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Fassett v. Sears Holdings Corp.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

January 27, 2017

DANIEL FASSETT and LESLIE FASSETT, husband and wife, individually and as parents and natural guardians of J.F., an minor, Plaintiffs,
v.
SEARS HOLDINGS CORPORATION, SEARS, ROEBUCK AND CO., SEARS HOMETOWN AND OUTLET STORES, INC., SEARS AUTHORIZED HOMETOWN STORES, LLC, KENMORE CRAFTSMAN DIEHARD INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY, LLC, BRIGGS & STRATTON CORPORATION, SIMPLICITY MANUFACTURING and KOHLER CO. Defendants. And BRIGGS & STRATTON POWER PRODUCTS GROUP, LLC, Defendant/Third-Party Plaintiff,
v.
BEMIS MANUFACTURING COMPANY, a Foreign Corporation, Third-Party Defendant.

          ORDER

          Matthew W. Brann United States District Judge

         Some personal injury cases spring from highly questionable circumstances, and others from undeniably life-altering events. Setting aside ultimate questions of liability and damages, this litigation is tragically one of the latter. When Plaintiff Daniel Fassett heard sputtering sounds emitting from his lawnmower, he attempted to relieve the pressure in its fuel tank by loosening the cap. As he did so, gasoline sprayed from the machine onto his body, igniting in flames. Mr. Fassett sustained serious injuries and shortly thereafter initiated this products liability action.

         Although the litigation has progressed in a timely fashion since its inception in May 2015, the parties have recently reached a rather technical impasse. That quandary involves, among other questions, the extent to which material about alternative fuel cap designs and distinct lawnmower layouts may be discoverable. In other words, the parties have struggled to define the outer bounds of discovery in this case: what, if anything, can be discovered about parts or mowers not involved in the subject fire? By presenting such a question, this dispute necessarily calls upon the Court to apply the proportionality provision of recently amended Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26 to the case's technologically nuanced facts.

         As explained more fully below, I hold that in a products liability suit such as this one, faithful adherence to amended Rule 26(b)(1)'s renewed proportionality mandate is furthered considerably by implementation of a sliding scale analysis: material corresponding to alternative designs or components that exhibit significant similarities to the design or component at issue should be discoverable in the greatest quantities and for the most varied purposes; however, material corresponding to alternative designs or components that share less in common with the contested design or component should be incrementally less discoverable-and for more limited purposes-as those similarities diminish.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The alleged mechanism by which Mr. Fassett sustained his injuries, though difficult to recount, is central to an appropriate disposition. Mr. Fassett had been operating a Sears Craftsman “Zero Turn” riding lawnmower in May 2013 for about one hour when he heard what he described as “spitting” or “sputtering” in the gas tank. ECF No. 105 at 3. The noise reminded him of the sound of water having seeped into the gas. See Id. After moving the lawnmower into his garage and turning it off, Mr. Fassett lifted the seat so that he could reach the fuel tank. Id. Upon visualizing the tank, he observed that the hissing was coming from underneath the gas cap, and he saw that the gas tank had visibly expanded. Id.

         In an effort to release what he believed was built-up pressure in the tank, he began to turn the gas cap. Id. While the cap rotated, gasoline sprayed from the tank and “doused” his clothes and body. Id. As he turned away from the machine to run, the gas cap burst off the tank, and more gasoline sprayed from within. See Id. Almost immediately, Mr. Fassett “heard the gas ignite and knew he was on fire.” Id. Flames covered his back and the left side of his body, traveling as high as the back of his head and portions of his face. See id.

         Two years later, on May 13, 2015, Plaintiffs filed the instant lawsuit. Averments central to their complaint identified “gas geysering from the mower” and “pressurized gas exploding from the gas tank” as alleged defects. Id. at ¶¶ 32, 34, 39. In particular, Plaintiffs brought claims for ordinary and gross negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, loss of consortium, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. ECF No. 1. On August 28, 2015, this Court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss as to the claims for breach of implied warranties and negligent infliction of emotional distress. See ECF Nos. 37-38. Importantly, however, I concluded that a punitive damages claim could survive the motion to dismiss stage, as Plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts plausibly suggesting that the Defendants continued to design, manufacture, and sell the subject lawnmower “despite knowledge of the dangers.” ECF No. 37 at 7.

         During the spring of 2016, counsel for Plaintiffs brought to the Court's attention what might initially have been described as a percolating discovery dispute. In essence, the parties disagreed about the extent to which material related to gas cap or lawnmower designs other than those specific ones involved in the accident should be discoverable. See ECF Nos. 68, 72, 78, 106. The Court held telephonic status conferences on May 5, July 26, and November 9 of that year. During each conference, I provided the parties with applicable legal citations upon which I would likely rely in reaching a determination and encouraged the parties to attempt to sort out the dispute without further judicial intervention.

