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Heckman v. Ryder Truck Rental, Inc.

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

August 25, 2013

TODD HECKMAN
v.
RYDER TRUCK RENTAL, INC.,

MEMORANDUM

Catherine C. Blake, United States District Judge

Plaintiff Todd Heckman brought this action against defendants Ryder Truck Rental (“Ryder”) and Mickey Truck Bodies (“Mickey”) for serious injuries sustained after a door strap attached to one of the defendants’ trucks broke while Heckman was delivering beer for his employer, Wantz Distributors, Inc. (“Wantz”). The following motions are fully briefed and pending before the court: (I) Mickey’s and Ryder’s Motions to Exclude Heckman’s experts; (II) Ryder’s Motion to Strike and for Sanctions related to affidavits Heckman submitted with its opposition to Ryder’s motion for partial summary judgment; (III) motions for summary judgment on (A) Heckman’s claims alleging negligent inspection and maintenance of the truck, and (B) Heckman’s products liability claims, assumption of risk, and contributory negligence. Oral argument was heard on June 10, 2013, on all but the motions for summary judgment on products liability, assumption of risk, and contributory negligence. No further argument is necessary.

BACKGROUND

On March 6, 2009, Heckman and an associate, Jeremy McAfee, were delivering beer to the Sandy Hook Grocery Store in Knoxville, Maryland. According to McAfee, who was the only witness to the incident (Heckman has no memory of the events leading up to his injuries), Heckman stepped up onto the truck and attempted to open one of the side garage-style doors, which was stuck, by pulling on the door’s strap which was wedged under the door. This strap is ordinarily used to close the door, and is not supposed to hang outside the truck at any time. As Heckman pulled, the strap broke, and he fell backward into the street where he was struck by an oncoming SUV. Randy Spigler, the Wantz employee who responded to the accident, testified that the hand strap broke into two pieces – a longer portion that was lying on the ground and a smaller portion that was still bolted inside the door. (Spigler Dep. at 71-72, 81). The strap apparently broke off at the point where it passes underneath the door. (Id. at 81). This testimony is undisputed.[1]

Heckman filed this action against Mickey and Ryder alleging they are liable for his injuries for various reasons. First, Heckman advances a number of negligence and strict products liability theories against Mickey, as manufacturer of the truck: (1) Mickey’s redesign of its door straps in 2003, narrowing them from 1.75 inches to 1 inch, made the strap more susceptible to fraying or wear, contributing to the strap’s failure; (2) a label warning that “DOOR ROLLERS AND DOOR STRAPS MUST BE CHECKED ON A REGULAR BASIS. DAMAGED OR FRAYED STRAPS MUST BE REPLACED” was legally inadequate both in content and location; and (3) the strap had a manufacturing defect that made it weak or susceptible to wear. Second, Heckman argues that Ryder owed a duty to properly inspect and maintain the truck. Heckman alleges that Ryder breached this duty and that it is fully or partially (depending on whether the strap was designed or manufactured defectively) responsible for the strap failure. Heckman also brings his products liability claims against Ryder, as supplier of the truck.

ANALYSIS

I. Motions to Exclude Heckman’s Experts

Mickey has filed a motion to exclude three of Heckman’s experts – Dennis McGarry (materials expert), Thomas Butler (materials expert), and Stanley Pulz (human factors expert). Ryder has joined Mickey’s objections against these experts and also objected to Heckman’s fourth expert, Brooks Rugemer (trucking inspections expert). Under Rule 702, “a witness is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education . . . if:”

(a) the expert's scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

See also Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., 509 U.S. 579, 592-595 (1993) (“The inquiry envisioned by Rule 702 is . . . a flexible one.”). A district court is afforded “great deference . . . to admit or exclude expert testimony.” TFWS, Inc. v. Schaefer, 325 F.3d 234, 240 (4th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted). “In applying Daubert, a court evaluates the methodology or reasoning that the proffered scientific or technical expert uses to reach his conclusion; the court does not evaluate the conclusion itself.” Id.

