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Knight v. Deere & Co.

May 11, 2010

SHIRLEY KNIGHT, GUARDIAN AD LITEM, FOR J.S., A MINOR, AND MARLENE AND HOMER FAGAN, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DEERE & COMPANY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garland E. Burrell, Jr. United States District Judge

ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTIONS TO EXCLUDE EVIDENCE

Defendant Deere & Company ("Deere") has filed two evidentiary motions seeking to exclude certain evidence at trial in this products liability case. While not labeled as such, Defendant's motions appear to be, and shall be construed as, motions in limine. Defendant first seeks an order precluding "[Plaintiffs] Homer and Marlene Fagan from introducing evidence regarding the condition of the brakes on the vehicle at issue in this action at the time of the alleged injury" due to Homer Fagan's alleged spoliation of evidence. Defendant also seeks to exclude "the testimony of Plaintiff's expert witness Russell E. Darnell on the grounds that [his opinions] . . . do[] not meet the standards of reliability required by Federal Rule of Evidence 702." Plaintiffs oppose Defendant's motions. A hearing was held on February 22, 2010. For the reasons stated below, Defendant's motions in limine are DENIED.

I. BACKGROUND

This case concerns a fatal accident involving a 1991 John Deere Model AMT 622 Utility Vehicle owned by Homer and Marlene Fagan (the "Vehicle"). On September 3, 2006, Homer and Marlene Fagan were using the Vehicle to lead a pony from their residence in Oak Run, California, to the nearby home of Julie Stevens. (Homer Fagan Depo. 43:25-44:13.) Marlene Fagan was driving the Vehicle while Homer sat on the tailgate, leading the pony. (Traffic Collision Report 10.) While in route to the Stevens' home, Marlene and Homer Fagan encountered Julie Stevens and her daughter walking along the road. (Id.) Julie Stevens climbed into the passenger seat of the Vehicle and Julie's daughter sat on the tailgate with Homer Fagan and they then resumed riding toward the Stevens' home. (Id.) While traveling downhill on Gale Lane, a private gravel road, the Vehicle's brakes failed. (Id.) When Marlene Fagan tried to make a sharp left turn, the Vehicle flipped, throwing Marlene Fagan, Julie Stevens and her daughter to the ground. (Id.) Before the Vehicle flipped, Homer Fagan jumped off the back. (Id.) Julie Stevens landed on an outcropping of rocks, causing fatal injuries. (Id.) Marlene Fagan was partially pinned under the Vehicle and Julie Stevens' daughter sustained a laceration to her left elbow. (Id.)

Three days after the accident, California Highway Patrol Officer Glenn Revheim inspected the Vehicle, which was parked at the Fagans' residence. (Revheim Depo. 21:7-16.) Homer Fagan was present during Officer Revheim's inspection. (Id. 25:2-5.) Officer Revheim detailed his findings in a Traffic Collision Report, stating:

Upon removing the bed of the [V]ehicle, the brake inspection revealed the following:

1.) Right Side Brake: The right inner [brake] disc was dirty and corroded, lacking evidence of proper contact by the brake shoe. Upon depressing the brake pedal and adding power to the rear axle, it was observed that the brake shoes failed to make contact with the disc and allowed the rear axle to rotate.

2.) Left Side Brake: The left side disc showed evidence of recent contact with both inner and outer brake shoe by the smooth, shiny, worn surface on both sides of the disc. There was a bent metal clip extending from the caliper, scraping the outer surface of the disc. Upon depressing the brake pedal and applying power to the rear axle, it was noted that the brake shoes would not apply enough pressure to the disc to prevent the rear axle from rotating. It appeared that the left side brake shoe was missing and the metal clip obviously had something to do with holding the brake shoe in place was now bent and scraping the surface of the disc.

(Traffic Collision Report 8.) Officer Revheim concluded in his report:

[that the] collision was caused by Party #1 (Marlene Fagan) attempting to negotiate a sharp left curve in the road at an unsafe speed, due to the mechanical failure of [the Vehicle's] left side disc brake, established by statements and inspection of the [V]ehicle's disc brakes . . . .

