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Hagans v. Henry Weber Aircraft Distributors Inc.

argued: February 26, 1988.

MICHELE V. HAGANS, CHARLES I. BRYANT AND ARTHUR L. CONTENT, AS CO-EXECUTORS OF THE ESTATE OF THEODORE R. HAGANS, JR., DECEASED, APPELLANTS
v.
HENRY WEBER AIRCRAFT DISTRIBUTORS, INC., PIPER AIRCRAFT CORPORATION AND MACHEN, INC.



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Civil Action No. 84-3696.

Author: Scirica

Opinion OF THE COURT

SCIRICA, Circuit Judge.

This appeal requires us to examine a sanction imposed by the district court under Fed. R. Civ. P. 37 because of noncompliance with several discovery requests and a court order. The specific question we must decide is whether the district court erred by precluding plaintiffs from using a pilot expert in this litigation.

Plaintiffs, co-executors of the estate of Theodore Hagans, Jr., brought the underlying action for wrongful death and survivors' benefits against Henry Weber Aircraft Distributors (Weber Aircraft) and Machen, Incorporated (Machen).*fn1 Hagans was the pilot of a Piper Aerostar 601P aircraft with a Superstar I modified engine designed by Machen and installed by Weber Aircraft, which crashed in April, 1984. Both Hagans and his son, a passenger, were killed in the crash.

After protracted discovery, in which plaintiffs failed to comply with several discovery requests and a magistrate's order, the magistrate imposed sanctions on plaintiffs. The district court concluded that the sanctions were warranted because of plaintiffs' counsels' failure to expeditiously and thoroughly prepare their case. The district judge then certified for appeal, as a controlling question of law under 28 U.S.C. ยง 1292(b) (Supp. Ill 1985), that portion of its June 29, 1987 order precluding plaintiffs from introducing substitute pilot-expert testimony at trial. We granted permission to appeal.

On appeal, plaintiffs make two arguments. First, that the sanction imposed is tantamount to dismissal, requiring a balancing test as set forth in Poulis v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Ins. Co., 747 F.2d 863, 868 (3d Cir. 1984). Second, that even if a balancing of the Poulis factors is not required, the district court abused its discretion by precluding plaintiffs from using a substitute pilot expert.

We hold that a Poulis balancing is not required in this case, see infra Part II, and that the district court did not abuse its discretion. For purposes of chronology and clarity, we first discuss whether the district court abused its discretion. See National Hockey League v. Metropolitan Hockey Club, Inc., 427 U.S. 639, 642, 49 L. Ed. 2d 747, 96 S. Ct. 2778 (1976); Hicks v. Feeney, No. 87-3527. slip. op. at 8, 10 (3d Cir. March 11, 1988). Cf. Snow Machines Inc. v. Hedco, Inc., 838 F.2d 718, 724 (3d Cir. 1988) (rule 11 sanctions).

I

Plaintiffs filed this action in July, 1984. After defendants filed answers to plaintiffs' amended complaint, and several preliminary matters were disposed of, the magistrate held a pretrial and scheduling conference on July 8, 1985. Pursuant to a stipulation, the magistrate set December 15, 1985 as the discovery deadline. See pretrial report filed July 11, 1985.*fn2 Because of delays in discovery, counsel for Weber Aircraft, on behalf of counsel for all parties, requested an extension of the deadline to April 15, 1986. The district court subsequently extended the deadline to July 14, 1986.

In December, 1985, Weber Aircraft submitted its third set of interrogatories to plaintiffs, requesting the identity of all expert witnesses, their opinions, and the factual bases therefor. By May, 1986, less than two months from the July 14 deadline for discovery, plaintiffs had not yet responded to defendants' expert interrogatories. Thereafter, counsel for defendant Weber Aircraft made written and telephone requests for answers from plaintiffs' counsel.*fn3 Despite those efforts, plaintiffs failed to respond. On July 17, 1986, plaintiffs' counsel requested another extension of the time to complete discovery. See plaintiffs' July 17, 1986 motion. The district court, finding good cause, extended the deadline to November 30, 1986.

Because the plaintiffs still failed to respond, on January 14, 1987, pursuant to Weber Aircraft's motion, the magistrate compelled plaintiffs to file complete answers to Weber Aircraft's third set of interrogatories within fifteen days. The order provided that noncompliance would bar plaintiffs from presenting evidence at trial on the subject matter of those interrogatories. Although the case had been listed in the district judge's trial pool on January 28, 1987 and could be called to trial on twenty-four hours notice, plaintiffs did not respond to the interrogatories until February 2, 1987.

Plaintiffs' answers recited that they had retained Frederick C. Hoerner, a civilian employee of the United States Navy, as a pilot expert. However, they failed to disclose that on December 19, 1986, Hoerner conducted a flight test in connection with the Hagans' case and would rely on those results for his testimony. See Hoerner dep. at 113. The relevant answer stated only that Hoerner was expected to offer "[a] reconstruction of the Hagans' accident for the purpose of giving his opinion for the double engine failure and the resultant accident." Exhibit B attached to Machen's motion for sanctions. Despite the fact that the magistrate's January 14, 1987 order compelling discovery warned plaintiffs that failure to file full and complete answers might result in a sanction similar to that ultimately imposed,*fn4 the answers were vague, evasive and incomplete. In addition, at a pre-trial conference on February 5, 1987 the district judge specifically asked for all the bases for plaintiffs' experts' opinions, but plaintiffs did not mention a flight test. See J.A. at 59 (memorandum-order of magistrate).

Dissatisfied with plaintiffs' answers to the interrogatories, both Machen and Weber Aircraft separately submitted supplemental expert interrogatories. After another discovery conference on March 17, 1987, the magistrate ordered plaintiffs' counsel to file by March 19, 1987 more specific answers to ...


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