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Snider v. Sterling Airways, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

September 5, 2017

ELIZABETH C. SNIDER, Individually and as Executrix of the Estate of DANIEL A. SNIDER, and LEE W. SNIDER, a minor, by his mother, ELIZABETH C. SNIDER Plaintiffs


          JOYNER, J.

         Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59, Defendant Continental Motors, Inc. filed a Motion for New Trial and to Alter or Amend the Judgment entered on February 21, 2017, following a jury verdict in favor of Plaintiffs and against the moving defendant in the amount of $2, 753, 048.49. After thorough review of the trial record, this motion shall be largely denied for the reasons set forth below.

         Case History

         Given that we have previously written numerous opinions outlining the historical background of this case, at this time we shall just briefly summarize the underlying facts relevant to the motion presently before us. This lawsuit arose out of the tragic death of Daniel Snider, a United States Forest Service employee who was killed in the crash of a single-engine aircraft on June 21, 2010 as it was approaching the William T. Piper Memorial Airport in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. Mr. Snider was killed, along with another Forest Service employee and the pilot of the aircraft, as the result of the failure of the plane's engine. That engine was manufactured by Defendant Continental Motors, Inc. The aircraft, a 1973 Cessna T210L, was owned, operated and maintained by Defendant Sterling Airways, Inc., of Hornell, New York.

         The gist of the Plaintiffs' complaint in this matter is that the accident was caused by the negligence, gross negligence, recklessness and/or strict liability on the part of the defendants in the manufacture, maintenance, and/or operation of the accident airplane, its engine and component parts. This action was tried before the undersigned commencing on January 23, 2017 and concluding on February 16, 2017, when the jury rendered a verdict in favor of the Plaintiffs and against Continental Motors only[1] in the amount stated above. Alleging a variety of reasons and errors in evidentiary rulings and the admission and/or prohibition of evidence, Continental now moves for a new trial and/or to alter or amend the judgment entered on the jury's verdict.

         Standards Governing Motions Under Rule 59

         The language of Fed.R.Civ.P. 59 is fairly broad. Specifically, it states, in relevant part:

Rule 59. New Trial; Altering or Amending a Judgment
(a) In General. (1) Grounds for New Trial. The court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues -and to any party - as follows:
(A) after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court; or
(B) after a nonjury trial, for any reason for which a rehearing has heretofore been granted in a suit in equity in federal court.
(b) Time to File a Motion for a New Trial. A motion for a new trial must be filed no later than 28 days after the entry of judgment.
(d) New Trial on the Court's Initiative or for Reasons Not in the Motion. No later than 28 days after the entry of judgment, the court, on its own, may order a new trial for any reason that would justify granting one on a party's motion. After giving the parties notice and an opportunity to be heard, the court may grant a timely motion for a new trial for a reason not stated in the motion. In either event, the court must specify the reasons in its order.
(e) Motion to Alter or Amend a Judgment. A motion to alter or amend a judgment must be filed no later than 28 days after the entry of the judgment.

         A new trial may therefore be granted where there was substantial error in the admission or exclusion of evidence; error in the court's instructions to the jury; where the jury's verdict was inadequate or excessive; or where the verdict is against the weight of the evidence. Marder v. Conwed Corp., 75 F.R.D. 48, 54 (E.D. Pa. 1977)(citing Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 61 S.Ct. 189, 85 L.Ed. 147 (1940) and 5A Moore's Federal Practice P50.03[2] at 2334). A new trial may also be granted where the evidence was legally insufficient to go to the jury. Id.

         In general, the ordering of a new trial is committed to the sound discretion of the district court. Bonjourno v. Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp., 752 F.2d 802, 812 (3d Cir. 1984). But, “[w]hile a court may grant a new trial under Rule 59 ‘for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court, ' it should do so only when ‘the great weight of the evidence cuts against the verdict and a miscarriage of justice would result if the verdict were to stand, '” or where the verdict “shocks the conscience.” Leonard v. Stemtech International, Inc., 834 F.3d 376, 386 (3d Cir. 2016)(quoting Rule 59(a)(1)(A) and Springer v. Henry, 435 F.3d 268, 274 (3d Cir. 2006)); Chinniah v. East Pennsboro Township, No. 14-3355, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 3659, *3, 602 Fed.Appx. 558, 559 (3d Cir. March 9, 2015)(quoting Marra v. Philadelphia Housing Authority, 497 F.3d 286, 309, n. 18 (3d Cir. 2007)).

