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Knecht v. Balanescu

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

October 30, 2017

MATTHEW KNECHT, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREI BALANESCU, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          KAROLINE MEHALCHICK UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Before the Court are twelve motions in limine filed by the parties in anticipation of trial. In addition to briefing, the Court held oral argument on the motions during the October 2, 2017 pretrial conference.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         As the Court writes primarily for the parties, the background and history are limited to the immediately relevant circumstances of the pending motions. On October 28, 2015, Plaintiff Matthew Knecht and Defendant Andrei Balanescu were both travelling west on I-80 near Turbot Township, PA. (Doc. 17, ¶ 14). Balanescu was operating a tractor-trailer, delivering a load to a customer of Newburg Egg, while Knecht drove his father's Ford Focus. The tractor was owned by Hudson Truck Leasing LLC, and leased to Izzy Trucking Inc. The trailer was owned by JILCO Equipment Leasing Co. Inc., and leased to Newburg Egg.

         Many of the facts and theories surrounding the accident remain in dispute. Knecht asserts that Balanescu's tractor-trailer struck him from behind, causing the accident that resulted in Knecht's severe injuries, necessary surgeries, and memory loss. (Doc. 17, ¶ 19). The Defendants, citing the police report created by Trooper Edward Shannon, assert that Knecht passed Balanescu from the right hand lane, lost control of his vehicle, came to a rest perpendicular across the travel lanes, and was struck on the passenger side by Balanescu's truck when Balanescu could not stop in time to avoid the crash. (Doc. 60, ¶ 17-19; Doc. 60-6, at 5). On March 30, 2016, Knecht filed suit against Balanescu, Izzy Trucking, A&B Trucking of Queens Inc., Hudson Truck Leasing, and JILCO, amending his complaint on October 14, 2016 to include Newburg Egg. (Doc. 1; Doc. 17). The Court recently decided several motions for summary judgment filed by all parties. (Doc. 133). As a result, remaining in the case and proceeding to trial are claims by Knecht against Balanescu for recklessness (Count I), Izzy Trucking for recklessness via vicarious liability (Count II), negligent hiring, supervision, and retention (Count III), and negligent entrustment (Count IV), and Newburg Egg for agency/joint venture (Count XIII), negligence and recklessness via vicarious liability (Count XIV), negligent hiring, supervision, and retention (Count XV), and negligent entrustment (Count XVI). Issues of causation, liability, and damages remain disputed.

         II. Standard of Review

         The court is vested with broad inherent authority to manage its cases, which carries with it the discretion to rule on motions in limine prior to trial. See Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41 n.4 (1984); In re Japanese Elec. Prods. Antitrust Litig., 723 F.2d 238, 260 (3d Cir. 1983), rev'd on other grounds sub nom., Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986) (noting that the court exercises its discretion to rule in limine on evidentiary issues “in appropriate cases”). Courts may exercise this discretion in order to ensure that juries are not exposed to unfairly prejudicial, confusing or irrelevant evidence. United States v. Romano, 849 F.2d 812, 815 (3d Cir. 1988). Courts may also do so in order to “narrow the evidentiary issues for trial and to eliminate unnecessary trial interruptions.” Bradley v. Pittsburgh Bd. of Educ., 913 F.2d 1064, 1069 (3d Cir. 1990) (citation omitted). In considering motions in limine, which call upon the court to engage in preliminary evidentiary rulings under Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, the Court begins by recognizing that these “evidentiary rulings [on motions in limine] are subject to the trial judge's discretion and are therefore reviewed only for abuse of discretion . . . . Additionally, application of the balancing test under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 will not be disturbed unless it is ‘arbitrary and irrational.'” Ely v. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., No. 3:09-CV-2284, 2016 WL 454817, at *2 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 5, 2016) (citing Abrams v. Lightolier Inc., 50 F.3d 1204, 1213 (3d Cir. 1995) (citations omitted)); see Bernardsville Bd. of Educ. v. J.H., 42 F.3d 149, 161 (3d Cir. 1994) (reviewing in limine rulings for abuse of discretion).

