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From Products Liability Law Daily, January 30, 2017

Discovery limits established in incendiary lawnmower suit

By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.

Ruling on motions to compel discovery in a products liability lawsuit against the manufacturers of a gas-powered lawnmower and its gas tank cap by a man who had sustained serious burns when gas from the mower spewed onto him and ignited after he opened the gas cap to release pressure from the sputtering tank, a Pennsylvania federal court ruled that the injured man and his spouse were entitled to warranty information, testing data, and any other materials evidencing over-pressurization or gas geysering corresponding to similar designs from the tank’s cap manufacturer but not prior claims or litigation involving those similar designs. As to the mower maker, the court limited the scope of discoverable material to similar products sharing the same spurting/igniting attributes with the accident-causing product and to information relating to the manufacture, design, or sale of the subject lawnmower/parts or comparable models/parts dated no earlier than five years before the mower at issue had been made (Fassett v. Sears Holdings Corp., January 27, 2017, Brann, M.).

An individual was seriously burned when gasoline from his powered-down lawnmower sprayed onto his body and ignited after he attempted to loosen the mower’s gas tank cap upon hearing sputtering sounds emitting from the tank and noticing that the tank had visibly expanded. The injured man and his wife filed a products liability lawsuit against the manufacturers of the mower and its gas cap, and discovery progressed until the parties reached an impasse regarding the extent to which material related to gas-cap or lawnmower designs other than the specific designs involved in the accident should be discoverable.

The plaintiffs filed two motions to compel discovery, the first of which sought information from the gas cap maker primarily as to alternative cap designs, while the second sought similar but broader discovery from the mower’s manufacturer (the mower at issue had a so-called open design gas cap, but three other variations of free-venting caps were identified—a screw vent cap, a duckbill cap, and a covered vent cap).

Scope of discovery—gas cap manufacturer. Contrary to the defendants’ assertion that discoverable information should be strictly limited to material that ultimately is relevant or otherwise admissible, the federal procedural standard governing discovery envisions a broader universe than that. The concept of "relevance" as outlined in the amended federal rule is tempered by proportionality, and adherence to the proportionality mandate necessitated the implementation of a sliding scale analysis. Under that scheme, material corresponding to alternative designs or components that exhibit significant similarities to the design or component at issue should be discoverable in the greatest quantities and for the most varied purposes; however, material corresponding to alternative designs or components that share less in common with the contested design or component should be incrementally less discoverable—and for more limited purposes—as those similarities diminish.

In product liability actions alleging negligence and strict liability claims such as the case at bar, the determination of whether a product was negligently designed turns on whether an alternative, feasible, safer design would have lessened or eliminated the injury sustained by the plaintiff. Accordingly, different models of a product are relevant if they share with the accident-causing model those characteristics pertinent to the legal issues raised in the litigation. Furthermore, a plaintiff who raises a design defect claim is entitled to broader discovery than if the claim were solely one of negligent manufacture, so long as the requested materials are truly alternatives and potentially safer.

Therefore, in addition to analyzing the extent to which the sought-after discovery shared those relevant characteristics with the accident-causing component, the following factors were relevant to a determination of the appropriate scope of discovery: (1) the extent to which the contested discovery could achieve the same functionality as the accident-causing part, despite facial design distinctions; (2) the extent to which the contested discovery could be safety tested using the same procedures and standards as would be used for the accident-causing part; (3) whether, compared with the accident-causing part, the contested discovery was an interchangeable component or a distinct system; and (4) the extent to which the moving party has supported its technical assertions with testimony by a witness who possessed adequate knowledge of the design, development, and functionality of the contested components.

Because application of all of the aforementioned factors revealed that warranty information, testing data, and any other materials evidencing over-pressurization or geysering corresponding to each of the four above-mentioned free venting cap designs were relevant to a number of the plaintiffs’ theories, those materials were discoverable so long as they were not work product. However, insofar as the requests for claims and other litigation material in all cases involving every variety of the free venting caps were concerned, the plaintiffs did not meet their burden of showing substantial similarity as to the accidents involving those other designs. Accordingly, although material unprotected by the work product doctrine in prior claims involving the open gas cap design was discoverable, the same was not true of prior claims or litigation involving screw, covered, or duckbill caps.

Scope of discovery—mower manufacturer. In essence, the parties disputed whether having the same gas cap, tank, frame, and general layout were pertinent characteristics for similar products. In that regard, where the alleged injuries stemmed from the geysering and ignition of gasoline, the mower maker’s similar products had to share those attributes with the accident-causing product in order to be relevant to the instant dispute. Ergo, inasmuch as the plaintiffs sought discoverable material on "any other of defendants’ products," their requests were overbroad, unsupported by sufficient technical backing, and out of proportion with the needs of the case.

As for the proper temporal scope of discovery, the plaintiffs’ request for discovery of documents dating back as early as the 1970s appeared to be excessive in light of the fact that the mower at issue had been manufactured in 2005 and purchased in 2007. The tendency of prior courts to follow the so-called "five year rule" was instructive, as modified slightly for application in the products liability setting. Furthermore, in lawsuits where a defendant is alleged to have knowingly designed, manufactured, or sold a defective product when safer, feasible alternatives existed, the temporal bounds of discoveries had to be set not from the date of the accident but from the time period during which the product was manufactured and sold.

Consequently, in the instant case, the discovery period was limited to information and material relating to the manufacture, design, or sale of the subject lawnmower or its parts (or those comparable models and parts) no earlier than January 1, 2000. Accordingly, the plaintiffs’ motions to compel discovery were granted in part and denied in part.

The case is No. 4:15-cv-00941.

Attorneys: Matthew A. Casey (Ross Feller Casey, LLP) for Daniel Fassett. Brian Lowenberg (McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP), Donald H. Carlson (Crivello Carlson, S.C.) and J. David Smith (McCormick Law Firm) for Sears Holdings Corp. and Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Companies: Sears Holdings Corp.; Sears, Roebuck & Co.; Briggs & Stratton Corp.; Briggs & Stratton Power Products Group, LLC

MainStory: TopStory EvidentiaryNews HouseholdProductsNews PennsylvaniaNews

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