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Williams v. Tristar Products, Inc.

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

August 27, 2019

SAMANTHA WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
TRISTAR PRODUCTS, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER

          HUGH LAWSON, SENIOR JUDGE

         Plaintiff Samantha Williams filed this products liability and personal injury action after a pressure cooker manufactured by Defendant exploded in her kitchen, causing severe personal injuries. Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 37), as well as several pending Motions in Limine: (1) Defendant's Motion in Limine to Exclude the Opinions of Dr. Pratt (Doc. 35); (2) Plaintiff's Motion in Limine to Exclude the Opinions of Dr. Giachetti (Doc. 36); and (3) Plaintiff's Motion in Limine to Exclude the Opinions of Dr. Barnett (Doc. 38). The Court held a hearing on these motions on April 30, 2019.

         I. FACTUAL SUMMARY

         The incident in question occurred on February 14, 2017, as Plaintiff Samantha Williams was alone in her home in Lakeland, Georgia. (Doc. 41, ¶¶ 1, 37). Plaintiff was cooking beef stew in her PC-WAL1/TRI-6 six-quart pressure cooker when she alleges the device's hot contents and steam were expelled onto her, causing significant burn injuries. (Id. at ¶ 2). The specific PC-WAL1/TRI-6 cooker at issue was a model 1305 and was manufactured in May 2013. (Doc. 47-1, ¶ 24); (Doc. 38, p. 7). Plaintiff's mother purchased the cooker in approximately October or November of 2016 from a local Wal-Mart store in Douglas, Georgia and gave it to Plaintiff as a Christmas gift on December 24, 2016. (Doc. 1-1, ¶¶ 10-11).

         Plaintiff estimates that she used the subject pressure cooker three times before the incident. (Doc. 41, ¶ 26). On the day of the incident, the cooker had finished cooking and automatically went into “keep warm” mode. (Id. at ¶ 36). Plaintiff stated that the cooker was emitting a “humming and buzzing” noise that she had never before heard. (Doc. 1-1, ¶ 15). Plaintiff states she then approached the cooker and simply pressed the “cancel” button, which allegedly resulted in the lid suddenly popping off of the cooker and the contents being expelled outward onto her, causing her burn injuries. (Id. at ¶ 16). Plaintiff suffered severe second-degree burns on both breasts, her entire right arm from the shoulder to the wrist, and from her neck to above her belly button. (Id. at ¶ 17).

         In her deposition, Plaintiff stated that the pressure cooker was fully closed at the time of the incident and denied that it was only partially closed. (Doc. 41, ¶ 34). Plaintiff unequivocally stated that she did not attempt to remove the lid or otherwise touch the cooker aside from pressing the “cancel” button. (Doc. 47-5, 43:10-22). Both parties agree that the lid cannot “explosively separate from the base” while the unit is “fully locked.” (Doc. 41, ¶ 21). Likewise, both parties admit there are no deformations on the locks to suggest the lock was forcibly broken open. (Id. at ¶ 22). However, Plaintiff's expert Dr. Pratt has proven that the lid is able to “explode off of the base” if the lid remains partially open with the locking lugs overlapping by exactly 11/32 of an inch, or 0.344 inches, with an internal pressure of exactly 7.4 pounds per square inch (PSI). (Id. at ¶ 23). Plaintiff's expert also avers that the subject pressure cooker lid can also pop off of the base at “about 3/16 or 5/16 of an inch” of locking lug overlap with an internal pressure of anywhere from 1 to 10 PSI. (Doc. 47-1, ¶ 23).

         Plaintiff stated in her deposition that she had confirmed the lid was “fully closed” because she heard the “click” of the locks, aligned the lock symbols on the base with the top, and turned the lid “as far as it will go.” (Id. at ¶¶ 31-33). There were no other witnesses to the event nor any other persons who could have tampered with the cooker at the time of the incident. (Id. at ¶¶ 37-38). Defendant's expert, Dr. Giachetti, testified during his deposition that the cooker can make a little “click” that is less audible but similar to the normal “click” of the locks when the lid is nearly, but not completely, locked in position. (Doc. 47-1, ¶ 31).

