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Fassett v. Sears Holdings Corp.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

July 20, 2018

DANIEL FASSETT, et al., Plaintiffs.


          Matthew W. Brann United States District Judge

         There are five motions pending before the Court. The first, a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Kenmore Craftsman Diehard Intellectual Property, LLC (“KCD”), [1] will be granted. The second, a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Bemis Manufacturing Company, [2] will be denied. The third, a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Briggs & Stratton Power Products Group, LLC, [3] will be granted in part and denied in part. The fourth, a Motion to Exclude certain expert testimony, [4] will be denied. And the fifth, a motion to permit the filing of certain supplemental expert testing, [5] will be denied as moot.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On May 16, 2013, Plaintiff Daniel Fassett was moving his lawn when the Craftsman riding lawnmower he was using began to “spit and sputter.”[6] 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.[7] Perhaps hoping to release the pressure, Mr. Fassett began to unscrew the gas cap.[8] As he was doing so, however, fuel from the tank began spraying out.[9] Although he tried to run away, the fuel quickly ignited and Mr. Fassett was grievously injured.[10]

         On May 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).[11] 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.[12]


         A. Briggs's Motion to Exclude the Testimony of the Fassetts' Experts

         Briggs argues that the testimony of Thomas Berry-one of the Fassetts' experts-should be excluded under Federal Rule of Evidence 702.[13]

         According to Mr. Berry's May 1, 2017 report, Mr. Fassett's injuries were caused by “the failure of the [mower's] fuel venting system.”[14] 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.[15]

         To 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.[16]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.”[17] Mr. Berry, however, did not attempt to replicate actual geysering on the test mower;[18] 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.”[19]

         Under Federal Rule of Evidence, this Court has a “basic gatekeeping obligation” to ensure that expert testimony is both relevant and reliable.[20]Relevancy is measured by the testimony's ability to “assist the trier of fact.”[21]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.”[22] 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.”[23]

         Briggs 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.[24] 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.

         B. Briggs's Motion for Summary Judgment

         In its 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.

         Whether the Fassetts Spoliated Evidence

         Briggs argues that the Fassetts spoliated important evidence-namely, the mower-and that, as a result, summary judgment should be granted in its favor.

         After 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.[25] 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.[26] 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.

         In 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.[27] The evidence supports no such finding. Mrs. Fassett declined return of the mower in September 2013, [28] 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.

         Whether Modifications to the Mower Constituted the Superseding Cause of Mr. Fassett's Injury

         Briggs 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.

         In photographs taken by the insurer's engineer, it appears that certain components of the Fassett's mower are missing.[29] 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.[30]

         There 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.[31] 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, ”[32] and it will remain so here. Therefore, this Court will deny Briggs's motion for summary judgment on superseding cause grounds.

         Whether the Fassetts Have Produced Sufficient Evidence to Support their Strict Products Liability Claim

         Briggs 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, [33] defectively manufactured, [34] and accompanied by insufficient warnings.[35] Because a reasonable jury could credit Mr. Berry's opinion-and therefore hold that the mower was defective[36]-summary judgment on this ground will be denied.

         Whether the Fassetts Have Produced Sufficient Evidence to ...

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