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Heath v. Tristar Products, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Nevada

September 27, 2019

TAWNDRA L. HEATH, Plaintiff,
v.
TRISTAR PRODUCTS, INC., a Pennsylvania Corporation; ZHONGSHAN JINGUANG HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCE MANUFACTURE CO., LTD., a foreign corporation; Defendants.

          ORDER

          GLORIA M. NAVARRO, DISTRICT JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Pending before the Court is Defendant Tristar Products, Inc.’s (“Defendant’s”) Motion in Limine, (ECF No. 82). Plaintiff Tawndra Heath (“Plaintiff”) filed a Response, (ECF No. 85), and Defendant filed a Reply, (ECF No. 88).[1]

         Also pending before the Court is Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, (ECF No. 78). Plaintiff filed a Response, (ECF No. 86), and Defendant filed a Reply, (ECF No. 93).

         For the reasons stated below, Defendant’s Motion in Limine is DENIED, and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises from injuries that Plaintiff suffered when the lid of her Power Pressure Cooker, Model No. PPC770 (the “Cooker”)[2] allegedly exploded open after she used it to prepare corned beef brisket. (Sec. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 4–20, ECF No. 62); (Dep. Tawndra Heath 31:16–33:20, Ex. C to Mot. in Limine (“MIL”), ECF No. 82-3). Defendant was the seller and distributor of that Cooker. (Sec. Am. Compl. ¶ 9).[3]

         Plaintiff states that she prepared the corned beef brisket in the Cooker through two cooking cycles at her home. In the first cycle, she set the Cooker for a sixty-minute cook cycle, then “left for . . . Bible study.” (Dep. Tawndra Heath 34:3–36:24, Ex. C to MIL). When she returned, she saw that the corned beef was not finished. She accordingly set it for a second cooking cycle-following the same steps of using the Cooker as the first cycle. (Id. 39:5– 42:16). Plaintiff states that when she closed the Cooker’s lid with each cycle, it did not take any force at all. (Id. 35:23–25).

         After the first cycle, Plaintiff opened the lid easily and without issue. (Id. 41:3–12). For the second cycle, Plaintiff states that she approached the Cooker roughly fifteen to twenty minutes after it emitted a “beeping noise” to indicate the cook cycle was complete. (Id. 44:1– 45:5). However, when she attempted to open the Cooker’s lid, she claims that water exploded out onto her face, neck, chest, and arm. (Id. 53:23–56:19). Plaintiff then went to the hospital, and received treatment for first, second, and third-degree burns. (Report of Benjamin Rodriguez, M.D., Ex. 3 to Resp., ECF No. 86-3).

         On October 12, 2017, Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit against Defendant in the Eighth Judicial District Court for Clark County, Nevada. (Compl. at 1, Ex. 1 to Pet. Removal, ECF No. 1-1). Defendant removed the case to this Court on November 15, 2017. (Pet. Removal, ECF No. 1). Plaintiff currently asserts four claims for relief against Defendant: (1) negligence; (2) breach of warranty; (3) strict products liability; and (4) violation of Nevada consumer protection laws. (Sec. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 21–58). She also seeks punitive damages against Defendant. (Id. ¶¶ 59–64).

         To support her claims for relief, Plaintiff retained John Pratt, Ph.D. as an expert witness to inspect the Cooker, determine if any defects existed, and provide an opinion about whether such defects could have caused Plaintiff’s injuries. Through the instant Motion in Limine, (ECF No. 82), Defendant now seeks to exclude Dr. Pratt’s expert opinions. Defendant also moves for summary judgment in its favor on all of Plaintiff’s claims. (Def.’s Mot. Summ. J. (“MSJ”), ECF No. 78).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Motion in Limine

         In general, “[t]he court must decide any preliminary question about whether . . . evidence is admissible.” Fed.R.Evid. 104(a). In order to satisfy the burden of proof for Federal Rule of Evidence (“FRE”) 104(a), a party must show that the requirements for admissibility are met by a preponderance of the evidence. See Bourjaily v. United States, 483 U.S. 171, 175 (1987) (“We have traditionally required that these matters [regarding admissibility determinations that hinge on preliminary factual questions] be established by a preponderance of proof.”).

         “Although the [FRE] do not explicitly authorize in limine rulings, the practice has developed pursuant to the district court's inherent authority to manage the course of trials.” Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41 n.4 (1984) (citing FRE 103(c)). In limine rulings “are not binding on the trial judge, and the judge may always change his mind during the course of a trial.” Ohler v. United States, 529 U.S. 753, 758 n.3 (2000); see also Luce, 469 U.S. at 41.

         Judges have broad discretion when ruling on motions in limine. See Jenkins v. Chrysler Motors Corp., 316 F.3d 663, 664 (7th Cir. 2002). However, a motion in limine should not be used to resolve factual disputes or weigh evidence. C&E Servs., Inc., v. Ashland, Inc., 539 F.Supp.2d 316, 323 (D.D.C. 2008). To exclude evidence on a motion in limine, the evidence must be inadmissible “on all potential grounds.” See, e.g., Ind. Ins. Co. v. Gen. Elec. Co., 326 F.Supp.2d 844, 846 (N.D. Ohio 2004). “Unless evidence meets this high standard, evidentiary rulings should be deferred until trial so that questions of foundation, relevancy and potential prejudice may be resolved in proper context.” Hawthorne Partners v. AT&T Tech., Inc., 831 F.Supp. 1398, 1400 (N.D. Ill. 1993).