A. McGarry and Butler

Mickey argues that McGarry’s and Butler’s opinions should be excluded under Rule 702 and Daubert. Despite Mickey’s insistence that both experts have no reliable basis for their conclusions, however, both experts appear to offer reliable testimony. Both have affirmed several of the other’s independent findings, and both appear to have used observations or testing of straps like the one that broke, reports of the incident, and their knowledge and expertise to opine on what force would be required to break the strap and why it might have failed. Importantly, both experts do not, anywhere, conclusively state “a” reason for the failure, they merely state the likely reasons the door strap may have failed. (See, e.g., Mickey Mot. Exclude, ECF No. 30, Exs. 11 (“McGarry Rep.”) & 13 (“Butler Rep.”)). While the defendants are likely entitled to exclude those portions of Butler and McGarry’s testimony that have been shown to be purely speculative, [2] Heckman would at least be able to introduce their testimony explaining the strength of the material and the conclusions they have drawn from testing. Accordingly, the defendants’ motions to exclude these experts will be denied without prejudice.[3]

B. Pulz

Mickey has also moved to exclude Heckman’s warnings expert, Stanley Pulz. Mickey principally argues that Pulz’s conclusion that Mickey had a duty to place adequate warning stickers on the truck concerning the door straps was not based on appropriate or generally accepted standards for determining what potential hazards require warnings and the requisite scope of such warnings. Because, as explained below, Mickey and Ryder are entitled to summary judgment on this issue irrespective of Pulz’s testimony, Mickey’s motion to exclude Pulz will be denied as moot.

C. Rugemer

In addition to joining Mickey’s motion, Ryder has moved to exclude Heckman’s fourth expert, Brooks Rugemer, who addresses inspection and maintenance standards. Rugemer has decades of experience in commercial trucking, and he concludes based on an assessment of available testimony and reports of the incident that “Ryder’s failure to properly inspect the door straps and replace any found to be unsuitable is a failure of the standard of care for a truck and trailer leasing and maintenance operation.” (Pl.’s Opp. Ryder’s Mot. Exclude, ECF No. 46, Ex. 21 (“Rugemer Rep.”)). Ryder argues that this conclusion is erroneous because Rugemer identifies no formal statute or regulation requiring strap inspections and there is no factual basis for his conclusion that Ryder failed to inspect the straps.

Nonetheless, Rugemer’s testimony is likely admissible. Because Rugemer is an “experiential expert, ” his

expert testimony . . . does not rely on ‘anything like a scientific method.’ . . . But this does not lead to a conclusion that ‘experience alone—or experience in conjunction with other knowledge, skill, training or education—may not provide a sufficient foundation for expert testimony. To the contrary, the text of Rule 702 expressly contemplates that an expert may be qualified on the basis of experience.’ . . . While a district court's task in examining the reliability of experiential expert testimony is therefore somewhat more opaque, the district court must nonetheless require an experiential witness to ‘explain how [his] experience leads to the conclusion reached, why [his] experience is a sufficient basis for the opinion, and how [his] experience is reliably applied to the facts.’

United States v. Wilson, 484 F.3d 267, 274 (4th Cir. 2007) (quoting Fed.R.Evid. 702 advisory committee note). Thus, Heckman must only show that Rugemer has sufficient experience and that his conclusions concerning Ryder’s inspection failures are based on the facts before him. In his expert report, Rugemer bases his conclusion that Ryder did not meet its standard of care in inspecting the truck on (1) evidence that it knew or should have known frayed or worn straps needed to be replaced, (2) evidence that Ryder’s inspection forms did not expressly include an entry confirming inspection of door straps until 2011, two years after the incident, (3) a lack of any other documentary evidence that straps were indeed examined or checked during Ryder inspections, and (4) his experience with maintenance, strap use, and strap wear. (See Rugemer Rep. 2-4). Ryder certainly can point to testimony that Ryder’s practice was to inspect straps and that Rugemer’s conclusion ignores Ryder’s compliance with all state and federal regulations, but that is proper cross-examination material, not a basis for excluding what appears to be a reliable expert opinion. Ryder may be entitled to exclude certain parts of Rugemer’s testimony, such as what appears to be a categorical, ...


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