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Meadows v. Anchor Longwall And Rebuild

August 28, 2006

DONALD E. MEADOWS, JR. AND AMANDA MEADOWS, HUSBAND AND WIFE, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ANCHOR LONGWALL AND REBUILD, INC., A WEST VIRGINIA CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.
ANCHOR LONGWALL AND REBUILD, INC., A WEST VIRGINIA CORPORATION, THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF,
v.
LEWIS-GOETZ AND COMPANY, INC., SUCCESSOR IN INTEREST OF GOODING & SHIELDS RUBBER COMPANY, SYSTEM STECKO, A DIVISION OF DAYCO EUROPE, LTD, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANTS.
LEWIS-GOETZ AND COMPANY, INC. SUCCESSOR IN INTEREST OF GOODING & SHIELDS RUBBER COMPANY, CROSS-CLAIMANT,
v.
ANCHOR LONGWALL AND REBUILD, INC, A WEST VIRGINIA CORPORATION, CROSS-DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hay, Magistrate Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs, Donald E. Meadows, Jr. and Amanda Meadows, filed a complaint on November 29, 2002, bringing claims against Anchor Longwall and Rebuild, Inc. ("Anchor Longwall") for strict liability (Count I), negligence (Count II), breach of warranty (Count III), and emotional distress and loss of consortium (Count IV), after Mr. Meadows was injured while pressurizing a mine shield against the roof of the Maple Creek Mine in Bentley, Pennsylvania, where he was employed. Plaintiffs allege that a fitting located in the shut off valve, which had been replaced by Anchor Longwall during a refurbishing project, malfunctioned and pulled loose from the valve assembly housing striking Mr. Meadows on the right side of his face. As a result, Mr. Meadows lost his right eye.*fn1 Anchor Longwall filed a third-party complaint seeking contribution and indemnification against Lewis-Goetz and Company, Inc. ("Lewis-Goetz"), the successor-in-interest to Gooding & Shields Rubber Co., which allegedly supplied the valves in question, and Systems Stecko ("Stecko"), which is purported to have designed and manufactured the valves. In addition, Stecko has brought a counterclaim against Anchor Longwall and cross-claims against Lewis-Goetz, and Lewis-Goetz has filed cross-claims against Anchor Longwall in which contribution and indemnification have also been sought.*fn2

Anchor Longwall filed a partial motion for summary judgment on October 17, 2005, in which it argued that it is entitled to judgment on plaintiffs' strict liability claim brought at Count I because Anchor Longwall did not sell or supply a product but merely provided a service which is not subject to strict liability. The Court agreed and in an Opinion and Order filed April 17, 2006, granted judgment in favor of Anchor Longwall at Count I of the complaint.*fn3

Stecko, Anchor Longwall and Lewis-Goetz have now filed separate motions in which they seek summary judgment on the claims remaining. Summary judgment is appropriate if, drawing all inferences in favor of the non-moving party, "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R.Civ. P. 56(c). Summary judgment may be granted against a party who fails to adduce facts sufficient to establish the existence of any element essential to that party's case, and for which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of identifying evidence which demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Once that burden has been met, the non-moving party must set forth "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial ... or the factual record will be taken as presented by the moving party and judgment will be entered as a matter of law. Matsushita Electric Industrial Corp. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986). An issue is genuine only if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986). Thus, it must be determined "'whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'" Brown v. Grabowski, 922 F.2d 1097, 1111 (3d Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 501 U.S. 1218 (1991), quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 251-52.

Instantly, defendants argue that they are entitled to judgment in their favor because, due to a break in the chain of custody, there is no evidence of record to support a finding that the valve in plaintiffs' possession is the valve that caused Mr. Meadows' injuries and that, absent such evidence, they have been deprived of their right to examine the offending valve. Indeed, it appears undisputed that while counsel for the Maple Creek Mine has attested to the fact that he received what purports to be the valve in question from the Maple Creek Mine offices sometime after the incident, there is no testimony or other evidence of record to indicate who removed the valve from the mine or how it wound up in the office of Mr. Marcavitch, who was the Safety Director at the mine at the time of the incident, or who specifically sent it to Maple Creek Mine's counsel.

To support their arguments defendants rely principally on Roselli v. General Electric Co., 410 Pa. Super. 223, 599 A.2d 685 (1991), for the proposition that whenever important evidence has been lost or destroyed thereby depriving the defendant of an opportunity to inspect it, summary judgment is appropriate. In the Court's view, however, not only does Roselli not sweep so broadly but it is inapplicable to the instant case.

