
principles, Carnahan alleges that AEP established and
sponsored a fraternity at the University of Washington, that
AEP recruited and accepted members there, and that those
members paid dues in exchange for a place to live, eat,
gather, and engage in other social activities. To the extent
that the establishment and sponsorship of a fraternity
creates a risk of harm to the members it recruits, ...