         B. Motion for Summary Judgment

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide for summary adjudication when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show 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). Material facts are those that may affect the outcome of the case. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable fact-finder could rely to find for the nonmoving party. See Id . “The amount of evidence necessary to raise a genuine issue of material fact is enough ‘to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.’” Aydin Corp. v. Loral Corp., 718 F.2d 897, 902 (9th Cir. 1983) (quoting First Nat’l Bank v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 288–89 (1968)). “Summary judgment is inappropriate if reasonable jurors, drawing all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, could return a verdict in the nonmoving party’s favor.” Diaz v. Eagle Produce Ltd. P’ship, 521 F.3d 1201, 1207 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing United States v. Shumway, 199 F.3d 1093, 1103–04 (9th Cir. 1999)). A principal purpose of summary judgment is “to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323–24 (1986).

         In determining summary judgment, a court applies a burden-shifting analysis. “When the party moving for summary judgment would bear the burden of proof at trial, it must come forward with evidence which would entitle it to a directed verdict if the evidence went uncontroverted at trial. In such a case, the moving party has the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of fact on each issue material to its case.” C.A.R. Transp. Brokerage Co. v. Darden Rests., Inc., 213 F.3d 474, 480 (9th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). In contrast, when the nonmoving party bears the burden of proving the claim or defense, the moving party can meet its burden in two ways: (1) by presenting evidence to negate an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case; or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party failed to make a showing sufficient to establish an element essential to that party’s case on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. See Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323– 24. If the moving party fails to meet its initial burden, summary judgment must be denied and the court need not consider the nonmoving party’s evidence. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 159–60 (1970).

         If the moving party satisfies its initial burden, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue of material fact exists. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585–86 (1986). To establish the existence of a factual dispute, the opposing party need not establish a material issue of fact conclusively in its favor. It is sufficient that “the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties’ differing versions of the truth at trial.” T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass’n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987). However, the nonmoving party “may not rely on denials in the pleadings but must produce specific evidence, through affidavits or admissible discovery material, to show that the dispute exists, ” Bhan v. NME Hosps., Inc., 929 F.2d 1404, 1409 (9th Cir. 1991), and “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Orr v. Bank of America, 285 F.3d 764, 783 (9th Cir. 2002) (internal citations omitted). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. In other words, the nonmoving party cannot avoid summary judgment by relying solely on conclusory allegations that are unsupported by factual data. See Taylor v. List, 880 F.2d 1040, 1045 (9th Cir. 1989). Instead, the opposition must go beyond the assertions and allegations of the pleadings and set forth specific facts by producing competent evidence that shows a genuine issue for trial. See Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324.

         At summary judgment, a court’s function is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. The evidence of the nonmovant is “to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Id. at 255. But if the evidence of the nonmoving party is merely colorable or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. See Id . at 249–50.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Motion in Limine

         Defendant argues that Dr. Pratt’s expert opinions are inadmissible based on Federal Rules of Evidence 702 and 403 as well as Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceutical, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 591 (1993). (MIL 1:22–25, ECF No. 82). More specifically, Defendant advances three reasons to exclude Dr. Pratt’s expert opinions: (1) his opinions about the Cooker’s defectiveness do not fit the facts in this case; (2) his opinions are not the product of reliable scientific methodology nor based on sufficient data; and (3) he is not an expert with regard to warnings or human factors, and thus cannot testify about “misleading information in the [Cooker’s] Owner’s Manual.” (Id. 8:24–13:18).

         The Court’s below discussion addresses each reason in turn. However, the Court first notes that Defendant does not directly challenge Dr. Pratt’s qualifications to render expert opinions concerning the mechanics and defects of the Coker. Based on Dr. Pratt’s applicable engineering background, training, experience, and education, the Court finds him to possess sufficient qualifications to proffer expert testimony here. (See Expert Report of John Pratt, Ph.D. at 3–4, Ex. 1 to Resp., ECF No. 85-1); (Curriculum Vitae, Ex. 1 to Expert Report, ECF No. 85-1); (Prior Testimony, Ex. 2 to Expert Report, ECF No. 85-1); see Fed. R. Evid. 702.

         1. Relevance of Dr. Pratt’s Testimony

         Defendant’s first reason to exclude Dr. Pratt’s expert opinion focuses on his October 17, 2018 report, which details four scenarios that could have occurred with Plaintiff’s Cooker and caused her injuries. (MIL 8:1–10:12). Scenario 1 concerns the potential for Plaintiff to misguidedly close the Cooker lid by rotating it and only “marginally overlapping the locking lugs and compressing the gasket.” (Expert Report of John Pratt, Ph.D. at 10–11, Ex. 1 to Resp.). Scenario 2 involves a pot lid liner that is “mistakenly assembled into the lid upside down.” (Id. at 11). In Scenario 3, Plaintiff could have attached the Cooker’s lid by initially closing it to the fully locked position, but “backing off the lid . . . when the pressure [inside] was between about .2 and 1.0 psig.” (Id. 11–12). Finally, Scenario 4 could occur if Plaintiff initially secured the lid, yet opened it “shortly after completion of the second cook cycle when the internal pressure had dropped below about 3 ...


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