         Hence, the court's “review of a jury's verdict is limited to determining whether some evidence in the record supports the jury's verdict, ” as “[a] jury verdict will not be overturned unless the record is critically deficient of that quantum of evidence from which a jury could have rationally reached its verdict.” LePage's, Inc. v. 3M, 324 F.3d 141, 146 (3d Cir. 2003); Swineford v. Snyder County, 15 F.3d 1258, 1265 (3d Cir. 1994). Further, “[a] district court's power to grant a new trial is limited ‘to ensure that it does not substitute its judgment of the facts for the facts and the credibility of the witnesses for that of the jury.'” Stemtech, supra, (quoting Delli Santi v. CNA Insurance Cos., 88 F.3d 192, 201 (3d Cir. 1996)). Indeed, in reviewing a motion for a new trial, the court is required to view the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw every reasonable and fair inference therefrom which supports the jury's award. Frank C. Pollara Group, LLC v. Ocean View Inv. Holding, LLC, 784 F.3d 177, 184 (3d Cir. 2015); Willmore v. Willmore, Civ. A. No. 95-0803, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5947, *9 - *10 (E.D. Pa. May 2, 1996); Gans v. Gray, 612 F.Supp. 608, 622 (E.D. Pa. 1985).


         A. Sufficiency of Evidence as to Material Hardness

         Continental Motors' first argument essentially mirrors one of the arguments which it raised in its Renewed Motion for Entry of Judgment in its Favor as a Matter of Law. That motion was recently denied and the reasons therefor set forth in our Memorandum and Order of June 28, 2017. Specifically, CMI here re-asserts that the jury's verdict is against the great weight of the evidence because the plaintiffs ostensibly offered no evidence to prove that any alleged defect in material hardness caused the accident aircraft's engine to fail. Again, in light of the evidence presented at trial by all of the parties, we respectfully disagree.

         As is not at all unusual in negligence/product liability cases such as this one, the jury here was tasked with assessing two competing theories as to the underlying cause of the failure of the No. 2 cylinder on the accident airplane's engine.[2] In essence, it was the plaintiffs' theory that the No. 2 cylinder failed because of insufficient “hardness” of the exhaust valve guide, whereas it was Defendant CMI's belief that the breakdown was caused by overheating of the cylinder as a consequence of Sterling Airways' failure to follow the correct manuals and maintenance directives and to install the correct rocker arms and/or bushings at the time of the 2004 engine overhaul.

         Consistent with their theory of the case, the plaintiffs presented the testimony of several witnesses with expertise in metallurgy, aircraft accident investigation, civil, materials, and mechanical engineering and materials failure analysis, among others. One of those witnesses, Colin Sommer, testified that Part #636242, which was in the No. 2 cylinder at the time of the accident and which is believed to have been the root cause of the crash, is an exhaust valve guide bearing a Continental part number. It was depicted by Continental as one of their component parts and there is no indication anywhere that it was ever made by anyone else. The exhaust valve guides that were installed in the accident engine in 2004 were manufactured in December 2003 by Roderick Arms & Tool, an FAA-approved supplier for Continental Motors under its Quality System.[3] (N.T. 1/25/17, 96-98; N.T. 2/8/17, 27). Those guides did not bear a Roderick part number and in fact, Roderick could not legally sell those parts to the public or anyone other than Continental because that part is made only for Continental. (N.T. 1/25/17, 108-109; Pl's Exhibits 239, 245, 253).

         According to Mr. Sommer, “[p]art of the design of that valve guide from Continental is that it has to meet a certain hardness requirement.” (N.T. 1/25/17, 137). That specification is Rockwell B Hardness 75 to 90.[4] (N.Y. 1/25/17, 138; N.T. 2/1/17, 140-143). In an effort to determine why the valve guide wore in the manner in which it did, Mr. Sommer and another of Plaintiffs' expert witnesses, William Carden, in tandem with the McSwain Engineering laboratory performed a series of Rockwell B[5] hardness tests on the guides on the first five cylinders on the accident aircraft's engine. Those tests resulted in readings of 68 on the No. 1 guide, 71.6 on the No. 2 guide, 86.9 on the No. 3 guide, 68.4 for the No. 4 guide and 84.1 for the No. 5 guide.[6] (N.T. 1/25/17, 139-140; 2/1/17, 145-156). From these measurements, both Mr. Sommer and Mr. Carden concluded that the Continental[7]exhaust valve guides were out-of-compliance with its own hardness specification. (N.T. 1/26/17, 100, 155, 160-161; N.T. 2/2/17, 62-64).

