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Williams v. The Coleman Company, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

July 6, 2015

BRANDON WILLIAMS, a minor suing by and through his legal custodian, guardian, and next friend, BLAINE BREASEALE, Plaintiff,


KARON OWEN BOWDRE, Chief District Judge.

In 2009, a boating accident severed six-year-old Plaintiff Brandon Williams' foot. The accident involved a Monster Mania tube, a towable boating tube. Following the accident, Williams, through his legal custodian, brought suit against the Coleman Company Inc., Polyama Plastic Industrial Ltd., and Zhongshan Pleasure Time Plastic Industrial Ltd. In his complaint, Williams asserts product liability claims against the Defendants for strict liability (Count I), negligence, (Count II), breach of warranty of merchantability (Count III), and breach of implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose (Count IV).[1]

This matter comes before the court on the Coleman Company's "Motion for Summary Judgment" (doc. 85), in which Polyama and Zhongshan join (doc. 88), and on the Defendants' joint "Motion to Strike Plaintiff's Expert John C. Frost" (doc. 87). Also before the court is Polyama and Zhongshan's separate "Motion for Summary Judgment Specific to Count II." (Doc. 89). For the reasons discussed below, this court will DENY all of the Defendants' motions.

I. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is an integral part of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Summary judgment allows a trial court to decide cases when no genuine issues of material fact are present and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. When a district court reviews a motion for summary judgment, it must determine two things: (1) whether any genuine issues of material fact exist; and if not, (2) whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

In reviewing the evidence submitted, the court must "view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden, " to determine whether the nonmoving party presented sufficient evidence on which a jury could reasonably find for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 254 (1986); see Cottle v. Storer Commc'n, Inc., 849 F.2d 570, 575 (11th Cir. 1988). "If reasonable minds could differ on the inferences arising from undisputed facts, then a court should deny summary judgment." Allen v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 121 F.3d 642, 646 (11th Cir. 1997) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). This is because "the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). However, if the evidence is "merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted).

After both parties have addressed the motion for summary judgment, the court must grant the motion if no genuine issues of material fact exist and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56.

II. Factual Background

The Production of the Monster Mania Tube

The Monster Mania tube is an inflatable donut-shaped tube designed and distributed by the Coleman Company for recreational tubing. Although the Coleman Company designed the Monster Mania tube, it does not manufacture it. Instead, the Coleman Company contracted with Polyama for production of the Monster Mania tube and provided Polyama with the design specifications for the tube as well as the tube's warnings. Polyama then filled the Coleman Company's order by contracting with Zhongshan to manufacture the Monster Mania tube. Zhongshan manufactured the tubes using the Coleman Company's specifications and attached the warnings designed by the Coleman Company. The tubes then passed from Zhongshan to Polyama to the Coleman Company before ultimately being sold to consumers.

The Accident

On the 4th of July, 2009, six-year-old Brandon Williams went boating with his family on Lake Guntersville. Barry Bush, the owner of the boat, had purchased a Monster Mania tube the day before and intended to treat his family and friends to a day tubing on the lake. After inflating the tube, Mr. Bush decided to tow the tube to the middle of the lake before having any rider climb aboard. Mr. Bush attached one end of a sixty-foot tow line to the plastic cleat on the front of the tube and the other end of the rope to the tow cleat on the back of the boat. Because he did not want the tube trailing sixty feet behind his boat as he navigated through the boat traffic, Mr. Bush pulled the tube within a few feet of the back of the boat and tied the tow rope to a wooden railing, coiling the excess rope on the floor. After tying the rope off, Mr. Bush piloted the boat toward the center of the lake, pulling the Monster Mania a few feet off the back of the boat.

As the boat picked up speed and began to plane, the Monster Mania pitched in the air, landing upside-down in the boat's wake. When the top of the tube contacted the water, the Monster Mania broke free from where it had been tied to the wooden rail, and the tow rope, still attached to the tube, began to quickly unravel as the boat sped away. Williams had been riding in the back of the boat and attempted to avoid the rope as it quickly unraveled. Unfortunately, the rope became tangled around Williams' leg and jerked Williams into the air, pulling him toward the boat's rear railing. As it became taut, the rope pulled Williams into the gap between the railing and the boat, severing his foot in the process. Williams' family rushed him to the hospital, but his foot could not be saved. A later inspection of the boat revealed that a steel fastener that attached the wooden railing to the boat had been bent to the point of failure, partially detaching the wooden railing from the boat.

The Investigation

Following the accident, Williams hired Safety Engineer John C. Frost to evaluate the events leading up to his accident to determine how the accident could have been avoided. Mr. Frost first inspected the boat's condition and reviewed the accounts of the accident from passengers who had been on the boat. After doing so, Mr. Frost developed a hypothesis that the Monster Mania tube created significantly greater drag forces when towed in an inverted position. The additional drag on the rope wrenched one end of the wooden railing from the boat, allowing the tow line to slip free.

Having developed a theory of the accident, Mr. Frost then set out to test whether his hypothesis was correct. In his first test, Mr. Frost pulled a Monster Mania tube behind the boat at various speeds in both the correct and inverted positions. During this initial test, Mr. Frost did not use any equipment and simply grasped the tow line to determine whether the drag increased when the tube was pulled in different positions and at different speeds. Following his initial test, Mr. Frost concluded that the tube created more drag when towed in an inverted position.

Mr. Frost subsequently returned to the lake two additional times to perform further testing. In each of the subsequent tests, Mr. Frost followed the same approach as the first test except that he incorporated a dynamometer into the tow line to measure the forces placed on the rope. The dynamometers that Mr. Frost used on the tests connected to a handheld device that gave a live readout of the forces placed on the rope. During the tests, Mr. Frost would watch the readout and wait until it settled into a range of numbers. He would then record and average those numbers to calculate the average strain placed on the rope at each speed. After conducting the tests, Mr. Frost included the averaged numbers in his expert report.

The result of Mr. Frost's testing confirmed his hypotheses. In his report, Mr. Frost explains that the drag forces created by the Monster Mania when it flipped over on the day of the accident increased from approximately 40 pounds to more than 500 pounds, dramatically increasing the strain on the railing where the rope had been tied. Mr. Frost believes that but for the increased strain on the rope, the railing would not have been wrenched free and the accident would not have occurred.

Mr. Frost's report identifies two major design defects of the Monster Mania tube. First, Mr. Frost found that because of the location of the tube's tow handle-the strap sewn onto the tube to which the tow line is attached-the tube would be pulled down into the water when inverted. Mr. Frost found that if the tow handle had been attached to the centerline of the tube instead of to the bottom portion of the tube, the tube would have skimmed over the water when towed in an inverted position rather than causing ...

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