United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
DANIEL FASSETT, et al., Plaintiffs.
SEARS HOLDINGS CORPORATION, et al., Defendants.
Matthew W. Brann United States District Judge
are five motions pending before the Court. The first, a
Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Kenmore Craftsman
Diehard Intellectual Property, LLC (“KCD”),
will be granted. The second, a Motion for Summary Judgment
filed by Bemis Manufacturing Company,  will be denied.
The third, a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Briggs
& Stratton Power Products Group, LLC,  will be granted
in part and denied in part. The fourth, a Motion to Exclude
certain expert testimony,  will be denied. And the fifth, a motion
to permit the filing of certain supplemental expert testing,
will be denied as moot.
16, 2013, Plaintiff Daniel Fassett was moving his lawn when
the Craftsman riding lawnmower he was using began to
“spit and sputter.” He took the mower to his garage,
lifted its seat to view the engine, and saw that the
mower's gas tank had expanded far beyond its usual
size. Perhaps hoping to release the pressure,
Mr. Fassett began to unscrew the gas cap. As he was doing
so, however, fuel from the tank began spraying
Although he tried to run away, the fuel quickly ignited and
Mr. Fassett was grievously injured.
13, 2015, Mr. Fassett and his wife Leslie initiated the
instant suit against Defendants. Their Complaint contains
claims for negligence (Count I), strict products liability
(Count II), breach of warranty (Count III), gross negligence,
recklessness, and malice (Count IV), loss of consortium
(Count V), and negligent infliction of emotional distress
(Count VI). On November 9, 2015, Briggs &
Stratton filed a third-party complaint against Bemis
Manufacturing Company-the manufacturer of the mower's gas
cap-for indemnification and contribution.
Briggs's Motion to Exclude the Testimony of the
argues that the testimony of Thomas Berry-one of the
Fassetts' experts-should be excluded under Federal Rule
of Evidence 702.
to Mr. Berry's May 1, 2017 report, Mr. Fassett's
injuries were caused by “the failure of the
[mower's] fuel venting system.” Specifically,
Mr. Berry opines that, as designed, the mower's fuel tank
“receive[d] significant heating from the engine due to
its positioning close to the hot engine components, ”
which led to a dangerous increase in the temperature and
pressure of the gasoline in the tank. Although the tank was
equipped with a cap whose purpose was to vent any excess
pressure, Mr. Berry believes that the cap on Mr.
Fassett's mower did not operate “as intended,
” and that Mr. Fassett's unscrewing of the fuel cap
caused the “heated and pressurized” gasoline
“to be spewed from the” tank.
prepare his report, Mr. Berry conducted testing on a Sears
Craftsman ZT7000 mower-the same model used by Mr. Fassett on
the day of his injuries.The testing revealed that, “if
the gas cap [on that mower] does not allow venting, ”
the gasoline in the tank “can achieve temperatures of
more than 120 degrees [Fahrenheit] and pressures of more than
7 psi, ” which “conditions are sufficient to
cause a geyser or eruption of gasoline from the tank when the
gas cap is loosened.” Mr. Berry, however, did not
attempt to replicate actual geysering on the test
mower; as a result, Briggs argues that Mr.
Berry's testimony should be excluded as
“unreliable” and for “fail[ure] to fit the
facts of this case.”
Federal Rule of Evidence, this Court has a “basic
gatekeeping obligation” to ensure that expert testimony
is both relevant and reliable.Relevancy is measured by the
testimony's ability to “assist the trier of
fact.”Reliability, in turn, depends on whether
the testimony is “based on the methods and procedures
of science rather than on subjective belief or unsupported
speculation.” Both of these requirements are viewed in
light of the “strong and undeniable preference for
admitting any evidence having some potential for assisting
the trier of fact.”
points to no authority showing that an expert must attempt to
replicate a dangerous, potentially life-threatening
phenomenon in order to testify about the possibility of its
occurrence-nor has this Court found any. Therefore,
Mr. Berry's testimony will not be excluded on this
ground. Since Briggs does not take issue with any other
aspect of Mr. Berry's procedures, conclusions, or
opinions, its motion to exclude his testimony will be denied.