         The Federal Rules of Evidence can aptly be characterized as evidentiary rules of inclusion, which are designed to broadly permit fact-finders to consider pertinent factual information while searching for the truth. Ely v. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., No. 3:09-CV-2284, 2016 WL 454817, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 5, 2016). The grounds for exclusion of evidence under Rule 403 are described as an exception to the general rule favoring admission of relevant evidence, and by permitting the exclusion of relevant evidence only when its probative value is “substantially outweighed” by other prejudicial factors, the Court's discretion in considering evidentiary rulings should consistently be exercised in a fashion which resolves all doubts in favor of the admission of relevant proof in a proceeding, unless the relevance of that proof is substantially outweighed by some other factors which caution against admission. Ely, 2016 WL 454817, at *3. The rules further provide that relevant evidence is generally admissible. Fed. R. Evid. 402. Evidence is “relevant” if its existence simply has “any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence” and “the fact is of consequence in determining the action.” Fed. R. Evid. 401(a)-(b).

         However, relevant evidence may be excluded “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.” Fed. R. Evid. 403. The balancing test under Rule 403 provides as follows:

[t]he court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.

Fed. R. Evid. 403.

         Federal Rule of Evidence 702 governs the admissibility of expert testimony and requires an expert witness to have "specialized knowledge" regarding the area of testimony. Rule 702 provides:

A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:
(a) the expert's scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

Fed. R. Evid. 702.

         “Rule 702 has three major requirements: (1) the proffered witness must be an expert, i.e., must be qualified; (2) the expert must testify about matters requiring scientific, technical or specialized knowledge [, i.e., reliability]; and (3) the expert's testimony must assist the trier of fact [, i.e., fit].” United States v. Schiff, 602 F.3d 152, 172 (3d Cir. 2010) (alterations in original) (quoting Pineda v. Ford Motor Co., 520 F.3d 237, 244 (3d Cir. 2008)).

         In general, the Federal Rules of Evidence embody a strong preference for admitting any evidence that may assist the trier of fact. Fed. R. Evid. 402. Moreover, Rule 702 in particular "has a liberal policy of admissibility." Kannankeril v. Terminix Int'l, Inc., 128 F.3d 802, 806 (3d Cir. 1997).

         First, an expert is qualified if “the witness possess[es] specialized expertise.” Schneider ex rel. Estate of Schneider v. Fried, 320 F.3d 396, 404 (3d Cir. 2003). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit interprets the qualifications requirement liberally, and notes that “a broad range of knowledge, skills, and training qualify an expert as such.” In re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litig., 35 F.3d 717, 741 (3d Cir. 1994); Betterbox Commc'ns Ltd. v. BB Techs., Inc., 300 F.3d 325, 327-28 (3d Cir. 2002) ("[T]his specialized knowledge can be practical experience as well as academic training and credentials . . . ."). Thus, “it is an abuse of discretion to exclude testimony simply because the trial court does not deem the proposed expert to be the best qualified or because the proposed expert does not have the specialization that the court considers most appropriate.” Holbrook v. Lykes Bros. S.S. Co., 80 F.3d 777, 782 (3d Cir. 1996); see Pineda, 520 F.3d at 244 & n.11 (collecting cases that illustrate the permissive nature of qualifications requirement). “However, at a minimum, a proffered expert witness must possess skill or knowledge greater than the average layman.” Betterbox, 300 F.3d at 328 (quotation omitted).

         The second requirement under Rule 702 is that “the process or technique the expert used in formulating the opinion is reliable.” Paoli, 35 F.3d at 742. Therefore, “the expert's opinion must be based on the ‘methods and procedures of science' rather than on ‘subjective belief or unsupported speculation'; the expert must have ‘good grounds' for his or her belief.”Paoli, 35 F.3d at 742 (quoting Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 590 (1993)). The Daubert court noted that the assessment of whether testimony is based on a reliable foundation is “flexible.” Daubert, 509 U.S. at 594.