         Plaintiff has testified that she operated the cooker in accordance with the instruction manual which was provided with the cooker by Defendant. (Doc. 41, ¶ 31). Defendant states that Plaintiff had not “read, relied upon, or attempted to read or rely upon any warnings or instructions on the [subject pressure cooker's] ‘caution label, '” but Plaintiff's expert has indicated that the information on this label was also contained in the instruction manual. (Doc. 47-1, ¶ 42). There is no evidence that anyone attempted to open or otherwise touched or rotated the lid of the subject pressure cooker while the contents were pressurized. (Doc. 41, ¶ 40). There is also no evidence that any food clogged any valve on the cooker. (Id. at ¶ 41). Plaintiff testified that the pressure cooker valve was not clogged, but she was not asked about any other valves or clogging. (Doc. 47-1, ¶ 41).

         The subject pressure cooker was designed and manufactured by Zhongshan Usata Electrical Appliance Co., Ltd (“USATA”) at its factory in China. (Doc. 41, ¶ 6). The cookers are then sold through Front Source Limited to Defendant Tristar. (Id. at ¶ 8). Defendant states that Tristar is not a “design firm, ” nor does it do any manufacturing or “design work.” (Id. at ¶ 3). Plaintiff disputes that USATA was the sole designer and manufacturer and contends that Defendant's involvement in the design and manufacture processes made Tristar “ultimately responsible for the design of the WAL-1/TRI-6.” (Doc. 47-1, ¶ 6). Defendant's statement that Tristar merely “distributed and marketed the final product” is likewise disputed. (Id. at ¶ 7).

         Defendant held ultimate veto power over Engineering Change Request (ECR) design changes to be performed by manufacturer USATA. (Doc. 47-2, ¶¶ 28-34). Defendant created an Asian division engineering team that supervised product development, including the manufacturing process, production process, inspection process, and testing. (Id. at ¶ 16). As USATA would make changes at Defendant's direction, and then Defendant decided whether or not to approve or deny any order at the factory before shipment and import. (Id. at ¶ 33). Defendant, not USATA or Front Source, performed internal testing to address situations where the lid is not fully locked yet still pressurized. (Id. at ¶ 40). The multiple ECRs made by Defendant were more than simple requests because, as stated by Defendant's corporate representative, a change could not be made without Tristar's final approval after its own engineering team reviewed the design modifications and drawings. (Doc. 47-1, ¶ 12). Defendant “initiated major and critical design changes.” (Id. at ¶ 14). Additionally, Defendant holds two design patents in the pressure cooker, including one for the design of the lid, and one for the cooker's control panel with surface ornamentation. (Id.).

         The owner's manual states in three places that the lid cannot be removed when the contents are pressurized. (Id. at ¶ 28). This contradicts Dr. Pratt's experiment in which he found that the only way the lid can “explode off of the base” of the cooking unit is if “the locking lugs overlap by precisely 11/32 of an inch . . . with the exact internal pressure of 7.4 pounds per square inch, ” or PSI. (Doc. 41, ¶ 23). Defendant also admitted that it is possible for the subject pressure cooker to pressurize without being completely closed/locked, which, Plaintiff points out, is also in direct contradiction to statements made in the owner's manual. (Doc. 47-7, 90:11-13). Plaintiff's expert Dr. Pratt stated in his deposition that the issues he claims are present in the subject pressure cooker have been re-designed and virtually eliminated in the newer models. (Doc. 47-2, at ¶ 54). Defendant admits that these subsequent changes implemented in newer models of the PC-WAL1 pressure cooker were not omitted from the older designs for economic, technological, or other reasons of unfeasibility. (Id. at ¶ 52). Rather, Defendant says, they had not received sufficient consumer feedback, and the later implemented designs had not yet been considered. (Id. at ¶ 53).

