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Davis v. Trane U.S. Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

December 12, 2019

Kyle & Betty Davis, Plaintiffs,
Trane, U.S., Inc., Defendants.

          Elizabeth A. Stafford U.S. Magistrate Judge

          OPINION AND ORDER ON MOTIONS IN LIMINE [136, 138, 139, 141, 142, 143, 144, 145, 146, 147, 148, 161]


         Kyle Davis was an employee of a contractor tasked with moving an approximately five-ton commercial chiller into Wayne Memorial High School on March 30, 2012. The chiller fell over during installation, crushed Mr. Davis, and rendered him a quadriplegic.

         Plaintiffs, Kyle Davis and his wife Betty Davis, brought this products liability suit on March 26, 2015 to recover damages from the allegedly dangerous design of the chiller, which was a Model RTWD Series R 70-250 ton water-cooled helical and rotary chiller manufactured by Defendant Trane, U.S., Inc. [Dkt. # 1]. Before the Court are 12 motions in limine brought by both Plaintiffs [136, 138, 139, 141, 142, 161] and Defendant [143, 144, 145, 146, 147, 148]. A hearing was held on November 26, 2019, and all but one of these motions were taken under advisement.

         Standard of Review

         “Orders in limine which exclude broad categories of evidence should rarely be employed.” Sperberg v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 519 F.2d 708, 712 (6th Cir. 1975). The court should exclude evidence in advance of a trial only when evidence is clearly inadmissible on all potential grounds. Indiana Ins. Co. v. Gen. Elec. Co., 326 F.Supp.2d 844, 846 (N.D. Ohio 2004) (citing Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41 n. 4 (1984)). Unless movant makes such a showing, evidentiary rulings should be made in trial, so that “questions of foundation, relevance and potential prejudice can be resolved in proper context.” Id. The denial of a motion in limine, therefore, creates no guarantee that the evidence at issue will be admitted at trial. Id.


         I. Defendants' Motions

         Defendant's Motion in Limine To Exclude Dissimilar “TIM Tickets” and Other Incident Evidence [146] and Defendant's Motion to Exclude Quebec Installation Video [147]

         Plaintiffs bring this products liability suit under several theories of negligence: negligent design, negligent failure to warn, implied warranty, express warranty, and negligent misrepresentation. They have also alleged gross negligence and willful disregard. At issue is whether evidence of other similar incidents (“OSI”) is admissible to prove negligent design. OSI evidence may also be admissible to prove gross negligence or willful disregard where previous accidents are alleged to have provided Trane with notice of the chiller's dangerous design.

To prove a design defect under Michigan law, a plaintiff must show that the product was “not reasonably safe for its foreseeable uses” and that a “risk-utility analysis” favored a safer design. Under this approach, a plaintiff must show that (1) the product was not reasonably safe when it left the control of the manufacturer; and (2) a “feasible alternative production practice was available that would have prevented the harm without significantly impairing the usefulness or desirability of the product to users.”

Croskey v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 532 F.3d 511, 515-16 (6th Cir. 2008) (quoting M.C.L. 600.2946(2)).

         The first of the six factors under Michigan's risk-utility doctrine is “that the severity of the injury was foreseeable by the manufacturer.” Id. OSI evidence may therefore goes not only to the danger of the chiller's design, but also to the question of whether “the manufacturer exercised reasonable care in making the design choices it made.” Prentis v. Yale Mfg. Co., 421 Mich. 670, 688, 365 N.W.2d 176 (Mich. 1984).

         Whether the jury's inquiry into this matter will incorporate OSI evidence will depend on whether Plaintiff can prove that those incidents are truly similar. Federal Rules of Evidence 401 & 403 require evidence introduced at trial to meet minimum standards of relevancy. With that in mind, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has found that other similar incidents must be “substantially similar” to the one at issue to be admissible. Surles ex. Rel. Johnson v. Greyhound Lines, Inc., 474 F.3d 288 (6th Cir. 2007) (quoting Rye v. Black & Decker Mfg. Co., 889 F.2d 100, 102 (6th Cir.1989)). “Incidents which ‘occurred under similar circumstances or share the same cause' can properly be deemed substantially similar.” Id. For instance, in a case where a railing on the fourth floor of a stairwell gave way, evidence that the railing on the third floor almost gave way when a worker leaned against it is admissible.

Such evidence is relevant as tending to show the dangerous condition of the premises, and [Defendant's] knowledge of such condition, if it relates to an occurrence which happened under substantially the same conditions at substantially the same place as the accident in suit and at a time not too remote therefrom.

New York Life Ins. Co. v. Seighman, 140 F.2d 930, 932 (6th Cir. 1944).

         Defendants challenge the admissibility of evidence of 29 incidents that Plaintiffs maintain are substantially similar to the March 30, 2012 accident. Plaintiffs can prove admissibility if the proposed OSI either a) occurred under similar circumstances, or, b) shared the same cause, as the incident for which damages are sought.

