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Costanza v. Vulcan Ladder Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

December 5, 2016




         This matter is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 47] and the Motion to Exclude Opinion Testimony of Charles Proctor [ECF No. 52], filed by the Defendant, Vulcan Ladder Company. The Plaintiff, Joseph Costanza, filed a Complaint [ECF No. 1] in Allen County Superior Court against the Defendant on July 5, 2013, alleging claims of strict liability and negligence after he fell off the Defendant's 17-foot multiposition ladder. On September 11, 2013, the case was removed to federal court. [ECF No. 6.] After discovery concluded, the Defendant filed the Motion and a Memorandum in Support of Summary Judgment on July 15, 2015, [ECF No. 48]. On July 16, 2015, the Defendant filed its Motion to Exclude Opinion. On March 31, 2016, the Plaintiff filed a Response to the Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 64], and in addition filed a Motion for Hearing [ECF No. 66]. On April 15, 2016, the Defendant filed a Reply [ECF No. 68]. On June 9, 2016, the Plaintiff filed its Response to the Motion to Exclude [ECF No. 74]. The Defendant filed its Reply [ECF No. 75] on June 17, 2016. On June 8, 2016 this court held a Motion Hearing [ECF No. 76]. Both Motions are now ripe for ruling.


         This case arises from an accident involving a Vulcan ES-17T1A-SM 17-foot multipositional, "extendable articulating" ladder manufactured by the Defendant, a foreign corporation or LLC, that the Plaintiff, a resident of Fort Wayne, Indiana and retired firefighter, purchased by a Menards near his home on July 1, 2012. Menards, Inc. was dismissed as a party from this suit earlier during the proceedings.

         The ladder comes in a folded-in-half, compact storage position, and can be rotated into two working positions for use as either a stepladder (an "A-frame") or as a straight ladder. In order to pivot the ladder legs into either of these positions, a user must manipulate two central hinges that are located at the top of the ladder when it is in the A-frame position. Each central hinge contains a locking mechanism-called a locking block-that is designed to prevent the hinges from pivoting the ladder legs between positions when the locks are engaged.

         By way of example, if the ladder is in the compact folded-in-half position and a user disengages the central hinge locks, when the user rotates the ladder legs outward away from each other, spring pressure will eventually lock the legs in the stepladder A-frame position. A user must then disengage the hinge locks a second time to pivot the legs from the stepladder A-frame position to the straight ladder position, in which the hinge locks are designed to again engage. If a user disengages the locks a third time, the user will be able to fold the ladder from its straight position 180 degrees back to its folded-in-half compact position, without the locks reengaging.

         To disengage the hinge locks, a user must depress with a degree of force a knob-like button on the outside of each central hinge. When the two locking blocks reengage, these knoblike buttons spring up from the central hinges. The hinge locks also provide audible "clicking" noises at two different points when a user rotates the ladder: a click right before and another click right as the locking blocks engage.

         The ladder also has two sliding outer ladder assemblies (when viewed from the A-frame) that provide additional length from the primary inner-assembly to which the central hinges are attached. These two outer assemblies are each held in place by two J-hook locks that are used to lock the outer ladder assembly to a user's desired position relative to the inner assembly.

         The ladder comes with instructions for how to engage and disengage the hinge locks. The written portion of the instructions appears in two locations, one on the "point of sale" label that is attached to the ladder and the other on a sticker placed on a rail of the ladder. The point of sale instructions read in part:

Extension Ladder: (a) Unlock the two rail locks on top and slide rail to one-half desired height. Relock the two rail locks, (b) Flip ladder over and repeat for other side, (c) Pull two rail sections away from each other until hinge locks click into first locked position, (d) Push in hinge locks and continue pulling rails apart until ladder is completely opened and hinge locks click into upright position for use. (e) Put ladder into upright position for use. (f) Reverse procedures to fold ladder.

(Proctor Report 3, ECF No. 52-3.) The sticker instructions read, "Hinge Locks - Pull two rail sections away from each other until the hinge locks click automatically in place." (Id.) In addition, the instructions contain a visual depiction of the hinge locks in their locked and unlocked positions, which appear on the point of sale label and a sticker on a rail of the ladder. This visual is below:

         (Image Omitted.)

(Mot. for Summ. J. 6, ECF No. 48.)

         After the Plaintiff purchased the ladder, he brought it to his home, where later that same day he attempted to use it as a straight ladder in order to climb onto the roof of the home from the backyard deck. The deck was outfitted with a trellis roof-a wooden structure with slats above the deck. In positioning the ladder, the Plaintiff sought to climb through the trellis roof and positioned the ladder accordingly to do so. After he unfolded the ladder, the Plaintiff began climbing it until he was close to the roof line. The Plaintiff put his tool belt onto the roof. When the Plaintiff began to step onto the roof, he fell.

