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Callahan v. Toys "R" Us-Delaware, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 19, 2017

CALLAHAN, et al., Plaintiffs
Toys “R” US-DELAWARE, Inc., Defendants.


          J. Mark Coulson United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiffs, Virginia Callahan and T.G., brought this action against Defendants, Toys “R” US-Delaware, Inc. (“Toys ‘R' US”) and Pacific Cycle, Inc. (“Pacific”), alleging various counts of strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty, stemming from an accident involving T.G. and a bicycle that was manufactured, assembled, and sold by Defendants. Plaintiffs' defect theory is based on a manufacturing defect in the minor Plaintiff's bicycle's rear brake, causing it to malfunction. Plaintiffs assert that the defect may have either been present at the time of original manufacture by Pacific Cycle or at the time of final assembly by Toys ‘R' US, or both. The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Rule 301.4. (ECF Nos. 70, 72.) Now pending before the Court is Defendants' combined Motion in Limine. (ECF No. 81.) The motion has been fully briefed (ECF Nos. 81, 90, 92), and oral argument on the motion was held on January 17, prior to selecting a jury. For the reasons that follow, and those stated on the record, Defendant's Motion in Limine is GRANTED in part, denied in part, and deferred in part.

         “A ruling on a motion in limine is no more than a preliminary or advisory opinion that falls entirely within the discretion of the district court.” Adams v. NVR Homes, Inc., 141 F.Supp.2d 554, 558 (D. Md. 2001) (internal citations omitted). “The primary purpose of an in limine ruling is to streamline the case for trial and to provide guidance to counsel regarding evidentiary issues.” Id Defendants' motion seeks to exclude evidence that falls into several categories, some of which are conceded by Plaintiffs and are now moot.[1] Those remaining categories of evidence are discussed in the order in which the parties have organized them in their briefs.

         Non-similar accidents, issues, or lawsuits

         Defendants ask this Court to prohibit Plaintiffs from offering evidence of other accidents involving products made and sold by Defendants. Specifically, Defendants seek to exclude seven complaints/reports of brake failures on Defendants' bicycles that Plaintiffs obtained during discovery. While Plaintiffs believe that such evidence is relevant to “Defendants' failure to properly assemble bicycles, ” Defendants contend that these cases and reports are too dissimilar to be probative of that issue, and are as a result unfairly prejudicial.

         “Where a party seeks to introduce evidence of other accidents, [he or she] ‘must present a factual foundation for the court to determine that the other accidents were substantially similar to the accident at issue.'” Mirchandani v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., 470 F.Supp.2d 579, 583 (D. Md. 2007) (citing Buckman v. Bombardier Corp., 893 F.Supp. 547, 552 (E.D. N.C. 1995)) (emphasis added). “Where a party offers evidence of prior accidents solely to prove notice, however, ‘the incidents need only be sufficiently similar to make the defendant aware of the dangerous situation.'” Mirchandani, 470 F.Supp.2d at 583 (citing Benedi v. McNeil-P.P.C., Inc., 66 F.3d 1378, 1386 (4th Cir.1995)) (internal brackets omitted).

         As it relates to the seven specific reports or incidents that were disclosed during discovery, Plaintiffs have not met their burden of showing how these reports are substantially similar to the alleged incident at issue in this case. In admitting evidence of prior accidents, it is not enough that those accidents had a similar (albeit unverified) complaint of defect. Rather the proponent of admitting the evidence must show how these similar defects were the cause of their respective accidents to the exclusion of other possible factors and causes, such as rider error, misuse, or improper alterations. Buckman v. Bombardier Corp., 893 F.Supp. 547, 552 (E.D. N.C. 1995) (“An offer of evidence of other incidents, to support a claim that the present accident was caused by a defect that also caused the other incidents, requires that the plaintiff establish the following factors: (1) the products are similar; (2) the alleged defect is similar; (3) causation related to the defect in the other incidents; and (4) exclusion of all reasonable secondary explanations for the cause of the other incidents”). These seven reports involve different models of bicycle than the one involved in the present case, and each describes a different brake malfunction than the one alleged here. Moreover, these reports provide no discussion as to the cause of the accidents in those cases, nor do these seven reports implicate Toys “R” U.S. as the assembler or distributor.