         In 2014, nearly three years before the incident in question, Defendant had knowledge of injuries claimed to have been caused by the PC-WAL1/TRI-6 pressure cooker's alleged failure to depressurize upon completion of cooking. (Id. at ¶ 24). Defendant developed the subject pressure cooker's instruction manual and was responsible for the information inside, including warnings and frequently asked questions. (Id. at ¶ 19). In 2015 and 2016, Defendant Tristar, not USATA or Front Source, was directly involved in the Consumer Product Safety Commission's investigation into consumer reports of the subject pressure cooker line pressurizing when not fully locked, and the lid coming off while pressurized and causing burn injuries. (Id. at ¶ 47).

         Plaintiff filed this lawsuit asserting various products liability claims against Defendant Tristar including strict liability design defect, negligence, negligent failure to warn, negligent design, negligent manufacture, and punitive damages. (Doc. 1, p. 2). Defendant contends that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there is no fact question for the jury since Plaintiff's testimony directly conflicts with her expert's opinions. (Doc. 51, p. 1). Defendant also claims that Plaintiff has not provided sufficient facts to demonstrate a genuine issue for trial as to proximate cause. (Id. at 2). Additionally, Defendant claims summary judgment is appropriate because Plaintiff did not present any risk-utility or alternative design evidence. (Id. at 5). Finally, Defendant claims summary judgment is appropriate on Plaintiff's warnings-based claims because she did not present evidence of a duty, defect, or causation. (Id. at 8).

         II. THE PARTIES' DAUBERT MOTIONS

         The Court will address the parties' Daubert motions before turning to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment because whether the parties' proposed experts will be allowed to testify relates to the summary judgment analysis.

         “A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if” his “scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;” his “testimony is based on sufficient facts or data” and “is the product of reliable principles and methods;” and he “reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.” Fed.R.Evid. 702. Thus, in evaluating the admissibility of expert testimony, the Court must consider whether “the expert is qualified to testify competently regarding the matters he intends to address, ” whether his methodology “is sufficiently reliable, ” and whether his testimony will help the trier of fact “understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” United States v. Frazier, 387 F.3d 1244, 1260 (11th Cir. 2004) (en banc). The Court's goal is to ensure “that an expert, whether basing testimony upon professional studies or personal experience, employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field.” Id. (quoting Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 152 (1999)). To allow the testimony to be considered by the jury, the Court must find that “it is properly grounded, well-reasoned, and not speculative.” Id. (quoting Fed.R.Evid. 702 advisory comm. note to 2000 amends.).

         A. Defendant's Motion to Exclude the Opinions of Dr. Pratt (Doc. 35)

         Defendant has filed a Motion in Limine to exclude the opinions of Dr. John Pratt for three reasons: (1) his opinions do not fit the facts of the case; (2) his opinions are not the product of reliable scientific methodology, and therefore would not assist the trier of fact; and (3) he is not qualified to proffer those opinions because he is admittedly not a warnings or human factors expert.

         Dr. Pratt opines that the pressure cooker manufactured by Defendant is defective in a number of ways, mainly in that the contents can pressurize despite the lid not being in the “fully locked” position. (Doc. 35-2, p. 14). Dr. Pratt's opinions are based on his examination of the subject pressure cooker, as well as extensive testing on exemplar pressure cookers manufactured by Defendant.

         Defendant argues that Dr. Pratt is repurposing his expert testimony used in prior cases involving pressure cookers manufactured by Defendant and has therefore failed to determine what caused the incident in this particular case. (Doc. 35-2, p. 3). In those cases, Dr. Pratt testified that the pressure cookers could explode when partially open. Here, Plaintiff has testified that she fully closed the pressure cooker. Thus, Defendant argues, Dr. Pratt's opinions do not “fit” the facts of the case as required by Daubert because Dr. Pratt does not explain how a pressure cooker can explode while in the fully locked position. Defendant further argues that Dr. Pratt's opinions do not meet the “fit” requirement under Daubert because he did not read Plaintiff's testimony prior to ...


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