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Estabrook v. Mazak Corp.

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

October 22, 2019

BRADLEY A. ESTABROOK, Plaintiff,
v.
MAZAK CORPORATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          HOLLY A. BRADY JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.

         This matter comes before the Court on a slew of filings made by both parties. Currently pending from Plaintiff are his: Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [ECF No. 75] with supporting Brief [ECF No. 76] and Statement of Material Facts; Response in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 86] with supporting Appendix [ECF No. 86-1]; Response to Defendant's Motion to Strike [ECF No. 91]; Motion to Strike [ECF No. 92]; Reply Brief in Support of his Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [ECF No. 93]; Second Motion to Strike [ECF No. 101]; Response to Defendant's Second Motion to Strike [ECF No. 102]; and Reply to Defendant's Response to his First Motion to Strike [ECF No. 103].

         For its part, Defendant's submissions include: Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 78] with supporting Designation of Evidence [ECF No. 79], Statement of Material Facts [ECF No. 80] and Memorandum of Law in Support [ECF No. 81]; Response to Plaintiff's Partial Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 87] with supporting Appendix [ECF No. 88]; Motion to Strike Certain Portions of Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts and Appendix of Exhibits [ECF No. 89] with Supplemental Appendix [ECF No. 90]; Corrected Supplemental Appendix to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and Motion to Strike [ECF No. 94 and 97]; second Motion to Strike Certain Portions of Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts and Appendix of Exhibits [ECF No. 95]; Reply in Support of Summary Judgment [ECF No. 96]; Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Strike and Motion to Consider Defendant's Supplemental Appendix filed as Docket Entry 90 [ECF No. 98]; Motion to Consider Supplemental Exhibits, Statement of Genuine Disputes, and Correct Citation Error [ECF No. 99]; Reply in Support of Pending Motions to Strike [ECF No. 100]; second Reply in Support of Pending Motions to Strike [ECF No. 104]; and Response to Plaintiff's Second Motion to Strike [ECF No. 106]. These filings, which far exceed 1, 000 pages, were all made prior to this matter being reassigned to the undersigned on May 1, 2019. [ECF No. 107].

         During a May 28, 2019, Telephonic Status Conference, the parties asked the Court to withhold ruling on the pending motions while the parties engaged in mediation. [ECF No. 110]. The Court received a letter from the mediator on August 12, 2019 [ECF No. 111], advising that mediation was unsuccessful. In the interim, Defendant sought the recusal of the undersigned due to a more-than-decade-old professional relationship with John Theisen, one of the attorneys representing Plaintiff. [ECF No. 112]. The Court denied that motion on September 11, 2019. [ECF No. 113]. While this matter is now ripe for determination, the Court nonetheless concludes that a ruling is inappropriate currently. For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that this matter presents an issue of state law that is determinative of the case and on which there is no clear controlling precedent. See Ind. App. R. 64. Therefore, it is necessary that the determinative question in this case be certified to the Indiana Supreme Court.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         This matter involves a horrific workplace accident that occurred on November 7, 2014. At the time of the accident Plaintiff, Bradley A. Estabrook, was employed as a maintenance technician by General Products Corporation (“GPC”), an auto parts manufacturer located in Angola, Indiana. Defendant, Mazak Corporation, is a wholly owned subsidiary of a Japanese manufacturer (Yamazaki Mazak Corporation) of Computer Numerically Controlled (“CNC”) machinery. It appears, at least with respect to the machinery at issue, that Defendant acted as the U.S.-based sales and installation service for machinery that was manufactured in Japan.

         The machinery involved in this case is Defendant's Palletech System, a “high-productivity unmanned system” for loading and stocking pallets of manufactured goods. At GPC, the Palletech System was comprised of seven CNC machines, model number FH6800 (the “FH6800s”), sharing a common pallet loader robot that traveled on a rail system between the FH6800s. The floor plan layout of the system looked like this:

         (Image Omitted)

         Installation of the system was completed on July 24, 2003, and was performed entirely by Defendant's employees. The total cost to GPC for the Palletech System was approximately $3.4 million.

         The alleged defect in this case is a gap that is located at the front end of each of the FH8600s. See ECF No. 77-60. The gap is located at the bottom of the loader doors and its purpose is to allow a forklift to “come in underneath the pallet and pick the pallet up.” ECF No. 77-28 at 4. Stated another way, the gap allowed access to pallets on the loader robot as it stopped at each FH8600 via the rail system. While the gap was useful from an access standpoint, it also created a potential “pinch point” when the loader robot passed by. GPC's employees, including Plaintiff, were generally aware of the possibility of a pinch point at the location of the gap but never gave it much thought.

         Beginning in summer 2014, GPC experienced problems with Machine 5, one of the FH8600s in the Palletech System. Both GPC and Defendant made several attempts to fix the issue through the summer and fall. Plaintiff's work on November 7, 2014, was part of these ongoing attempts. Although power to Machine 5 was cut off during Plaintiff's work, the pallet loader robot continued to travel back and forth on the rail system to service the other FH8600s. This was an advertised feature of the Palletech System - the system was designed to continue operating even if one of the CNC machines was inoperable.

         While Plaintiff was working inside of Machine 5, he dropped a wrench he was using for the repairs. As he bent over to retrieve the wrench, his right foot inadvertently went through the gap at the bottom of the loader door on Machine 5. At the same moment the pallet loader robot passed by on the rail system, catching Plaintiff's foot. The damage to Plaintiff's foot was significant, as the foot was nearly sheared off above the ankle.[1] As a result, Plaintiff has undergone several surgeries, the most recent of which was an ankle fusion on January 25, 2017. The only remaining medical option if the fusion fails is the amputation of the foot above the ankle. Plaintiff is not expected to work again.

         WORK PERFORMED ON THE PALLETECH SYSTEM BETWEEN ITS INSTALLATION AND NOVEMBER 7, 2014

         For reasons that will become obvious later in this Opinion, the most contentious issue between the parties is the characterization of work performed on the Palletech System from 2011 through 2014. The actual work performed is undisputed. On December 6, 2011, Defendant performed what its work order described as a “FMS Carrier Rebuild, ” or in layman's terms the replacement of several components on the upper part of the pallet loader robot. This involved: the replacement of the carrier gears and bearings as well as the carrier drive shaft and transmission; replacement of all cam followers, gears, shafts, transmission, and bearings; the installation of new chains; and a re-calibration of the equipment. (See ECF No. 79-6 at 4). The entire Palletech System was down during these repairs, as the robot had to be removed from the tracks and placed on the factory floor to allow better access to the robot. GPC was charged $7, 218.75 for labor and $6, 228.86 in parts for the repairs.

         On January 15, 2013, Defendant replaced the “main computer that runs the whole system.” [ECF No. 77-37 at 23]. The entire Palletech System was down during the installation. GPC was charged $1, 825.00.

         On March 4, 2013, Defendant installed a “digi box” and “digi board” into the main computer to address ongoing issues. ...


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