United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER, Chief District Judge.
Plaintiff USAA Casualty Insurance Company ("USAA"), as subrogee of Joan Sonnen, filed the above-captioned action against defendant Metropolitan Edison Company ("Met-Ed"), alleging negligence and willful or wanton misconduct arising from an electrical fire in Ms. Sonnen's home. (Doc. 1). Met-Ed subsequently impleaded Schneider Electric USA, Inc. ("Schneider"), formerly known as Square D Company ("Square D"), as a third-party defendant pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 14. (Doc. 48). Presently before the court are Schneider's motion in limine (Doc. 77) to exclude the testimony of Met-Ed's expert, Robert A. Simpson, and its motion for summary judgment (Doc. 61) against Met-Ed. For the reasons that follow, the court will deny the motion in limine (Doc. 77) and grant in part and deny in part the motion for summary judgment (Doc. 61).
I. Factual Background & Procedural History
A. Factual Background
On November 17, 2010, a fire occurred at the home of Joan Sonnen in Manchester, Pennsylvania as a result of an electrical malfunction. (Doc. 63 ¶ 3; Doc. 69 ¶ 3). Ms. Sonnen has a property insurance policy with plaintiff USAA, a Texas corporation licensed to do business in Pennsylvania. (Doc. 62, Ex. C ¶¶ 1, 6).
Defendant and third-party plaintiff Met-Ed is a Pennsylvania corporation that provides electricity to Ms. Sonnen's home via its 720 distribution line. (Id. ¶¶ 2, 12). Met-Ed services Ms. Sonnen's home through a Square D electrical panel located in her basement. (Id. ¶ 13). On November 17, 2010, the breaker at Met-Ed's Zionsview substation for the 720 distribution line opened at 12:57 p.m. and reclosed seven seconds later. (Doc. 62, Ex. L at 3). Thereafter, an electrical fire ignited at the main circuit breaker in the Square D electrical panel in Ms. Sonnen's basement. (Doc. 62, Ex. D at 5, 10; Doc. 62, Ex. L at 2, 5; Doc. 63 ¶¶ 26, 29; Doc. 69 ¶¶ 26, 29). This fire was initially reported to the Union Fire Department at approximately 5:40 p.m. (Doc. 62, Ex. D at 8; Doc. 62, Ex. L at 1).
B. Procedural History
On June 20, 2012, USAA, as subrogee of Joan Sonnen, filed a complaint (Doc. 1) against Met-Ed and thereafter filed an amended complaint (Doc. 10) on August 1, 2012, alleging claims for negligence and willful or wanton misconduct related to the electrical fire. (Doc. 63 ¶¶ 1-2; Doc. 69 ¶¶ 1-2). Met-Ed filed a motion to dismiss (Doc. 14) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). On January 10, 2013, the court adopted the Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Judge Methvin (Doc. 23) and denied the motion to dismiss. (Doc. 30).
On May 5, 2013, Met-Ed filed a third-party complaint against third-party defendant Schneider, a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Illinois, alleging strict liability (for a defective main circuit breaker) and negligence claims. (Doc. 48; Doc. 62, Ex. C ¶¶ 4-6; Doc. 63 ¶ 5; Doc. 69 ¶ 5). Schneider filed an answer on June 11, 2013 and included a cross-claim against Met-Ed for contribution or indemnification. (Doc. 51; Doc. 63 ¶ 6; Doc. 69 ¶ 6).
C. Expert Testimony
Upon the conclusion of discovery, USAA served Met-Ed with the expert report of Ronald J. Panunto, P.E., C.F.E.I., C.F.C. no later than November 4, 2013, and Met-Ed served Schneider with the expert reports of Robert A. Simpson on December 4, 2013. (Doc. 63 ¶¶ 7-9; Doc. 69 ¶¶ 7-9). The parties do not dispute that the ultimate cause of the fire was the failure of the Square D main circuit breaker. (Doc. 62, Ex. D at 5, 10; Doc. 62, Ex. L at 2, 5). However, the parties' experts disagree on the cause of such failure. (Doc. 62, Exs. D, E, L).
In his expert report for USAA, Mr. Panunto opines that Met-Ed did not adequately maintain trees and tree branches along the 720 distribution line as required by Rule 218 of the National Electric Safety Code ("NESC") and the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission ("PPUC"). (Doc. 62, Ex. L at 4). As a result of inadequate vegetation management, Met-Ed's customers, including Ms. Sonnen, suffered repeated power outages and high-voltage transients, which in turn caused accelerated wear and eventual failure of the main circuit breaker in Ms. Sonnen's electrical panel. (Id. at 5).
Mr. Panunto concludes that, on November 17, 2010, another power outage and high-voltage transients as a result of vegetation contact caused the electrical failure at the main circuit breaker in Ms. Sonnen's electrical panel. (Id.) Specifically, the high-voltage transients caused the main circuit breaker to flash over, and electric arcing ignited the insulation on the electrical panel's wiring. (Id.)
On December 19, 2013, Met-Ed took the deposition of Mr. Panunto, and Mr. Panunto testified that he found no evidence of a defect in the Square D main circuit breaker. (Doc. 63 ¶¶ 22-23; Doc. 69 ¶¶ 22-23; Doc. 62, Ex. K, Panunto Dep. 58:12-59:9, Dec. 19, 2013; Doc. 69, Ex. 4, Panunto Dep. 58:12-59:9).
On behalf of Met-Ed, Mr. Simpson prepared two reports in this case. (Doc. 63 ¶¶ 24, 27; Doc. 69 ¶¶ 24, 27; see Doc. 62, Exs. D, E). In his primary report, Mr. Simpson disputes the conclusions of Mr. Panunto and opines that Met-Ed properly managed its electrical distribution system. (Doc. 63 ¶ 25; Doc. 69 ¶¶ 25-26; see Doc. 62, Ex. D at 10). According to Mr. Simpson, there is no evidence of improper vegetation management or electric transients from incidental vegetation contact sufficient to cause the electrical fire. (Doc. 62, Ex. D at 6-9). Mr. Simpson states that Mr. Panunto failed to consider evidence that Ms. Sonnen's home was unoccupied for a number of years. (Id. at 5). Ms. Sonnen's brother, Edwin Clemens, testified that he maintained the vacant home and kept the temperature at 55 degrees Fahrenheit. (Id.) Mr. Clemens also testified that the basement often retained water from heavy rains. (Id. at 5-6). Mr. Simpson concluded that the cause of the electrical fire was "low temperatures and a steady diet of moisture in the form of rainwater and condensation over an extended period of time." (Id. at 9; Doc. 63 ¶ 26; Doc. 69 ¶ 26).
At the same time, Mr. Simpson provided an alternative opinion that the cause of the electrical fire was "a manufacturing defect or malfunction in the electrical panel." (Doc. 62, Ex. E; see also Doc. 62, Ex. D at 9). Mr. Simpson notes that he prepared the supplemental report "in the event that a verdict is rendered in favor of [USAA] against Met-Ed." (Doc. 62, Ex. E at 1; Doc. 63 ¶¶ 27-28; Doc. 69 ¶¶ 27-28). Upon a finding of negligence for inadequate vegetation management, Mr. Simpson states that the ...