United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Brunswick Division
For Jason Ray Weaver, Plaintiff: Joseph L. Phelps, III, Robert B. Smith, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Smith and Phelps, Jesup, GA; Tracy Alan Brown, LEAD ATTORNEY, Brown & Johnson, LLC, Jesup, GA.
For PACCAR, Inc., Defendant: Bradley J. Watkins, LEAD ATTORNEY, Brown, Readdick, Bumgartner, Carter, Strickland & Watkins, LLP, Brunswick, GA; Emily Rose Hancock, Brown, Readdick & Bumgartner, Brunswick, GA.
LISA GODBEY WOOD, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Plaintiff Jason Weaver, a diesel mechanic, was left disabled after a commercial truck he was inspecting ran over his leg. He has filed a complaint in this Court
against the truck's manufacturer, Defendant PACCAR Inc., under a products liability theory, alleging that Defendant's failure to install a " neutral safety switch" on the truck was the proximate cause of the accident. Dkt. no. 1. Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, Dkt. no. 19, along with Plaintiff's Motion to Exclude Defendant's Reply Brief in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment, Dkt. no. 40. Plaintiff's motion to strike is DENIED. Because the Court finds that Defendant's design of the truck did not proximately cause Plaintiff's injuries, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.
Weaver, a diesel mechanic at Wall Timber Company in Jesup, Georgia, was permanently injured when a 2004 manual transmission Kenworth T800 truck-tractor rolled over his leg. Truck driver Chris Manning brought the truck to Wall Timber's mechanic shop with an apparent air leak. Dkt. No. 19-3, p. 5. Weaver gave his account of the accident at his deposition:
I was going underneath a truck to find an air leak. . . . I found the air leak at the left front rear drive brake chamber. [Manning] had brakes released. The truck was not running, nobody in the seat. He had brakes released on the truck. . . . [Shop foreman Lynn Burnem] got on a creeper and got under the truck with me. . . . [Burnem] said, well, he's going to have to fire it up to build the air back up so I can make sure that's where it is. Apparently the driver heard Lynn telling me that he's going to have to fire it back up and he walked and [cranked] the truck without me or [Burnem]. . . knowing and forgot that he had left the brakes released and the truck in gear. He [cranked] the truck from the ground, never climbed in the truck, and the truck took off. And when it took off, it [ran] over me. It ran over my left leg and run up on my right leg, and my right leg stopped it like a wheel chock and it was sitting on my left leg. . . . Because they couldn't find any jacks in the shop. . . they backed over me, blowing my knee out the back of my leg.
Weaver Dep. 21:19-23:10.
Manning testified that although he initially set the parking break, Weaver instructed him to release the brake, put the truck into gear, and turn the truck off because it's " the only way to tell what the problem is." Manning Dep. 8:10-14. Manning, standing on the side of the truck, reached up and pressed the start button after he " heard everybody say 'Fire it back up; we lost air pressure.'" Id. at 8:11-23. Manning said this response was a " natural reaction" and that he was " not thinking," even though he remembered the truck was in gear when he pressed the start button, which resulted in the truck moving forward. Id. at 8:21-25. Plaintiff claims he " would never have advised the driver to crank the truck while it was in gear." Weaver Aff. ¶ 11.
The accident destroyed most of the muscle, tissue, and lymphatic system in Plaintiff's leg, requiring three operations. Id. at 24:7-11, 25:13. As a result of the accident, Plaintiff's leg will require daily medical attention, or else an infection in the leg could ultimately lead to his death. Id. at 48:6-11. Plaintiff also suffers from extreme nerve pain. Id. at 33:20-23.
Plaintiff claims that he would not have suffered his injuries if Defendant had installed a " neutral safety switch" on the Kenworth T800 that ran over his leg. Dkt. no. 1, ¶ 14. A neutral safety switch is a feature that prevents the truck from starting when the transmission is not in neutral. Morrill Dep. 40:20-24. Similar to a neutral safety switch, a " clutch safety switch" requires the clutch to be depressed before the truck can be cranked. Id. at 40:9-16. According to Plaintiff's expert, Jeffery Morrill, " no matter the design or the device, the function of the systems is to prevent unintended movement of the vehicle when starting the engine to protect the safety of the operator, persons nearby and property." Morrill Aff. ¶ 10.
Richard Sedgley, who was employed for 31 years by Kenworth Truck Company, a division of PACCAR, and who worked in a variety of positions such as structural analysis engineer and manager of safety and compliance, testified that the neutral safety switch was " offered [1 as an option" to the " highly sophisticated" customer base. However, " 98 percent of the people that we sell trucks to aren't interested in it." Sedgley Dep. pg. 14:10-25. He also explained that the switch was not classified by PACCAR as a safety option. Id. at 17:18-20. Sedgley testified that PACCAR relies on drivers of the trucks it manufactures to " operate the vehicle in how they've been trained." Id. at 21:11-13. " [T]hese individuals are trained to put [the truck] in neutral, start the truck. And when they leave the truck, they apply the parking brakes, they leave it in neutral. It's all part of their training." Id. at 21:2-6.
Schyler Peck, a retired PACCAR employee, offered several reasons why a truck driver may prefer a truck without a neutral safety switch. Peck suggests that not having a neutral safety switch enables the driver to move the truck by small increments while the engine is running. Peck Dep. 17:5-25. This maneuverability can be useful when the driver needs to nudge the truck in small increments to align the trailer with loading or unloading areas, such as a dump truck bed. Id. If a neutral safety switch were on the truck, the driver would have to use the clutch to make these movements, which could move the truck further than intended. Without the switch, the driver my use the starter. Id. Furthermore, Peck testified that the switch adds a potential failure mechanism, and that many drivers do not think that any added benefit of a neutral safety switch outweighs the possibility that the switch will fail and leave the driver stranded, unable to start the truck. Id. at 14:4-12.
Summary judgment is required where " 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). A fact is " material" if it " might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." FindWhat Investor Grp. v. FindWhat.com,658 F.3d 1282, 1307 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)). A dispute over such a fact is " genuine" if the " evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. In making this determination, the court is to view all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw ...