By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.
The widow of a man whose farming tractor’s replacement flywheel fractured and fatally injured him was unable to sustain product liability claims against the tractor maker, an Ohio federal court determined, granting summary judgment favoring the tractor maker and rejecting as unsupported the widow’s causes of action for manufacturing and design defects, failure to warn, and nonconformance with manufacturers’ representations (Biehl v. B.E.T. Ltd., February 2, 2018, Jolson, K.).
An individual was killed when his John Deere farm tractor’s recently replaced flywheel blew apart, broke through the clutch housing, and struck him. The deceased man’s widow filed suit against the tractor maker, Deere & Co., and others (collectively "Deere"), asserting that the flywheel housing was defective. The defendants responded by filing a motion for summary judgment on all claims as well as a motion to exclude the testimony of the widow’s engineering expert on the basis that his conclusions were speculative and not based on facts.
Expert witness’ testimony. As a threshold matter, Deere’s motion to exclude the testimony of the widow’s expert was denied. The company did not challenge the expert’s extensive experience and qualifications with power take-off units, drive trains, flywheel operation, and other combustion engine processes; therefore, it was uncontroverted that the expert was qualified to opine on the subject matter in the case.
As for the substance of his testimony under the admissibility standard set forth in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), the widow’s reliance on witness testimony or using process of elimination methods to reach a conclusion did not appear to be the type of "misleading junk science" that the above-mentioned U.S. Supreme Court precedent seeks to curb. Instead, the widow’s mechanical engineer was a qualified expert who offered opinions based on the evidence he reviewed. While he certainly expressed uncertainly as to what caused the accident, that ambiguity did not warrant the exclusion of his opinion; rather, his uncertainty went to the weight of his testimony.
Manufacturing defect. Deere maintained that there was no direct evidence demonstrating that the flywheel at issue deviated from any manufacturing specifications, contending instead that metallurgical testing demonstrated the exact opposite, i.e., that the flywheel’s metal and backing plate were normal. The widow countered that the company’s reliance on the methodology of the metallurgical testing being normal was a disputed fact because not enough sections of the flywheel had been tested, but her argument was disingenuous because the parties previously had jointly agreed on a three-part protocol for the metallurgical testing that ultimately had yielded undisputedly normal results.
As to whether a defect existed in the at-issue flywheel at the time that it left the manufacturer, the widow’s expert failed to eliminate or consider critical, potential causes of injury—namely, potential installation errors and problems with the tractor itself (which had been purchased first in 1972). Thus, even when construing the expert’s report in the widow’s favor, the evidence did not permit reasonable minds to conclude that the cause of her husband’s injury had been a manufacturing defect in the flywheel when the product "left the hands of the manufacturer," because likely potential causes had not been ruled out. Consequently, the widow did not eliminate enough potential causes to support a non-speculative jury finding that the challenged design defect had caused the injuries.
Furthermore, the widow provided no evidence that non-defective flywheels would have performed differently had the other circumstances remained the same—namely, the pump’s high-idle speed settings, the fact that the governor was set well-above maximum specification, and that the tractor was 40 years old. Thus, the widow failed to present circumstantial evidence sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to her alleged manufacturing defect.
Design defect. The widow also failed to introduce evidence sufficient to survive summary judgment on her design defect claim. Her engineering expert did not make the necessary inquiries regarding technically feasible alternatives under Ohio products liability law because he failed to inquire about the foreseeable risks associated with the flywheel’s design or formulation in comparison to the benefits. Without such inquiries, the expert had no legal basis for concluding that Deere’s design choice was defective.
Failure to warn. In addition, the widow failed to create a genuine issue of material fact as to her failure to warn claim because: (1) she did not provide any factual allegations that Deere knew or should have known that a cast-iron flywheel in a farming tractor was at risk of exploding; and (2) she did not allege, nor did her expert offer an opinion on, what type of warnings a manufacturer exercising reasonable care should have provided.
Nonconformance with manufacturers’ representation. Finally, the widow failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact with respect to her claim for failure to conform to a manufacturer’s representation. The tractor maker asserted that no representation had been made, nor had one been identified, in which the vehicle’s flywheel did not conform to any representation. Essentially, the widow argued that Deere’s silence in that regard was the basis for its liability for failure to conform. However, she was unable to provide any case law to support the proposition that the manufacturer’s silence could be construed as a "representation," and the claim could not be sustained without an alleged express representation made by Deere.
Accordingly, summary judgment favoring the tractor maker was granted and the case was terminated.
The case is No. 2:15-cv-2879.
Attorneys: John Edward Triplett, Jr. (Theisen Brock Frye Erb & Leeper) for Amy R. Biehl. John Stephen Teetor (Isaac Wiles Burkholder & Teetor, LLC) for B.E.T., Ltd. Richard T. Coyne (Wegman Hessler & Vanderburg) for John Deere and Subsidiaries and ATI Products, Inc.
Companies: B.E.T., Ltd.; John Deere and Subsidiaries; ATI Products, Inc.
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