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Anderson v. FCA U.S. LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

February 21, 2019

JOHN ANDERSON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
FCA U.S., LLC, Defendant.

          ORDER

          UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         On January 11, 2019, the Court held a hearing on pending motions-Defendant FCA's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 42) and six motions to exclude expert testimony (Docs. 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 50). Doc. 83. The Court ruled on most of these motions at the hearing. Id. With regard to the Defendant's motion for summary judgment, the Court granted the motion in part and announced it would deny the remainder of the motion by written order. Id. The Court deferred ruling on the Plaintiffs' motion to exclude certain testimony of defense expert Daniel Toomey (Doc. 44). Doc. 83. This order DENIES the remainder of FCA's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 42), DENIES in part[1]FCA's motion to exclude the defective design opinions held by Neil Hannemann (Doc. 43), and GRANTS the Plaintiffs' motion to exclude Toomey's testimony (Doc. 44).

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         On January 30, 2016 at 3:42 a.m., Tristan Anderson lost control of his 2007 Jeep Wrangler. Doc. 42-2. The Jeep hit a stacked rock wall, became airborne, and rolled onto the driver's side. Id. at 3. A rear-seat passenger, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected and died. Id. at 4; Docs. 57 at 102:11-102:19, 117:8-117:11; 59 at 74:18-22. Tristan and a front-seat passenger lost consciousness. Doc. 58 at 87:12-16, 88:2-12, 104:3-15. Shortly after impact, the Jeep caught fire. Doc. 42-2. The passenger regained consciousness and escaped. Doc. 58 at 87:12-16, 88:2-12, 104:3-15. Tristan too regained consciousness, but not in time to safely free himself. Id. He was severely burned and later died. Doc. 61 at 49:12-17.

         The Jeep was designed and manufactured by Daimler Chrysler Corporation. Doc. 51 at 196:19-21. In 2009, Chrysler, along with twenty-four of its affiliated entities, filed a voluntary petition under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. Doc. 42-7. In the bankruptcy case, Chrysler entered into a court-approved master transaction agreement (MTA), in which FCA purchased substantially all of the debtors' assets and assumed certain of their liabilities. Docs. 42-8; 42-9; 42-10; 42-11. The MTA provided that FCA assumed responsibility for Chrysler's product liability claims, including wrongful death claims, seeking compensatory damages; FCA did not assume responsibility for “punitive damages.” Docs. 42-8 at 19-21; 42-9 ¶¶ 12, 13, 35, 39; 42-10 ¶¶ 14, 32; 42-11 ¶¶ 1-3.

         In their amended complaint, [3] John Anderson, as Tristan's father and as administrator of Tristan's estate, and Julie Peoples, Tristan's mother, assert strict liability and negligence claims based on a number of alleged defects, acts, and omissions. Doc. 5. However, the Plaintiffs now focus primarily on what they claim was the Jeep's inadequately guarded fuel tank. See generally Docs. 69; 70. Relying on a battery of experts, they claim that something, most likely a rock, penetrated the unprotected fuel tank, causing the fire that took Tristan's life. See generally Docs. 52; 54; 55; 56; 57. Significantly, the Plaintiffs seek only compensatory damages, including the full value of Tristan's life, the measure of damages under Georgia's wrongful death statute (O.C.G.A. § 51-4-4). Doc. 5 at 10.

         FCA moves for summary judgment on two grounds relevant here. Doc. 42. First, FCA argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because the Plaintiffs' wrongful death claim was not included in FCA's assumption of liabilities in the MTA. Doc. 42-1 at 8-14. Specifically, FCA argues that because Georgia's wrongful death statute is “punitive in nature” and the MTA assumption of liabilities excludes punitive damages, it is entitled to summary judgment. Id.

         Second, FCA contends the Plaintiffs' theories of liability hinges on Hannemann's defective design opinion. Id. at 8. In a separate motion, FCA moves to exclude that opinion and argues that if it is excluded, the Plaintiffs have no evidence of liability and, therefore, summary judgment is appropriate. Docs. 42-1 at 8; 43. At the hearing, the Court ruled that Hannemann's design theory would not be excluded for reasons that would be addressed further by written order. Doc. 83. This order elaborates on why FCA's motion to exclude Hannemann's defective design opinion (Doc. 43) and its summary judgment motion based on that motion (Doc. 42), are denied.

         The Plaintiffs move to exclude certain testimony of Daniel Toomey, FCA's accident reconstruction expert. Doc. 44. Specifically, the Plaintiffs move to exclude his testimony regarding “data from the National Automotive Sampling System/Crashworthiness data [sic] (“NASS”) tending to establish that front impacts with a delta-V, or change in velocity, of 30 mph or less account for more than 98% of all frontal impacts and that front impacts with a delta-V of 40 mph or less account for more than 99% of all frontal impacts.” Id. at 3. Toomey testified the data demonstrate that the impact here was more severe than ninety-nine percent of all frontal impact crashes. Id.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Motion for Summary Judgment

         At the January hearing, the Court granted FCA's motion for summary judgment on the Plaintiffs' claims based on theories of defective design of the fire wall, defective manufacturing, defective assembly, failure to recall, failure to adequately test, and failure to warn, as well as the Plaintiffs' claim for attorney's fees. Doc. 83. The Court also denied FCA's motion regarding what FCA considers an alternative design claim. Id. The only remaining issues are (1) whether FCA assumed liability for claims brought under Georgia's wrongful death statute, and (2) whether Hannemann's defective design opinion should be excluded, leaving the Plaintiffs with no evidence of liability.

         1. Motion for Summary Judgment Standard

         A court shall grant summary judgment “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). “When the nonmoving party has the burden of proof at trial, the moving party is not required to ‘support its motion with affidavits or other similar material negating the opponent's claim.'” United States v. Four Parcels of Real Prop., 941 F.2d 1428, 1437 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Cartrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)) (emphasis in original). The moving party “simply may show . . . that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Id. at 1438 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “Assuming the moving party has met its burden, the non-movant must then show a ...


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