         After that guidance proved unsuccessful in resolving the pending disputes in their entirety, Plaintiffs filed the instant motions to compel. One motion seeks discovery primarily as to alternative cap designs from Bemis Manufacturing Company, the manufacturer of the gas cap at issue. ECF No. 94. The other seeks similar but more numerous discovery from Briggs & Stratton Corporation and Briggs & Stratton Power Products Group, LLC (referred to collectively as the Briggs & Stratton Defendants), the manufacturers of the lawnmower in question. ECF No. 93. Plaintiffs' motions to compel are granted in part and denied in part in accordance with the reasoning that follows.

         II. LAW

         “It is well established that the scope and conduct of discovery are within the sound discretion of the trial court . . . and that after final judgment of the district court . . . our review is confined to determining if that discretion has been abused.” Marroquin-Manriquez v. I.N.S., 699 F.2d 129, 134 (3d Cir. 1983) (Aldisert, J.). “To find such abuse it is usually necessary to conclude that there has been an interference with a substantial right . . . or that the discovery ruling is seen to be a gross abuse of discretion resulting in fundamental unfairness in the trial of the case.” Id. Thus, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has forewarned litigants that it “will not interfere with a trial court's control of its docket except upon the clearest showing that the procedures have resulted in actual and substantial prejudice to the complaining litigant.” In re Fine Paper Antitrust Litig., 685 F.2d 810, 817-18 (3d Cir. 1982) (Aldisert, J.).

         “Discovery need not be perfect, but discovery must be fair.” Boeynaems v. LA Fitness Int'l, LLC, 285 F.R.D. 331, 333 (E.D. Pa. 2012) (Baylson, J.). “The responses sought must comport with the traditional notions of relevancy and must not impose an undue burden on the responding party.” Hicks v. Arthur, 159 F.R.D. 468, 470 (E.D. Pa. 1995). “[T]he scope of [ ] discovery is not without limits.” Kresefky v. Panasonic Commc'ns & Sys. Co., 169 F.R.D. 54, 64 (D.N.J. 1996). As such, “[d]iscovery should be tailored to the issues involved in the particular case.” Id. As amended Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) states:

Parties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' relative access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit. Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.

         “To determine the scope of discoverable information under Rule 26(b)(1), the Court looks initially to the pleadings.” Trask v. Olin Corp., 298 F.R.D. 244, 263 (W.D. Pa. 2014) (Fischer, J.). In ascertaining which materials are discoverable and which are not, a district court must further distinguish between requests that “appear[ ] reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, ” Bell v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 270 F.R.D. 186, 191 (D.N.J. 2010), and demands that are “overly broad and unduly burdensome.” Miller v. Hygrade Food Products Corp., 89 F.Supp.2d 643, 657 (E.D. Pa. 2000).

         “[T]he discovery rules are meant to be construed quite liberally so as to permit the discovery of any information which is relevant and is reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” Fid. Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n v. Felicetti, 148 F.R.D. 532, 534 (E.D. Pa. 1993). “As an initial matter, therefore, all relevant material is discoverable unless an applicable evidentiary privilege is asserted. The presumption that such matter is discoverable, however, is defeasible.” Pearson v. Miller, 211 F.3d 57, 65 (3d Cir. 2000).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(a)(3)(B) states that “[a] party seeking discovery may move for an order compelling an answer, designation, production, or inspection.” “In order to succeed on a motion to compel discovery, a party must first prove that it sought discovery from its opponent.” Petrucelli v. Bohringer & Ratzinger, 46 F.3d 1298, 1310 (3d Cir. 1995) (Cowen, J.) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a)(1)). In addition, “[t]he party seeking the discovery has the burden of clearly showing the relevancy of the information sought.” Caver v. City of Trenton, 192 F.R.D. 154, 159 (D.N.J. 2000).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The starting point is amended Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1). From the outset, I note that the Court is mindful of Defendants' concerns about the mounting expense of unbridled discovery. Nevertheless, I cannot agree with the threshold assertion that what is discoverable is strictly limited to material that is ultimately relevant or otherwise admissible. As the parties well know, Rule 26(b)(1) envisions a broader universe of discoverable material than that. It makes clear, for instance, that “[i]nformation within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.”

         At the same time, however, “[t]his concept of relevance is tempered . . . by principles of proportionality.” Cope v. Brosius, No. 4:12-CV-2382, 2016 WL 5871157, at *2 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 7, 2016) (Carlson, Mag. J.). Accord Stabilus, A Div. of Fichtel & Sachs Indus., Inc. v. Haynsworth, Baldwin, Johnson & Greaves, P.A., 144 F.R.D. 258, 265 (E.D. Pa. 1992) (“While the scope of relevance in discovery is far broader than that allowed for evidentiary purposes, it is not without limits.”) (internal citations omitted).

         As amended Rule 26(b)(1)'s proportionality mandate provides:

Parties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' relative access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.

         Thus, it has been said that the amended rule “restores the proportionality factors to their original place in defining the scope of discovery.” Wertz v. GEA Heat Exchangers Inc., No. 1:14-CV-1991, 2015 WL 8959408, at *2 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 16, 2015) (Mehalchick, Mag. J.). See also Summy-Long v. Pennsylvania State Univ., No. 1:06-CV-1117, 2016 WL 74767, at *8 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 7, 2016) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 1) (“[I]t is now unmistakable that the Court and the parties in any federal civil action must constantly strive to ...


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