         Even if, as Plaintiffs request, this evidence would be admitted for purposes of showing notice-and are thus viewed under the more liberal standard of sufficient similarity-Plaintiffs have still not done enough to show how these prior instances were relevant. As noted above, none of these seven instances allege the same braking malfunction or even that the braking system was the proximate cause of the accidents in those cases. As a result, these seven incidents/reports are inadmissible.

         Finally, these complaints are unverified and, according to Defendants at oral argument, are logged simply for customer service/satisfaction purposes. Such unchallenged and uninvestigated allegations of defect are not sufficient reliable for admission, particularly when balanced against the potential to mislead and confuse the jury, and unfairly prejudice Defendants.

         References to Chinese manufacturing and cost/pricing

         Next, Defendants state that Plaintiffs should be precluded from making any comments or implications that the bicycle was of an inferior quality because it was manufactured in China. “Such commentary on Chinese manufacturing and inferior quality, ” Defendants warn, “is irrelevant to the issue of whether the product was defective” and it potentially raises issues of ethnic bias. Defendants qualify their request, though, adding that they themselves should be permitted to “offer evidence that the bicycle in question was sold at a reasonable price, ” and that the price of the bike in question resulted in a certain design and simpler braking system than seen on other, presumably higher priced, models. Plaintiffs, in turn, respond that they will not argue that the product was of inferior quality because it was manufactured to China or that sourcing products in China damages the American economy. But, Plaintiffs note, Defendants should also be precluded from commenting about the relatively low price of the bicycle in question.

         To the extent that either party wishes to introduce evidence that bicycle was of inferior quality by virtue of its foreign production, such evidence will not be permitted. However, if the location of manufacture is relevant to Defendant Pacific Cycle's ability to comply with the standard of care applicable to bicycle manufacturers, it will be permitted. For example, if Plaintiffs have evidence that companies manufacturing remotely have certain duties required by the standard of care, such evidence will not be precluded Additionally, evidence regarding the price of the bicycle relevant to its design and manufacturing is permitted if such evidence is probative of the issue of the complexity of the braking system and the accompanying assembly instructions. But arguments that a plaintiff buying a product at a particular price point is entitled to a lesser standard of care or invites a higher likelihood of a manufacturing or assembly issue are not supported by the law and therefore will not be permitted.

         Limiting the scope of expert opinion of Kristopher Macalinao

         Defendants seek to limit the testimony of Plaintiffs' expert witness, Kristopher Macalinao. Defendants contend that Mr. Macalinao, a bicycle mechanic and store owner, should not be permitted to testify about the cause of the accident in this case, given that he has no experience or expertise in the field of accident reconstruction. In their response, Plaintiffs appear to concede that Mr. Macalinao will not testify as to what specifically caused the accident in this case. Rather, Mr. Macalinao, who has inspected the bicycle at issue, intends to testify as to the alleged defect of the braking mechanism in the bicycle, and how such a defect could lead to an accident like the one experienced by T.G.

         The Court will allow Mr. Macalinao to testify on matters related to his expertise, including, as outlined by Plaintiffs, the alleged defect in the braking mechanism of the bicycle and whether such a defect could lead to an accident. However, Defendants' concerns are noted, and Mr. Macalinao may not testify that any defect in the braking mechanism was, in fact, the cause of the accident in this case, as he did not see the accident occur nor does he have the requisite expertise in accident reconstruction to render an expert opinion on that issue from the other available evidence. The Court notes, however, that it does not view this as fatal to Plaintiffs' case if ...

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