         The Plaintiff lost consciousness as a result of the fall. When he regained consciousness, he discovered that his legs were entangled in the ladder, which was in its folded position. Shortly after the fall, the Plaintiffs son arrived at the Plaintiffs house and took photographs, which showed that the ladder had been in its folded position. The Plaintiff suffered bilateral fractures to his lower legs, requiring surgeries, complications due to infection, and confinement to hospitals and nursing home facilities for a sustained period of time.

         The Plaintiff alleges the accident occurred because when he positioned the ladder, the hinge locks did not engage, even though he had positioned the ladder in its straight position. The Plaintiff alleges that he thought the hinge locks had engaged because the visual depiction and instructions indicated to him that the ladder would lock after hearing one set of clicking noises, and not two.


         A. Motion to Exclude

         The Plaintiff offers the expert opinion testimony and accompanying report of Dr. Charles Proctor, II, a licensed professional engineer (P.E.) with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, and his engineering firm, Proctor Engineering Research & Consulting, Inc. The Defendant asks the Court to exclude the opinion of Proctor pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 702. The Defendant contends that Proctor's expert opinion lacks foundation and that its own expert, Jon Ver Hal en, demonstrated Proctor's opinions are incorrect.

         1. Rule 702 and Daubert Standard

         The admissibility of expert testimony is governed by Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and the Supreme Court's opinion in Daubert v. MerrellDow Pharmaceutical, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Lewis v. CITGO Petroleum Corp., 561 F.3d 698, 705 (7th Cir. 2009). Rule 702 charges trial judges with the responsibility of acting as "gatekeeper[s] with respect to testimony proffered under Rule 702 to ensure that the testimony is sufficiently reliable to qualify for admission." Mihailovich v. Laatsch, 359 F.3d 892, 918 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999)). "The purpose of [the Daubert] inquiry is to vet the proposed testimony under Rule 702's requirements that it be 'based on sufficient facts or data, ' use 'reliable principles and methods, ' and 'reliably appl[y] the principles and methods to the facts of the case.'" Lapsley v. Xtek, Inc., 689 F.3d 802, 804 (7th Cir. 2012) (quoting Fed.R.Evid. 702). In evaluating whether an expert's proposed testimony meets the Daubert standard, the court is to "scrutinize the proposed expert witness testimony to determine if it has 'the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field' so as to be deemed reliable enough to present to a jury." Lapsley, 689 F.3d at 805 (quoting Kumho Tire, 526 U.S. at 152). Whether to admit expert testimony rests within the discretion of the district court. See Gen. Elec. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 142 (1997); Lapsley, 689 F.3d at 810 ("[W]e 'give the district court wide latitude in performing its gate-keeping function and determining both how to measure the reliability of expert testimony and whether the testimony itself is reliable.'") (quoting Bielskis v. Louisville Ladder, Inc., 663 F.3d 887, 894 (7th Cir. 2011)). "The proponent of the expert bears the burden of demonstrating that the expert's testimony would satisfy the Daubert standard" by a preponderance of the evidence. Lewis, 561 F.3d at 705; see also Fed. R. Evid. 104(a) ("The court must decide any preliminary question about whether a witness is qualified."). Under Rule 104(a), the proponent has the burden of establishing that the pertinent admissibility requirements are met by a preponderance of the evidence."

         District courts apply the Daubert framework using a three-part analysis. Myers v. III. Cent. R.R. Co., 629 F.3d 639, 644 (7th Cir. 2010). First, the Court must determine whether the proposed witness is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education. If so, the Court must then decide whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the expert's testimony is reliable. If these two requirements are met, the Court must assess whether the expert's proposed testimony will assist the trier of fact in understanding the evidence or to determine a factual issue. See Id. (citing Ervin v. Johnson & Johnson, Inc., 492 F.3d 901, 904 (7th Cir. 2007)).

         "Although the court must decide questions of admissibility, the weight and credibility to be accorded expert testimony is properly left to the jury." Contractor Util. Sales Co. v. Certain-teed Prods. Corp., 638 F.2d 1061, 1085 n.32 (7th Cir. 1981). The Defendant will have the opportunity to expose those weaknesses at trial and, as the court in Daubert stated, "[v]igorous cross-examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof are the traditional and appropriate means of attacking shaky but admissible evidence." Daubert, 509 U.S. at 596.

         2. Analysis

         a. Objections to Proctor's Testimony Regarding the Accident, ...

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