Briggs's Motion for Summary Judgment
Motion for Summary Judgment, Briggs argues that judgment
should be granted in its favor (1) because the Fassetts
spoliated evidence after the incident occurred; (2) because
there is some evidence that the Fassetts may have modified
the mower before the date of the accident, which modification
constituted a superseding cause of Mr. Fassett's
injuries; and (3) because there is insufficient evidence to
support the Fassetts claims for strict products liability,
negligence, or breach of warranty.
the Fassetts Spoliated Evidence
argues that the Fassetts spoliated important evidence-namely,
the mower-and that, as a result, summary judgment should be
granted in its favor.
the accident occurred, the Fassetts stored the lawnmower for
some time before sending it to be examined and analyzed by an
engineering firm retained by their insurer. After that
inspection was complete, the insurer offered to return the
mower, but Mrs. Fassett decided that she “didn't
need the memory” and declined to take it
back. As a consequence, the mower was
apparently destroyed. Needless to say, none of the experts
retained by the parties have had the opportunity to examine
the mower in person, and have had to rely on photographs of
it taken by the insurer's engineers.
order to find that the Fassetts spoliated the subject
evidence, this Court must first find that “there has
been actual suppression or withholding of
evidence”-i.e., that the Fassetts “acted
in bad faith” when they chose to dispose of the
mower. The evidence supports no such finding.
Mrs. Fassett declined return of the mower in September 2013,
more than a year and a half before this lawsuit was filed,
and there is no indication that she was preparing for, or
even contemplating, legal action against anyone at that time.
Therefore, this Court will not conclude that she deliberately
“suppress[ed] or with[e]ld” anything from
anyone, and will deny Briggs's motion for summary
judgment on spoliation grounds.
Modifications to the Mower Constituted the Superseding Cause
of Mr. Fassett's Injury
argues that Mr. Fassett's mower was modified prior to the
accident, and that such modifications were responsible for
the overheating of the mower's fuel tank-i.e.,
that such modifications were the superseding cause of Mr.
Fassett's injury, relieving Briggs of its liability.
photographs taken by the insurer's engineer, it appears
that certain components of the Fassett's mower are
missing. These components-identified as a
“shroud” and a “heat shield”-were,
according to Briggs, intended to prevent the transfer of heat
from the engine and the exhaust system. Their removal,
Briggs's argument goes, was unforeseeable, and resulted
in an increased transfer of heat to the Fassett's fuel
tank, which was the actual cause of the accident and Mr.
Fassett's injury. The Fassetts deny making any such
modification to their mower.
are a number of ways a reasonable jury can interpret this
evidence. It could find that the components were missing when
the Fassetts purchased the mower. It could find that the
components were present at the time of purchase but removed
by the Fassetts or someone else (the insurer's engineer,
perhaps). Or, most importantly to this Court, it could find
that the accident would have occurred even if those
components were in place. In any event, the
“determination of whether an act is so extraordinary as
to constitute a superseding cause is normally one to be made
by the jury, ” and it will remain so here. Therefore,
this Court will deny Briggs's motion for summary judgment
on superseding cause grounds.
the Fassetts Have Produced Sufficient Evidence to Support
their Strict Products Liability Claim
argues that the Fassetts have not produced evidence from
which a jury could find in their favor on their strict
products liability claims. However, in his May 1, 2017
report, Mr. Berry concludes that the mower was defectively
designed,  defectively manufactured,  and
accompanied by insufficient warnings. Because a
reasonable jury could credit Mr. Berry's opinion-and
therefore hold that the mower was defective-summary
judgment on this ground will be denied.
the Fassetts Have Produced Sufficient Evidence to ...