         The third and last requirement under Rule 702 is “that the expert testimony must fit the issues in the case.” Schneider, 320 F.3d at 404. This requirement is satisfied where the “expert testimony proffered . . . is sufficiently tied to the facts of the case that it will aid the jury in resolving a factual dispute.” Downing, 753 F.2d at 1242; “Rule 702's ‘helpfulness' standard requires a valid scientific connection to the pertinent inquiry as a precondition to admissibility.” Daubert, 509 U.S. at 591-92. Although the applicable standard for determining “fit” is “not that high, ” it is nonetheless “higher than bare relevance.” Paoli, 35 F.3d at 745.

         As a final note, in performing its gatekeeping function to determine whether an expert's proffer is reliable and relevant under Daubert and Rule 702, the trial court “is not to weigh the evidence relied upon or determine whether it agrees with the conclusions reached therein." Walker v. Gordon, 46 Fed.Appx. 691, 695 (3d Cir. 2002) (not precedential) (citingBreidor v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 722 F.2d 1134, 1138-39 (3d Cir. 1983) ("Where there is a logical basis for an expert's opinion testimony, the credibility and weight of that testimony is to be determined by the jury, not the trial judge.")).

         In keeping with this framework, the Court turns to each of the motions in limine filed by the parties.

         III. Discussion

         A. Motions in Limine deemed unopposed or withdrawn.

         Initially, the Court notes that three of the motions filed by the parties are deemed unopposed based upon the representations made by the parties at oral argument. First, Plaintiff noted on the record that it does not oppose Defendants' motion in limine to preclude evidence or testimony from Dr. Ardo with regard to future medical treatment and associated costs other than chiropractic care. (Doc. 84). Specifically, Plaintiff noted that if Dr. Ardo is called as a witness, she will be called in her capacity as a treating physician. Second, Plaintiff filed a motion in limine to preclude Defendants from offering any evidence or testimony that he was not wearing his seatbelt at the time of the accident (Doc. 100); Defendants noted on the record that they do not oppose this motion. Finally, Plaintiff filed a motion in limine to preclude Defendants' use of “late” rebuttal reports (Doc. 109); Plaintiff indicated on the record that they could “work this issue out” and was not seeking to pursue this motion at this time.

         For these reasons, the Court will GRANT Defendants' motion in limine seeking to limit Dr. Ardo's testimony (Doc. 84), and GRANT Plaintiff's motion in limine seeking to preclude evidence or testimony of Plaintiff not wearing his seatbelt. The Court will deem WITHDRAWN and MOOT Plaintiff's motion regarding the rebuttal reports. (Doc. 109).

         B. Motion in Limine for Spoliation, Seeking Judgment in Plaintiff's Favor, or an Adverse Inference and Reasonable Attorney Fees And Costs (Doc. 92)

         Plaintiff seeks judgment in his favor, or in the alternative, an adverse inference instruction to the jury, and attorney fees and costs, for the alleged failure of Defendants Izzy Trucking, Newburg Egg, and Andrei Balanescu to maintain, preserve and provide certain relevant documentation consistent with the FMCSRs and the laws and rules of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Specifically, Plaintiff submits that, immediately after the crash, he advised all Defendants of their duties with respect to record retention, and further, that during discovery, Plaintiff propounded Requests for Production of Documents upon the Defendants requesting all the documentation identified in the initial spoliation letters. Plaintiff avers that Defendants Balanescu and Newburg Egg failed to provide verified responses at all, and Defendant Izzy Trucking provided verified responses which are in conflict with the sworn testimony and evidence. (Doc. 93).

         In opposition to Plaintiff's motion, Defendant Newburg Egg disputes that it ever had any control over the evidence sought by Plaintiff, as Newburg Egg was not a motor carrier, and therefore not subject to the records retention provisions of the FMSCR, as claimed by the Plaintiff, and as such, the documents sought by Plaintiff were never in Newburg Egg's possession or control. (Doc. 116). Defendants Izzy Trucking and Andrei Balanescu also oppose the motion, providing copies of the verifications produced in response to discovery (Doc. 119-1), and noting that both Israel Newman, the corporate designee for Izzy Trucking, and Balanescu were deposed, during which time numerous exhibits and documents were reviewed.

