Products Liability Law Daily 8 Justices begin U.S. High Court 2016 term by rejecting 5 products liability-related petitions
Monday, October 3, 2016

8 Justices begin U.S. High Court 2016 term by rejecting 5 products liability-related petitions

On this first Monday in October, the U.S. Supreme Court opened its 2016-2017 session denying certiorari in five pending cases concerning products liability actions.

Kirkbride v. Terex USA, LLCDkt. No. 15-1208.

A construction worker who was injured while trying to dislodge a 19-inch metal "ripper tooth" wedged in the jaws of a rock crushing machine had challenged a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit that overturned a jury award of more than $3.5 million against the machine’s manufacturer. The jury had found the company liable for failure to adequately warn of the machine’s dangers, for defectively manufacturing a critical part inside the machine that had led to the worker's injury, and for breaching an implied warranty of merchantability. The Tenth Circuit, however, found no evidence that the construction worker would have read or heeded a different warning regarding the risk of injury associated with clearing jams from the rock crushing machine; and no evidence to support the worker’s claim that a toggle plate component in the machine contained a manufacturing defect [see Products Liability Law Daily’s August 26, 2015, analysis].

Question presented. In his petition to the U.S. High Court, the worker asked: (1) Whether the specificity requirement [of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a)] permits a jury verdict loser to include sufficiency of the evidence arguments in its Rule 50(b) motion that go beyond the issues raised in its Rule 50(a) motion, and whether compliance with the specificity requirement is excused if the jury verdict loser includes related arguments in its pre-trial motions and/or trial objections? and (2) Whether a jury verdict loser’s failure to comply with the specificity requirement of Rule 50(a) renders an appellate court "powerless" to review a jury verdict loser’s new sufficiency of the evidence arguments?

FCA US LLC v. Center for Auto SafetyDkt. No. 15-1211.

Chrysler Group LLC asked the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve a conflict between the circuits as to whether the "good cause" standard or the more stringent "compelling reason" standard applied to a request by The Center for Auto Safety (CAS) to unseal confidential discovery documents filed by the auto manufacturer in opposition to a motion for a preliminary injunction filed by a putative class of Chrysler vehicle owners who alleged that their vehicles contained defective ignition switches. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had ruled [see Products Liability Law Daily’s January 12, 2016 analysis] that the compelling reason standard should have been applied to CAS’s request because the preliminary injunction motion was more than tangentially related to the merits of the underlying class action. Chrysler argued that the Ninth Circuit’s panel rule was in direct conflict with three other circuits.

Question presented. Whether "good cause" is sufficient to maintain under seal discovery documents governed by a Rule 26 protective order and filed with the court?

Brust v. Delaware River Port AuthorityDkt. No. 15-1529.

A worker employed by the New Jersey Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO) asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision by the New Jersey Appellate Division that products liability design defect and failure-to-warn claims brought against the transit system to recover for his daughter’s take-home asbestos exposure injuries were preempted by the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA) under the doctrine of field preemption. The worker, whose job duties at the transit company included the repair and maintenance of asbestos-contaminated air brake systems on locomotives, filed products liability design defect and failure-to-warn claims against PATCO and various manufacturers of locomotives and locomotive brake shoes, alleging that his daughter’s mesothelioma was a result of secondary exposure to friable asbestos fibers through direct contact with him and while laundering his asbestos-laden work clothing. He also sued various manufacturers and sellers of automobile brakes, claiming that his daughter’s injuries could have been caused by her exposure to asbestos dust created when he replaced the brakes on cars he worked on after hours. PATCO’s motion for summary judgment, which was based on the argument that federal legislation and court precedent preempted state tort claims related to locomotives, was granted sub nom. Brust v. ACF Industries, LLC [see Products Liability Law Daily’s November 20, 2015 analysis].

Questions presented. (1) Is a state tort claim based on the alleged dangerousness of equipment used in the operation of an urban rapid transportation system preempted by the Federal Locomotive Inspection Act, even though these systems and the equipment used in their operations are expressly excluded from federal regulation? and (2) Did the New Jersey courts correctly interpret the Supreme Court’s decision in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products, Inc., ___ U.S. ___, 132 S. Ct. 1261 (2012)?

Roper v. Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Ltd.Dkt. No. 16-51.

Citing a split among the circuits as to when a district court can exclude expert testimony as unreliable under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a motorcycle rider who was injured seriously when the engine on his vehicle stalled asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that affirmed the exclusion of an expert’s testimony as to the cause of the stall. Without the proffered testimony, there was insufficient evidence to raise a jury question as to whether the engine stall was caused by a defect in the voltage regulator, as the rider had alleged, or whether the manufacturer had failed to warn of the risk posed by the voltage regulator. In an unpublished decision, the Eleventh Circuit had affirmed a federal district court in Georgia’s grant of summary judgment for the manufacturer after finding that testimony proffered by the motorcyclist’s expert was unreliable.

Question presented. The petitioner asked the High Court in a civil damages case, when may a district court exclude expert testimony as unreliable for reasons other than the expert’s use of a faulty methodology or principle, especially when the decision to exclude is outcome determinative, thereby denying a plaintiff’s right to a trial by jury guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment?

Kaiser Gypsum Co., Inc. v. CaseyDkt. No. 16-124.

A manufacturer of joint compound and drywall asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the due process considerations of a trial court’s jury instructions on punitive damages as well as a "second jury" deciding only punitive damages on evidence different than that presented to the first jury which determined liability/fault. The California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s rulings and damages assessment and the California Supreme Court declined to review the appellate court’s ruling. A former plumber/pipefitter and his wife filed suit against over 60 defendants based on the plumber’s alleged bystander exposure to an asbestos-containing joint compound manufactured by Kaiser Gypsum Company, Inc. and the plumber’s subsequent diagnosis of mesothelioma of which he died before trial. His wife settled with most defendants, but her claims against Kaiser Gypsum went to trial. The jury found Kaiser Gypsum 3.5 percent comparatively at fault for the plaintiffs’ injuries and awarded approximately $21 million in compensatory damages. The jury, however, could not reach a verdict as to whether Kaiser Gypsum acted with malice, oppression, or fraud. A limited retrial by a second jury on the issue of malice, oppression, or fraud resulted in a $20 million punitive damages award which the trial court reduced to just under $4 million.

Questions presented. The manufacturer asked (1) Does a trial court violate due process when it consciously omits from jury instructions regarding punitive damages two factors the U.S. Supreme Court has held must be considered in assessing the reprehensibility of a defendant’s conduct, particularly where the absence of any evidence of the excluded factors would have strongly militated against a punitive award? and (2) Does it violate due process when a "second jury" that did not decide liability and that is presented different evidence than the first jury determines the entitlement to and the amount of punitive damages, particularly where the second jury is not allowed to know the first jury’s allocation of fault?

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