         In addition, Mr. Sommer, Mr. Carden and one of CMI's witnesses - Michael Ward, all testified that the cylinder assemblies that were manufactured in December 2003 and installed into the accident aircraft a few months later during the overhaul, were made from a material called Ni-Resist Type 1, which is a cast-iron alloy designed to withstand operating temperatures well above 750 degrees on a consistent basis and more often between 1000 and 1, 300 degrees. (N.T. 1/25/17, 141-142; N.T. 2/1/17, 138-139; N.T. 2/8/17, 19, 28, 200-205).

         Under Continental's quality control system, it provides a form “Certificate of Compliance” to its suppliers for completion and inclusion with the shipments of all of the product which it has ordered. (N.T. 2/8/17, 46-52; CMI Exhibit 3347). In completing those compliance certificates, the supplier is verifying that the parts which Continental ordered and which it manufactured for Continental were produced in accordance with CMI's specifications, drawings etc. and that they are as they should be. (N.T. 2/8/17, 46). Upon receipt of shipments of valve guides from Roderick and following its own inspection protocol as outlined on its internal “Material Acceptance Data (MAD) Sheet, ” CMI inspects a designated number of random samples[8]from the various lots delivered to ensure that the guides possess the required features and hardness and are otherwise in compliance with its specifications. (N.T. 1/26/17, 26-28; N.T. 2/8/17, 24-26, 36-44; Pl's Exhibit 291). If any of the samples tested fail to meet specifications, the entire lot is to be rejected and then set aside for further screening. (N.T. 2/8/17, 39-40). (Pl's Exhibits 294, 296, 297; CMI's Exhibits 3345, 3346, 3347, 3348; N.T.; N.T. 2/8/17, 26-28, 36-56).

         At trial however, Plaintiffs produced evidence that despite these procedures, on several lots of exhaust valve guides received from Roderick in April 2002, September 2003 and in January 2004, the Continental inspectors accepted batches of exhaust valve guides but either did not fill out the hardness designation on the data sheets as required or, in one case, approved the lot despite it having a hardness reading of Rockwell B 73, rather than the required minimum of 75. (N.T. 1/26/17, 27-35; N.T. 2/8/17, 37-44, 53-56, 81-88; Pl's Exhibits 294, 296, 297; CMI Exhibits 3345, 3346, 3347, 3348).

         Plaintiffs additionally adduced evidence that despite the fact that Continental's specifications dictated that the Rockwell B scale be used, it was not uncommon for its inspectors to employ different hardness scales such as the HR 15 and HR 30 and then convert those readings to a Rockwell B reading. (N.T. 2/1/17, 183-198; N.T. 2/8/17, 77-82).

         To reiterate, under the prescribed standards for overturning a verdict or granting a new trial, we are charged with reviewing the jury's verdict to ascertain whether there is some evidence in the record to support it. In doing so here, we find that the foregoing evidence is more than sufficient to warrant a finding by the jury in this case that the exhaust valve guide which was installed in the No. 2 cylinder did not satisfy the requisite hardness minimums set by Defendant Continental itself.

         As for the second prong, that is, whether Plaintiffs made a sufficient showing that the subject accident was caused by that inadequate hardness, we likewise find that adequate evidence was produced to sustain the jury's conclusion that it was.

         Again, Plaintiffs' expert witness Colin Sommer explained that the purpose behind hardening is to increase wear resistance and that exhaust valve guides in particular are subject to a great deal of heat and wear - more so than intake valves. (N.T. 1/26/17, 17-18, 87). He stated that his examination of the accident aircraft's engine showed extensive damage in that holes had been punched through the top of the crank case in multiple locations, and that he observed cracking and evidence of catastrophic failure from the engine's external side. (N.T. 1/25/17, 126, 128). He said it was obvious from his first look at the No. 2 cylinder, that there had been a “major catastrophic destruction of the Number 2 piston” and “[t]here [we]re some more components of that piston that were all found in the bottom of the oil pan and throughout the engine.” (N.T. 1/25/19, 128).

