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Harris v. The Raymond Corporation

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

December 21, 2018

JASON HARRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
THE RAYMOND CORPORATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This products liability action arises from injuries Jason Harris sustained in an accident while operating an electric pallet jack manufactured by The Raymond Corporation (“Raymond”). Doc. 1-1. Harris contends that defects in the pallet jack caused the accident, and he asserts a claim against Raymond under the Alabama Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine (“AEMLD”). Before the court are Raymond's motion for summary judgment, doc. 30, and motion to exclude the testimony of Harris's expert, Charles E. Benedict, Ph.D., doc. 32. The motions are fully briefed and ripe for review. See docs. 30, 32, 47, 48, 51, and 52. After careful consideration of the briefs and the relevant law, the court finds that the motion to exclude is due to be granted in part, and the motion for summary judgment is due to be denied.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the non-moving party, who is required to go “beyond the pleadings” to establish that there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). A dispute about a material fact is “genuine” if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         The court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-movant. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Moreover, “[a] mere ‘scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that a jury could reasonably find for that party.” Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         II. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         A. The product at issue

         Harris sustained serious injuries in an accident while he was working as an order picker at a Dollar General distribution center in Bessemer, Alabama. Docs. 38-3 at 9; 38-5 at 2. The accident involved a model 8400 electric pallet jack manufactured by Raymond. Docs. 38-1 at 16; 38-6 at 23; 39 at 20-21. Pallet jacks are used in warehouses to move inventory. Docs. 38-6 at 22. An operator may stand and ride on the 8400 pallet jack when operating it, or walk beside the pallet jack when picking up inventory. See doc. 34 at 25.

         The 8400 pallet jack has both mechanical and electrical components, and its handle is equipped with controls to operate the pallet jack, including throttle twist grips, which allow an operator to move the pallet jack forwards or backwards by twisting the throttle. See docs. 34 at 27, 32, 44; 37 at 2; 38-1 at 10; 38-4 at 10. The farther the operator twists the throttle, the faster the pallet jack travels. Doc. 34 at 44. Relevant to this case, the throttle assembly inside the pallet jack's handle includes a “roll pin, ” also referred to as a “slotted spring pin, ” that fits through small holes to hold the assembly together, and a “torsion spring” that restores the throttle to a neutral position after the operator takes her hand off the throttle twist grip. Docs. 37 at 3-9; 37-1 at 10; 38-1 at 13, 19-22, 24; 38-4 at 37, 38-6 at 35; 39 at 17; 47-18 at 2-3. When the throttle returns to neutral, the pallet jack will “plug, ” or coast, to a stop. Doc. 38-1 at 13. If the torsion spring fails to return the throttle to a neutral position, the pallet jack can continue to move even after the operator takes her hand off the twist grip. Docs. 38-1 at 14, 18, 53, 63; 38-6 at 34. To stop the pallet jack, an operator can twist the throttle grip in the opposite direction the pallet jack is moving, which is called “plugging” and is the normal way of braking. Docs. 34 at 46, 48; 38-1 at 9-10, 17. Alternatively, an operator can stop the pallet jack by pushing the handle down to a horizontal position, moving it up to a vertical position, or use the emergency stop and reverse button. Docs. 34 at 31, 44, 48-49; 38-2 at 9; 37 at 2; 38-4 at 10; 38-6 at 24.

         The 8400 pallet jack is also equipped with a trademark feature Raymond named CoastPRO that is designed to make it easier for an operator to use the pallet jack to pick up merchandise. Docs. 34 at 55; 38-2 at 3-4. CoastPRO limits the pallet jack to walking speed, and it allows the operator to walk beside the pallet jack to pick up merchandise while moving the jack by pushing “jog trigger” buttons on the ends of the handle or by twisting the throttle. Docs. 34 at 33, 55-56; 38-1 at 9; 38-4 at 16; 37 at 2; 38-6 at 28. Although the mechanical brakes are disengaged when the pallet jack is in CoastPRO mode, the operator can still stop the pallet jack by pushing the handle up or down, hitting the emergency stop, or “plugging” the throttle. Docs. 38-1 at 9; 38-2 at 9-10; 38-6 at 24; 34 at 55, 57.

         To engage CoastPRO, the operator must bring the pallet jack handle down to a forty-five degree angle, and then either press one of the two CoastPRO buttons, or push one of the jog trigger buttons.[1] Docs. 34 at 27, 56; 38-1 at 11; 38-6 at 27. The pallet jack beeps twice when CoastPRO mode is engaged initially. Doc. 34 at 56. Although the product's manual and Dollar General's rules warn operators to bring the pallet jack to a complete stop before engaging CoastPRO, operators are able to engage CoastPRO while the pallet jack is moving. Docs. 38-1 at 10-11; 34 at 56; 38-6 at 25-27.

         The Bessemer warehouse performs regular preventative maintenance on its 100 pallet jacks according to Raymond's specifications. See doc. 47-12 at 25-26. This includes taking the pallet jacks' handles apart to inspect the components, including the throttle assembly. Docs. 38-6 at 5, 11; 47-12 at 4-5, 25-26. Dollar General also repairs the pallet jacks as needed, and obtains replacement parts from an authorized Raymond dealer. See docs. 38-6 at 31, 38-39, 46; 47-12 at 26. Pertinent here, maintenance records reveal that Dollar General's employees replaced a broken handle and seat spring on the subject pallet jack three months before the accident, then reattached a roll pin in the handle two days later. Docs. 35 at 1; 38-6 at 31.