In Roselli, the plaintiff was injured when a coffee carafe shattered in her hand spraying boiling coffee onto her leg and abdomen. The broken pieces of the carafe were subsequently lost by the plaintiff and her attorney before the defendant's experts were able to inspect them. Defendant moved for summary judgment which the trial court granted finding that the defendant had been deprived of the most direct means of countering the plaintiff's allegations and because defendant was precluded from determining the identity of the carafe's manufacturer.

Id., 599 A.2d at 227. In affirming the trial court, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reasoned that:

To permit claims of defective products where a purchaser of the product has simply thrown it away after an accident, would both encourage false claims and make legitimate defense of valid claims more difficult. It would put a plaintiff (or plaintiff's attorney) in the position of deciding whether the availability of the item would help or hurt his or her case. Where producing the product for defense inspection would weaken rather than strengthen a case, we unfortunately are obliged to conclude that some plaintiffs and attorneys would be unable to resist the temptation to have the product disappear.

Roselli, 599 A.2d at 687-688. Citing to this language, defendants liken the fact that the chain of custody has been broken in this case to the acknowledged destruction of evidence in Roselli, and conclude that under Roselli summary judgment is warranted. We disagree.

First, as previously found by this Court and the Pennsylvania Superior Court, Roselli does not stand for the broad proposition that whenever a key piece of evidence is lost or destroyed summary judgment is warranted. See Schultz v. Barko Hydraulics, Inc., 832 F. Supp. 142, 145 (W.D. Pa. 1993) ( Rejecting defendant's argument that because plaintiff lost the allegedly defective product that it is ipso facto entitled to summary judgment.); Dansak v. Cameron Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 703 A.2d 489, 495 (Pa. Super. 1997), allocatur denied, 556 Pa. 676, 727 A.2d 131 (1998) (Finding no controlling Pennsylvania authority that mandates summary judgment whenever the plaintiff fails to preserve the defective product.) (emphasis in original); O'Donnell v. Big Yank, Inc., 696 A.2d 846, 848 (Pa. Super.), allocatur denied, 555 Pa. 731, 725 A.2d 182 (1997) ("Roselli does not hold that in all cases where evidence has been lost or destroyed prior to inspection, a plaintiff cannot pursue its claim.").

Secondly, Roselli concerns the spoilation of evidence which, under the substantive law of Pennsylvania and federal law of evidence, permits a court to sanction a party that destroys evidence knowing that it is relevant to the litigation. Schmid v. Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp., 13 F.3d 76, 78 (3d Cir. 1994); Gordner v. Dynetics Corp., 862 F. Supp. 1303, 1307 (M.D. Pa. 1994). See also Donohoe v. American Isuzu Motors, Inc., 155 F.R.D. 515, 519-20 (M.D. Pa. 1994) (Finding that under federal law the imposition of sanctions for spoilation of evidence is governed by federal evidentiary law.) Indeed, as this Court has previously found, "[f]or the spoilation inference to arise, it is essential both that the evidence in question be within the party's control and that there has been an actual suppression or withholding of the evidence." Parkinson v. Guidant Corp., 315 F. Supp. 2d 760, 763 (W.D. Pa. 2004), citing Brewer v. Quaker State Oil Refining Corp., 72 F.3d 326, 334 (3d Cir. 1995).

Here, however, defendants have not argued or pointed to any evidence from which it could be concluded that the real valve was lost or destroyed through any fault of plaintiff and, thus, the spoilation doctrine does not apply. Id. See Gordner v. Dynetics Corp., 862 F. Supp. at 1307-08 (Finding no basis to sanction plaintiff under a spoilation theory when no conduct on her part caused the destruction of the allegedly defective product.); Dansak v. Cameron Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 703 A.2d at 494 (Finding no basis to extend Roselli to cases where the plaintiff was not at fault for disposing of the allegedly defective product.); Long v. Yingling, 700 A.2d 508, 513 (Pa. Super. 1997), allocatur denied, 555 Pa. 731, 725 A.2d 182 (1998) (Finding that the public policy interests that the theory of spoilation was designed to effectuate were not at issue where the appellant was neither the owner nor in control of the allegedly defective product.).

More importantly, however, unlike in Roselli, plaintiffs have produced what they contend is the offending valve. While there may have been a break in the chain of custody it seems an unwarranted leap to conclude that the valve has, in fact, been destroyed and that as a consequence defendants are entitled to summary judgment. Rather, as argued by plaintiffs, a ...


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