         The first grouping of other similar incidents can be found in Plaintiff's exhibits of TIM Tickets. Trane produced records in a system called Trane Interaction Management (“TIM”) for the purpose of determining whether warranties should be honored on damaged products. Plaintiff has proffered 27 “tickets” from this system which record discussions on whether warranties should be honored, and whether repair was possible, for various chillers that were damaged during installation, typically by falling over. Each ticket provides a brief description of what happened and a brief description of the parts of the chiller that were damaged in the fall. Photographs of the damaged components are usually attached. One of those TIM Tickets refers to the “Quebec Installation, ” where a video is also available of an RTWD chiller tipping over in a loading bay while a man is doing something behind it that is not visible from the video.

         Defendant argues that these incidents are not substantially similar, because they occurred under different circumstances and their causality is unknown. Trane has observed that Kyle Davis was supervising employees in an attempt to 1) install 2) a Trane RTWD 250 model chiller 3) on isolator feet 4) by using a tool as a jack to elevate the chiller up in the air from underneath 5) without the use of an overhead lifting support 6) that tipped over during installation. It argues that exceedingly few of these factors can be found in any of the TIM Tickets.

         The Sixth Circuit has cautioned against “too narrowly” defining similar circumstances. Rimer v. Rockwell, 641 F.2d 450, 456 (6th Cir. 1981). The substantial similarity rule does not require that products be identical, but only that there be “substantial similarity among the variables relevant to the plaintiff's theory of defect” Smith v. Ingersoll-Rand Co., 214 F.3d 1235, 1248 (10th Cir. 2000). This rule has been adopted by the Sixth Circuit in Clark v. Chrysler Corp., 310 F.3d 461, 473-74 (6th Cir. 2002) (overruled on other grounds by State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408 (2003)). Relatedly, “the relevance of the evidence will thus depend not only on the character of the evidence itself but on the purpose for which it is offered.” Koloda v. Gen. Motors Corp., 716 F.2d 373, 375 (6th Cir. 1983). Plaintiffs offer several purposes for the other similar incidents:

• To prove the existence of a product defect.
• To prove notice of a hazardous condition.
• To prove indifference towards the risk.
• To prove a plan or a scheme.
• To prove causation.

         Relevancy is the tendency of a fact to prove or disprove the truth of a point in issue. Incidents that do not take place under similar circumstances might still be substantially similar if they share a common cause. Plaintiffs' proffered common cause is the high center of gravity, which makes tip-overs more likely.

         “[A] jury would be far more likely to find that a design is defective if it learns that the alleged defect resulted in a number of accidents.” Rimer, 641 F.2d at 456. Plaintiffs must, therefore, establish a reasonable connection between the alleged defect and the other accidents. If the other accidents were caused by forces not at play in Plaintiffs' accident, they are not relevant.

         In one unpublished Sixth Circuit opinion, a panel held that a plaintiffs' proposed OSI in an exploding barrel firearm case were properly excluded by the district court due to plaintiff's inability to rule out other causes.

Although the other incidents identified by the Plaintiffs involved barrel failures, they could not point to or rule out any cause of those failures. Based on the Plaintiffs' inability to describe the factual circumstances surrounding each failure, the other incidents were properly excluded because there was no showing that they were “substantially similar” to Rodney's accident.

Palatka v. Savage Arms, Inc., 535 Fed.Appx. 448, 460 (6th Cir. 2013); but see Cincinatti Ins. Co. v. Banks, 610 F.Appx. 453, 461 (6th Cir. 2015) (holding that where an insurer claimed that an insured set the fire that destroyed his house, the court did not err by admitting into evidence other house fires that occurred within the same area and time span, even though deeper similarities were not shown).

         Of the 27 TIM Tickets, some are more detailed than others. For instance, the July 2009 Edmonton, AB Incident is given only the one-line description: “chiller was dropped on it's [sic] side.” (Dkt. 146-2). By contrast, the June 2010 Jackson, TN incident provides a more detailed description of how the chiller tipped over after hitting a low spot in the mechanical room while being wheeled on castors. (Id.). Defendant has not established that no witness could capably testify that at least some of the chiller tip-overs described in the TIM Tickets occurred because of a high center of gravity. If Plaintiffs fail to demonstrate either similar circumstances or similar cause at trial for any given TIM Ticket, the evidence will be excluded as irrelevant. That is not a determination that can be made, however, until it is clear exactly how the witnesses characterize the circumstances and causality of the OSI.

         Defendants also argue that the TIM Tickets are hearsay. Rule 801 of the Federal Rules of Evidence provides that a statement is not hearsay if it is offered against a party and “was made by the party's agent or employee within the scope of that relationship and while it existed.” Fed.R.Evid. 801(d)(2)(D). This is not to say that every statement that appears within every ...

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