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Shearouse v. Remington Arms Company, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Savannah Division

October 11, 2019




         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Exclude the Testimony and Causation Opinion of Plaintiff s Liability Expert and Incorporated Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 32.} For the following reasons, Defendant's motion (Doc. 32) is DENIED.


         This case involves an alleged product defect in Defendant's Remington Model 770 rifle. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiff, at the time of the incident, was twenty years old and had been hunting with his father from a young age. (Doc. 38 at ¶ 13; Doc. 45 at ¶ 13.) On July 26, 2015, Plaintiff planned to shoot a turtle that had been eating the fish in a pond behind his house and went to retrieve his Remington Model 770 (the "Shearouse gun") from the gun case. (Doc. 38 at ¶ 14-15; Doc. 45 at ¶ 14-15.) Plaintiff claims that he loaded the magazine, put the magazine in the gun, walked to the back porch, closed the bolt to chamber a round and then the rifle discharged without Plaintiff pulling the trigger. (Doc. 38 at ¶ 15; Doc. 45 at ¶ 15. [1] The bullet from the Shearouse gun fired through Plaintiffs right foot. (Doc. 38 at ¶ 16; Doc. 45 at ¶ 16.) Plaintiff seeks recovery in this products liability action under theories of strict liability, negligence, and a breach of the duty to warn. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiff pursues theories of manufacturing defect, design defect, and breach of the duty to warn. (Id.)

         Both parties have retained experts to testify. Plaintiff has retained Jack Belk as a liability expert. (Doc. 38 at ¶ 20.) Plaintiff and Plaintiff's liability expert, Jack Belk, believe that the rifle was defectively manufactured and designed. (Doc. 38 at ¶ 20; Doc. 45 at ¶ 20.) Specifically, they contend that the Shearouse gun contained a manufacturing defect in that the trigger spring was misaligned which "resulted in the adjoining parts interfering with the spring." (Doc. 38 at ¶ 22.) The misaligned trigger spring "created a situation where interference would ultimately cause the trigger spring to fail to fully push the trigger into a safe engagement after firing, causing the rifle to fire without the trigger being pulled." (Id.) Plaintiff and Belk also contend that the Shearouse gun contained two design defects. The first design defect is the "absence of a recess or lug to hold the trigger return spring in place and prevent it from becoming misaligned and interfering with the surrounding parts." (Id. at ¶ 23.) The second design defect is "the use of a square nosed trigger pull screw instead of a round or domed trigger pull screw, which would reduce friction and the risk of interference with the spring on the edge of a square nosed pull screw." (Id. at ¶ 24.) Belk concluded that these defects "resulted in an unsafe engagement which caused the rifle to fire on bolt closure without the trigger being pulled." (Id. at ¶ 25.)

         Defendant, of course, rejects these contentions and moves to exclude Belk's opinion as to causation. Specifically, Defendant contends that Belk's opinion that the misalignment of the trigger spring in the rifle's trigger mechanism caused the sear and the trigger to disengage which led to a fire on bolt closure is inadmissible under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993). (Doc. 35 at 12-17.) Defendant asserts that Belk's opinions are inadmissible because "Belk has no reliable basis, let alone supportive scientific testing, to validate his hypothesis that, at the moment of Plaintiff s shooting, the rifle fired without a trigger pull due to any defect in the trigger mechanism, rather than" simply firing when the trigger was pulled. (Doc. 35 at 1.) Defendant contends that Belk's causation theory about the misaligned trigger spring is not reliable because his theory is not supported by physical evidence and testing. (Id. at 12.)

         Plaintiff objects to the exclusion of Belk's causation opinion and contends that Belk's expert testimony falls into the "technical" or "other specialized knowledge" categories of expert testimony permitted under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. (Doc. 37 at 12.) Plaintiff argues that Belk's opinion does rely on testing, namely the x-ray film of the internal parts of the Shearouse gun, and that the films clearly show that the trigger return spring is misaligned. (Id.) Plaintiff contends that Belk came to his opinion by his experience and knowledge as a gunsmith in that he can mechanically examine the rifle, examine the films showing the location of internal parts and determine if any parts are out of place, and then predict how the trigger will perform. (Id. at 14.)

         In conjunction with its motion to exclude the testimony of Belk, Defendant argues that, without admissible expert opinion testimony on the element of causation, Plaintiff lacks sufficient proof to take his case to trial and that Defendant is entitled to summary judgment in its favor. (Doc. 35 at 17.) Plaintiff opposes summary judgment and argues that Belk's opinion is admissible under Daubert. (Doc. 37 at 17.) Plaintiff also argues that, even if Belk's testimony is excluded, summary judgment is not proper because Defendant's expert admitted that the Shearouse gun would only fire because the trigger was pulled or because of a defect. (Id.) Thus, as Plaintiff has testified in his deposition that he did not pull the trigger, the "determination of whether or not Plaintiff pulled the trigger is a fact guestion that must be decided by a jury." (Id. at 17-18.)


         Summary judgment shall be rendered "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The "purpose of summary judgment is to "pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.'" Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1356, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 advisory committee notes). Summary judgment is appropriate when the nonmovant "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) . The substantive law governing the action determines whether an element is essential. DeLong Equip. Co. v. Wash. Mills Abrasive Co., 887 F.2d 1499, 1505 (11th Cir. 1989) .

         As the Supreme Court explained:

[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.

Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. at 2553. The burden then shifts to the nonmovant to establish, by going beyond the pleadings, that there is a genuine issue as to facts material to the nonmovant's case. Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991) . The Court must review the evidence and all reasonable factual inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587-88, 106 S.Ct. at 1356. However, the nonmoving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Id., 475 U.S. at 586, 106 S.Ct. at 1356. A mere "scintilla" of evidence, or simply conclusory allegations, will not suffice. See, e.g., Tidwell v. Carter Prods., 135 F.3d 1422, 1425 (11th Cir. 1998). Nevertheless, where a reasonable fact finder may "draw more than one inference from the facts, and that inference creates a genuine issue of material fact, then the Court should refuse to grant summary judgment." Barfield v. Brierton, 883 F.2d 923, 933-34 (11th Cir. 1989).



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