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Failure to State a Claim

Within a judicial forum, the failure to present sufficient facts which, if taken as true, would indicate that any violation of law occurred or that the claimant is entitled to a legal remedy.

Failure to state a claim is frequently raised as a defense in civil litigation. In some jurisdictions, such as California, the defense is called a demurrer. The successful invocation of this defense will result in the dismissal of the case.

Courts will not dismiss a complaint in which the plaintiff has a legal basis for a claim but has made a technical error that renders the complaint invalid. In such a case, courts allow the petitioner to amend the complaint.

The defense of failure to state a claim is provided for in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and in similar state court rules. Rule 12(b) states that defenses should be presented in the defendant's response to the complaint. However, the rule allows some defenses to be asserted in a separate motion to the court, including the defense that the plaintiff does not state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The purpose of these exceptions is to allow a defendant to respond to procedural flaws in the filing of the complaint without responding to the merits of the case. Allowing the defendant to respond in a separate motion also allows the court to dismiss quickly civil claims that are without legal merit.

Dawson v. Wilheit, 735 P.2d 93 (1987), illustrates the dismissal of a suit for failure to state a claim. In Dawson, the plaintiff brought suit against Farmington, New Mexico, police officers as well as the city of Farmington and a vehicle-towing service. The suit was based on a chain of events that had begun on November 20, 1983, when the son of the plaintiff had been killed by two men, who had placed his body in the trunk of a car owned by one of the men. Shortly thereafter, the car owner had been arrested for driving while intoxicated.

Under police department policy, a police officer should have conducted an inventory of the vehicle with an employee of the towing service, but this did not happen. After his release from jail on the drunk-driving charge, the car owner drove away from the lot and dumped the body in a remote area, where it was not discovered for six months.

The plaintiffs sued, seeking COMPENSATORY DAMAGES for negligent infliction of emotional distress caused by the failure to conduct an inventory and the resulting delay in finding the body. The district court dismissed the complaint on the ground that the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim. On appeal, the Court of Appeals of New Mexico affirmed the dismissal.

Under basic NEGLIGENCE law, no person may be liable for the injuries of another unless he or she breached a duty of care owed to the victim. According to the state's high court, the police department's inventory policy was in place to protect the police and towing company from claims of theft, and the police owed no duty to the plaintiffs to find a body when they were unaware of a killing. Thus, the plaintiffs had no basis for their complaint, and their case had been rightly dismissed for failure to state a claim.

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