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Cheeseboro v. Lots

September 5, 2006

ROSCOE CHEESEBORO, PLAINTIFF
v.
BIG LOTS, AND AMES TRUE TEMPER, INC., DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff, Roscoe Cheeseboro, a resident of South Carolina, brought this diversity action against Defendants, Big Lots and Ames True Temper, for damages allegedly incurred when Plaintiff was injured on July 8, 2003. Plaintiff claims that his injuries were caused by an Ames True Temper pole tree-trimmer, which he purchased from Big Lots. Plaintiff alleges that the tree-trimmer separated, leading to the saw portion of the tree-trimmer falling and severing two tendons in Plaintiff's left hand.

Plaintiff seeks monetary damages for medical expenses, pain and suffering, and lost wages. Plaintiff initially alleged that Defendants were liable for his injuries under both strict liability and negligence theories. On August 15, 2006, Plaintiff stipulated and agreed to dismiss his negligence claims against the Defendants with prejudice. (Doc. No. 26.)

On August 14, 2006, Plaintiff and Defendants submitted pre-trial motions in limine, together with briefs in support, seeking to preclude the introduction of certain testimony and other evidence at trial. (Doc. Nos. 22-25.) Specifically, Plaintiff moved this Court to preclude evidence of: (1) Plaintiff's negligence in operating the tree-trimmer; (2) Plaintiff's prior conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia; and (3) Plaintiff's receipt of unemployment benefits. (Doc. No. 22.) Defendants moved this Court to preclude: (1) testimony by Plaintiff's liability expert; (2) evidence of Plaintiff's lost wages; and (3) medical testimony by Plaintiff's medical expert "[a]dopting the Functional Capacity Evaluations done by Someone Else." (Doc. No. 24.) Both motions have been briefed and are ripe for disposition.

I. DISCUSSION

A. Plaintiff's Motions in Limine

1. Evidence of Plaintiff's Negligence

Plaintiff argues that evidence related to his alleged [mis]use of the pole tree-trimmer is inadmissible because such evidence would impermissibly introduce negligence concepts into a strict-liability claim. The parties agree that because this Court's jurisdiction is founded in diversity, the Court must look to Pennsylvania law to settle this evidentiary question. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Treesdale, Inc., 419 F.3d 216, 228 (3d Cir. 2005); Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938). In Pennsylvania, evidence of negligence is not generally admissible in cases of strict liability. See Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 841 A.2d 1000, 1006 (Pa. 2003) ("negligence concepts should not be imported into strict liability law"). Plaintiff, therefore, argues that Defendants should not be permitted to introduce evidence that Mr. Cheeseboro loosened or tightened a nut on the pole tree-trimmer because such evidence is "tantamount to evidence of Plaintiff's attempt to arrest an accident traceable to the Defendant's design." (Doc. No. 23, at 8.) Pennsylvania law, however, permits the Defendants to introduce evidence that Plaintiff's altered or tampered with the allegedly defective product because such evidence is relevant to causation. Eck v. Powermatic Houdaille, Div. of Houdaille Industries, Inc., 527 A.2d 1012, 1020 (Pa. Super. 1987). Accordingly, evidence that Plaintiff loosened or tightened the nut is relevant to causation and properly admitted at trial. Defendants have made a good-faith allegation that Plaintiff altered or tampered with the device alleged to have caused Plaintiff's injury. Plaintiff's first motion in limine will be denied.

2. Evidence of Plaintiff's Prior Conviction

Plaintiff next argues that evidence of a prior conviction should be precluded under Federal Rules 609(b) and 403. Rule 609(b) prohibits the introduction of evidence of a conviction "if a period of more than ten years has elapsed since the date of the conviction . . . unless the court determines that, in the interests of justice, that the probative value of the conviction supported by specific facts and circumstances substantially outweighs the prejudicial effect." Fed. R. Evid. 609(b). Plaintiff was convicted of possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor in Pennsylvania, on August 5, 1996. Therefore, this conviction is inadmissible under Rule 609(b), because more than ten years have elapsed since the date of the conviction.

Defendants argue, without citation, that evidence of Plaintiff's conviction should nonetheless be admissible because it "could explain his reduced earnings and that, while not admissible to impeach his credibility, it [sic] admissible to shed light on his lost earnings claim." (Doc. No. 32, at 6). Defendants offer no facts to support the argument that Plaintiff's conviction is somehow related to his ability to obtain employment. At trial, should Defendants make such a proffer, the Court will reconsider its admissibility for that limited purpose in light of the balancing required by Federal Rule of Evidence 403. Plaintiff's second motion in limine will be granted.

3. Evidence of Plaintiff's Receipt of Unemployment Benefits

Plaintiff also seeks to exclude evidence that Plaintiff received unemployment compensation upon leaving his job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Plaintiff argues that introduction of evidence of unemployment compensation would violate Pennsylvania's "collateral source" rule. Under Pennsylvania tort law, a plaintiff is entitled to "double recovery where the collateral source is unemployment insurance." Feeley v. United States, 337 F.2d 924 (3d Cir. 1964). Defendants concede that the collateral source rule does allow for double recovery. The Defendants assert, without citation, that the evidence should be admitted to "provide evidence of an explanation as to why the Plaintiff did not work the approximate [sic] six months after this accident." (Doc. No. 32, at 7.) Again, Defendants offer no support ...


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