         Mr. Sommer further testified:

“What the metallurgical examination showed was that there was evidence of fatigue on this fracture, meaning that as the valve was riding up and down inside the cylinder ... the valve got crooked because of wear that was found between the valve guide and the valve system. So as the valve gets crooked, it starts to bang up against the valve seat, which is the area where it seals, and eventually broke the head off of that valve. Once the head broke off, it's rolling around inside the cylinder while the piston is traveling up and down inside there at 22 times per second. ... The inside of the cylinder is all destroyed and beat up and damaged from the pieces of the piston and also the head of the valve that was rolling around inside there. So that resulted in a lot of catastrophic destruction inside the engine. As one piston becomes destroyed, the ... Number 2 connecting rod was very heavily damaged, and actually was torn off of the crankshaft. It beat into the side of the crankshaft. It punched a hole into the side of the case. It broke the connecting rod bolt off.
So all the other damage that we saw was a result of the destruction of the Number 2 piston. The destruction of the Number 2 piston was the result of the failure of the Number 2 exhaust valve head, and the Number 2 exhaust valve head was a failure of the Number 2 exhaust valve. The wear that had occurred on that valve guide - sorry, caused the failure which then cascaded to the destruction of the rest of the engine.”

(N.T. 1/25/17, 128-131). Finally, Mr. Sommer conclusively attested: “My analysis revealed that we had a broken guide because the guide was soft. The broken guide caused a broken valve, which broke the engine.” (N.T. 1/26/17, 100).

         In addition to Mr. Sommer's testimony, William Carden said that he too observed two cracks in the Number 2 exhaust valve guide from the top of the valve guide down into and along the right hand side of the guide. He found these cracks to be very flat rather than rough, demonstrating that the initial fracture occurred and separated the top of the valve guide, and then the valve guide began rubbing on top of itself or hammering itself flat. (N.T. 2/1/17, 126-131). Mr. Carden also saw fatigue striations in the course of his examination of the No. 2 exhaust valve guide. These striations, which appear as ridges or lines, are indicative of fatigue cracks that propagate incrementally over a period of time. (N.T. 2/1/17, 135-137). Instead of breaking all at once in a sudden failure like an overload event, a fatigue crack begins as a tiny crack which results at lower loads but incrementally grows and moves forward as material is repeatedly loaded and unloaded generating the striations. Eventually, a break can occur such as happened in this case where the valve guide broke and rubbed on top of itself producing the flat areas which were observed. (N.T. 2/1/17, 136-137).

         Mr. Carden also testified that he took measurements of the exhaust valve guides, including the inner diameters, in the accident aircraft's engine using a coordinated measuring machine and touch probe. (N.T. 2/1/17, 113-115, 121). He found that the inner diameter of the No. 2 exhaust valve guide was very large, especially at the opening into the barrel but was much smaller at the top than it was at the bottom and was much larger than the rest of them. He also noted that there was quite a bit of wear on the bottom parts of the valve guides. (N.T. 2/1/17, 121-123). In measuring the diameter of the valve systems with handheld blade and laser micrometers, Carden found that the clearance of the No. 2 exhaust valve guide was much larger than all of the others and in fact, was some 10 times the maximum clearance of the return to service clearance limits of 7/1000 of an inch on the bottom of the guide, such that it was bell-shaped. (N.T. 2/1/17, 124-125). Like Mr. Sommer, Mr. Carden also testified that it is a fundamental engineering concept that hardness and wear are directly related. (N.T. 2/2/17, 22-23).

         And as we noted in our June 28th Memorandum, “additional evidence regarding the sequence of events leading to the engine failure was provided by one of the defense witnesses, Dr. John Morris, an expert in metallurgy, material science and failure analysis.” As this witness observed, everyone agreed as to what the sequence of events leading to the failure was although they disagreed as to what caused that sequence to commence. As the valves, which are situated in the cylinders, open and close, they pass through the valve guide. Dr. Morris explained that as the valves move back and forth,

“there's always going to be some wear. In this case, the wear became very severe rather quickly. As it becomes severe, the valve becomes kind of loose in the valve guide and that creates a much worse mechanical situation because it's vibrating back and forth. When something vibrates back and forth, it creates a cyclic load, which tends to make materials fail in a phenomenon called fatigue. What will happen is that under cyclic loads the ...

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