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From Products Liability Law Daily, January 12, 2017

$11M jury verdict stands up against ladder maker’s appeal

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit refused to overturn a jury verdict in excess of $11 million awarded to a homeowner who suffered a traumatic brain injury when he fell from a ladder, finding that the expert evidence presented on behalf of the homeowner was reliable and supported the jury’s conclusion that a defect in the ladder caused the accident and resultant injury (Baugh v. Cuprum S.A. de C.V., January 11, 2017, Wood, D.).

The homeowner fell off a five-foot A-frame aluminum ladder manufactured by Cuprum S.A. de C.V. while replacing rusty screws in a gutter on his garage. The homeowner’s wife filed a lawsuit on his behalf against Cuprum, alleging a design defect under strict liability and negligence theories. During a second jury trial after remand from the Seventh Circuit based on its finding that the exemplar ladder, which had the same core specifications as the one involved in the accident, had been improperly given to the jury during its deliberations [see Products Liability Law Daily’s September 16, 2013 analysis], experts on both sides attempted to reconstruct the events that led to the collapse because the injured individual had no recollection of the event. The jury found in favor of the homeowner and awarded him $11,142,928.82 in damages. Cuprum filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law on the grounds that there was insufficient proof of the existence of an alternative design and of causation. In the alternative, Cuprum moved for a new trial, arguing that the trial court erred in admitting the homeowner’s design and causation experts. Both motions were denied [see Products Liability Law Daily’s December 29, 2015 analysis] and Cuprum appealed.

Expert evidence. In rejecting the ladder manufacturer’s claim that the trial court’s failure to exclude the homeowner’s design and causation experts provided grounds for a new trial, the Seventh Circuit reviewed the prior rulings on the manufacturer’s motions in limine de novo, finding that the judges in both the first and second trial failed to provide any analysis underlying the qualifications and reliability determinations.

Turning first to the ladder manufacturer’s claim that the methodology underpinning the alternate-design testimony proffered by the homeowner’s design expert was unreliable, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the design expert’s use of centuries-old mathematics principles to analyze stress in a ladder was sufficient to meet the reliability standard, without live testing using an exemplar ladder. In addition, because the design expert applied well-established engineering techniques in formulating his alternative design, any failure to submit his theory for peer review was irrelevant. The Seventh Circuit further commented that although the manufacturer failed to raise his objections to the design expert’s qualifications based on age and lack of experience in the motion in limine, any objections were meritless. The design expert’s education and experience, combined with his authorship of several articles relevant to the design of aluminum step ladders and his reliance on well-established mathematics and engineering principles, established that his qualifications were adequate.

The ladder manufacturer also challenged the testing methodology used by the homeowner’s causation expert, arguing that the expert’s drop test and "cantilever bend" test did not conform to or exceeded the standards set by ANSI for those tests. However, the manufacturer failed to show how any deviation from the ANSI methodology or testing requirements went to reliability. The Seventh Circuit also rejected the manufacturer’s attempt to bar the causation expert from testifying about the accident and the ladder’s design on the ground that he lacked the requisite factual knowledge needed to support his conclusion. The causation expert had relied on photographs of the scene of the accident with overlaid measurements, transcripts of deposition testimony supplied by witnesses to the aftermath of the accident, the actual ladder that the homeowner had used, and an exemplar ladder. This information provided the causation expert with enough facts to render his opinion. Furthermore, the mere fact that the expert could not testify about certain facts relating to the accident with absolute certainty did not render his opinions unreliable or irrelevant.

Because there was no error in admitting the testimony of these two experts, there were no grounds for a new trial, the Seventh Circuit concluded.

Design defect. In arguing that the homeowner failed to prove the existence of a feasible, alternative design, a "frequent prerequisite for liability under the risk-utility test" upon which the homeowner premised the design defect claims, the manufacturer relied on the same arguments raised—and rejected—regarding the admissibility of the homeowner’s design expert. Those arguments having been rejected, the manufacturer was left with its contention that its own expert had relied on superior methodology in concluding that the ladder did not contain an unreasonably dangerous condition. Based on the design expert’s adequate explanation as to why the ladder failed, it was not unreasonable for the jury to have found his testimony more convincing in entering a verdict in the homeowner’s favor.

Causation. Similarly, a rational fact finder could conclude, based on the evidence, that the alleged defect in the ladder—that it was not designed to adequately support individuals weighing at or near 200 pounds—and not ladder misuse was the most probable cause of the accident. The testing conducted by the causation expert provided a sufficient basis for the jury to conclude that the damage to the ladder itself most likely occurred while the homeowner was using the ladder properly. In addition, there was no evidence to support the manufacturer’s theory that the ladder had been moved after the accident in order to comport with the homeowner’s claim that he had been using it properly or that the homeowner had straddled the ladder instead of using only the rungs designated for standing.

Finding that the homeowner’s experts had provided plausible theories to support the jury’s finding that the ladder’s design was defective and that the defect had caused the accident and resulting injuries, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the manufacturer was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law, thus affirming the jury’s verdict.

The case is No. 16-1106.

Attorneys: David C. Wise (Burke, Wise, Mahoney & Kaveny) for John Baugh. Melissa A. Murphy-Petros (Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP) for Cuprum S.A. de C.V.

Companies: Cuprum S.A. de C.V.

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