         The general principles regarding inferences to be drawn from the loss or destruction of one or more documents are well-established in the Third Circuit. Burdyn v. Old Forge Borough, No. 3:12-CV-2236, 2017 WL 382304, at *7 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 26, 2017). “In law, spoliation refers to the hiding or destroying of litigation evidence, generally by an adverse party.” Archer v. York City School District, 227 F.Supp.3d 361 (M.D.PA. Dec. 28, 2016); Williams v. BASF Catalysts LLC, 765 F.3d 306, 320 (3d Cir. 2014) (internal citations and quotations omitted). “In the event that a party undertakes spoilage, the sanctions available to a court include dismissal of the relevant claim or a presumption by the factfinder that the spoiled evidence was harmful to the offending party's case.” Capogrosso v. 30 River Court East Urban Renewal Co., 482 Fed.Appx. 677, 682 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Bull v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 665 F.3d 68, 72-73 (3d Cir. 2012)). “The spoliation inference is a permissive inference that is predicated on the “common sense observation” that when a party to an adversarial proceeding destroys relevant evidence it is likely done out of fear that the evidence would be harmful to that party.” Kounelis v. Sherrer, 529 F.Supp.2d 503, 520 (D.N.J. 2008) (citing Mosaid Techs. Inc. v. Samsung Elec. Co., 348 F.Supp.2d 332, 336 (D.N.J. 2004)).

         Spoliation occurs where (1) the evidence was in the party's control; (2) the evidence is relevant to the claims or defenses in the case; (3) there has been actual suppression or withholding of evidence; and (4) the duty to preserve the evidence was reasonably foreseeable to the party. Bull v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 665 F.3d 68, 73 (3d Cir. 2012). The party asserting that spoliation has occurred has the burden of establishing these elements. See Sarmiento v. Montclair State Univ., 513 F.Supp.2d 72, 94 (D.N.J. 2007), aff'd, 285 Fed.Appx. 905 (3d Cir. 2008); Gentex Corp. v. Sutter, 827 F.Supp.2d 384, 390 (M.D. Pa. 2011). Where a court finds spoliation occurred, it must then determine the appropriate response, and should consider (1) the degree of fault of the party who altered or destroyed the evidence; (2) the degree of prejudice suffered by the opposing party; and (3) whether there is a lesser sanction that will avoid substantial unfairness to the opposing party and, where the offending party is seriously at fault, will serve to deter such conduct by others in the future.” Gentex Corp., 827 F.Supp.2d at 390-91 (M.D. Pa. 2011); citing Schmid v. Milwaukee Elec. Tool Corp., 13 F.3d 76, 79 (1994). “Potential sanctions for spoliation include: dismissal of a claim or granting judgment in favor of a prejudiced party; suppression of evidence; an adverse inference, referred to as the spoliation inference; fines; and attorneys' fees and costs.” Id.; citing Mosaid Techs. Inc. v. Samsung Elecs. Co., Ltd., 348 F.Supp.2d 332, 335 (D.N.J.2004) (internal citations omitted). No adverse inference can be drawn from the mere fact of an inability to produce the records, absent evidence that they were intentionally concealed or destroyed. Fortune v. Bitner, No. CIV. 3:CV-01-0111, 2006 WL 839346, at *1 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 29, 2006); Harding v. CareerBuilder, LLC, No. 05-1934, 2006 WL 460896 (3d Cir. Feb 27, 2006).

         As ruled at the conclusion of oral argument on the motions in limine, the Court does not find that there was intentional destruction or concealment of records by any of the Defendants to the extent such an inference is warranted. As such, the Court will not grant Plaintiff's motion seeking either judgment in his favor or an adverse inference on spoliation at this time. This is without prejudice to the Plaintiff to reiterating his request at such time as the Court considers jury instructions, and dependent upon the record developed at trial.

         C. Motion in Limine to Preclude Evidence of the Alleged Occurrence of a Pursuit Intervention Technique Maneuver (Doc. 86)

         Defendants seek to preclude introduction at trial of any evidence or testimony regarding the alleged occurrence of a pursuit intervention technique (“PIT”) maneuver.

         At the magisterial district court proceeding regarding the citations issued to Plaintiff as a result of the subject accident, Pennsylvania State ...


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