         B. The accident

         When Harris began his shift on the day of the accident, he performed the required daily check to ensure the pallet jack was operating correctly. Doc. 38-3 at 6, 15-16. See also doc. 38-4 at 17. Harris did not encounter any issues with the pallet jack during his daily check or before the accident. Doc. 38-3 at 18. While working that day, just before the accident, Harris stopped the pallet jack, stepped off it, brought the handle to a forty-five degree angle, and engaged CoastPRO. Docs. 38-2 at 6, 14; 38-3 at 27. The unit beeped twice to confirm the CoastPRO mode. Doc. 38-3 at 27. Harris stood to the side of the pallet jack, and then walked to the front of it to pick up merchandise. Doc. 38-2 at 7. However, when Harris turned back towards the pallet jack, he saw it coming towards him. Doc. 38-3 at 27. The accident pinned his left ankle against a rack, resulting in lacerations and a severely broken ankle, which required six surgeries to reconstruct. Id. at 9-10.

         Dewayne Bowden, who witnessed the accident, testified that he saw Harris get off the pallet jack and activate CoastPRO. Doc. 38-2 at 6. While Harris was picking up merchandise, Bowden saw the pallet jack move forward, “[a]nd instead of it going straight, it turned and pinned [Harris] against the pallet and the rail.” Doc. 38-2 at 5. Bowden stated that the pallet jack turned on its own without any triggering action by Harris. Doc. 38-2 at 5-6, 16.

         Immediately after the accident, Ron Musser, a maintenance mechanic at the warehouse, conducted a full inspection and tests on the pallet jack. Doc. 38-6 at 18-19, 24-29. Musser first tested how far the pallet jack could travel before coasting to a stop in CoastPRO mode by “running [the pallet jack] full speed, hitting the CoastPRO, and jumping off it.” Id. at 24-26.[2] Musser determined that the subject pallet jack could travel approximately thirty-six feet before coasting to a stop in CoastPRO mode. Id. at 25. In addition, “[a]fter extensive testing [with the pallet jack], . . . the throttle stuck just enough for it to creep, ” meaning that it continued to move after it should have coasted to a stop. Id. at 27. Musser could only get the throttle to stick and cause the unit to creep forward if the pallet jack was moving when he engaged CoastPRO. Doc. 38-6 at 43.

         After conducting his tests, Musser disassembled the pallet jack's handle to fix the sticking throttle, and he found that the “roll pin had moved out [from its holes] just a little bit, catching the plastic housing” of the throttle. Doc. 38-6 at 28. Musser replaced the roll pin as a result. Id. at 35. In addition, Musser has conducted other testing to determine why the pallet jacks' throttle may stick, and he found that “[s]ometimes the [torsion] spring gets weak” after a lot of use and would not return the throttle to the neutral position. See doc. 38-6 at 30, 33-34. Consequently, Musser asked another employee to “order a bunch of springs.” Id. at 33.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Harris asserts a claim against Raymond based on his contention that the alleged defects in the design of the pallet jack caused the accident. Docs. 1; 47 at 30. “‘Under the AEMLD, a manufacturer has the duty to design and manufacture a product that is reasonably safe for its intended purposes and uses. However, the manufacturer of a product is not an insurer against all harm that might be caused by the use of the product, and [. . .] [p]roof of an accident and injury alone is insufficient to establish fault under the AEMLD.'” Verchot v. Gen. Motors Corp., 812 So.2d 296, 301-03 (Ala. 2001) (quoting Brooks v. Colonial Chevrolet-Buick, Inc., 579 So.2d 1328, 1331-32 (Ala. 1991)). To succeed on an AEMLD claim, a plaintiff must prove that “the product at issue is sufficiently unsafe so as to render it defective.” McMahon v. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A., 95 So.3d 769, 772 (Ala. 2012). “[T]his is done by proving that a safer, practical, alternative design was available to the manufacturer at the time it manufactured the allegedly defective product.” Id. (citation omitted).

         Due to the “‘complex and technical nature'” of many products, expert testimony is ordinarily required to prove that a product is defective. Verchot, 812 So.2d at 303 (quoting Brooks, 579 So.2d at 1332). The product in this case is an electric pallet jack composed of mechanical and electrical components, which are unfamiliar to most lay people. Therefore, a lay juror would need the assistance of expert testimony to determine if the pallet jack is defective, and Harris must rely on such testimony to prove his claim. See Brooks, 579 So.2d at 1333-34 (finding that proving a defect in an automobile brake system requires expert testimony). Raymond maintains that Harris cannot prove his case because his expert's testimony is purportedly inadmissible. Doc. 30 at 14-15. Consequently, Raymond's motion for summary judgment is inextricably intertwined with its motion to exclude the testimony of Dr. Benedict. As a result, the court will begin by addressing the motion to exclude before turning to the summary judgment motion.

         A. Motion to Exclude Dr. Benedict's Testimony

         Raymond challenges Dr. Benedict's testimony under Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Docs. 32; 51. District courts must perform a “gatekeeping” function when determining the admissibility of expert evidence to ensure that speculative, unreliable opinions do not reach the jury. Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 592-93 (1993); McClain v. Metabolife Int'l, Inc., 401 F.3d 1233, 1237 (11th Cir. 2005); McCorvey v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 298 F.3d 1253, 1256 (11th Cir. 2002). However, “it is not the role of the district court to make ultimate conclusions as to the persuasiveness of the proffered evidence. . . . Quite the contrary, ‘vigorous 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.'” Quiet Tech. DC-8, Inc. v. Hurel-Dubois UK Ltd., 326 F.3d 1333, 1341 (11th Cir. 2003) (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 596) (alteration in original omitted). But, “nothing in either Daubert or the Federal Rules of Evidence requires a district court to admit opinion evidence that is connected to existing data only by the ipse dixit of the expert.” Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 157 (1999).

         To determine whether expert evidence is admissible under Rule 702, courts in this circuit must conduct a “‘rigorous ...


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