[T]he brakes had apparently been operating with no apparent problems prior to the collision. It is highly unlikely that, had the brakes not been operational to some degree, Party #1 would not have been able to drive the [V]ehicle from her residence to the location of the collision. Party #1's residence is over one mile from the scene, much of which is traveling downhill. Based on inspection of the brakes, it was evident that they were not maintained as they should have been. This conclusion was reached by visual inspection of the right disc, which was caked with dirt/corrosion, and obviously had not been in contact with the brake shoe for some time. Essentially, it was determined that the [V]ehicle had been stopping with only the left side disc brake for sometime. It was this brake that failed and resulted in the collision.

(Id. 13.)

Homer Fagan gave deposition testimony on June 12, 2009, that after Officer Revheim's inspection was completed, he replaced the braking mechanisms in the Vehicle, which included removing the brake discs and pads that were in the Vehicle at the time of the accident. (Fagan Depo. 112:15-117:17.) He placed the brake parts he removed on a shelf behind his house. (Id. 117:2-17.) However, Homer Fagan no longer has these parts and does not know what happened to them. (Id. 117:18-118:1.) The last time Homer Fagan saw the brake parts was approximately six weeks after the accident. (Id. 117:22-24.) After he made these repairs, Homer Fagan continued to use the Vehicle on his property. (Id. 33:9-12.)

In July 2008, Homer and Marlene Fagan and Shirley Knight, the Guardian ad Litem for J.S., separately filed lawsuits against Defendant related to the accident in California Superior Court for the County of Shasta. Defendant removed both actions to this federal court, and the two cases were consolidated before the undersigned judge. Both the Fagans and J.S. allege products liability claims against Defendant. J.S. alleges the Vehicle's breaking system was defective due to the position of the fluid reservoir in relation to the brake pads and braking mechanism on the rear of the Vehicle and the absence of a braking mechanism on the front of the Vehicle. Homer and Marlene Fagan similarly allege the Vehicle was "defective and unsafe in manufacture and design in that a hydraulic cylinder was located above the brake pads and braking mechanism on the passenger rear axle." Defendant disputes that the accident was caused by any defect in the Vehicles's design and contends the accident was the result of the Fagans' negligent maintenance of the Vehicle's brakes.

A representative of Defendant's inspected the Vehicle in April 2009, and determined that the right side brakes were not performing properly. (Fagan Depo. 109:4-110:11.) Homer Fagan then took the Vehicle to a Deere dealership for maintenance in June 2009, where it was inspected by Loren Schneider. (Id. 110:16-22.) Schneider gave deposition testimony that he determined that the Vehicle's right side caliper was not working and he replaced the caliper and the right side brake pads. (Schneider Depo. 22:18-25:1.) Schneider also testified that he noticed that the Vehicle had "a hydraulic leak on [the] ram" and that he "pointed it out to [Homer] Fagan when he picked . . . up [the Vehicle]" and "told him that [the leak] could cause a problem later down the road . . . ." (Id. 27:6-20.) Schneider further testified that he thought the leak was coming from the reservoir that holds hydraulic fluid and that it was "possible" that the reservoir "could leak onto the right rear brake." (Id. 28:9-14.)

III. Defendant's Motion to Exclude Evidence Due to Spoliation

Defendant argues that "[t]he Fagans' failure to maintain the critical evidence of the brake pads that were on the [V]ehicle at the time of the accident" constitutes spoliation of evidence, and the Court should use its inherent authority to preclude the Fagans from "introducing evidence regarding the condition of the brakes at the time of the accident." (Mot. to Exclude Evid. Based on Spoliation 2:24-26, 5:16-17.) Homer and Marlene Fagan counter that they "had no pre-litigation duty to preserve the brakes." (Opp'n to Mot. to Exclude Evid. Based on Spoliation 5:3.) Plaintiff J.S. seeks to join in the Fagans' opposition to Defendant's motion and his request to join is granted.

A. Legal Standard

1. Applicable Law

The parties dispute whether state or federal law governs the spoliation issue in this case. Defendant asserts federal law controls. Plaintiff rejoins that since jurisdiction is premised upon diversity, state law determines whether there has ...


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