On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania D.C. Civil Action No. 90-cv-04295 (Honorable Louis H. Pollak)
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scirica, Chief Judge.
Before: SCIRICA, Chief Judge, RENDELL and AMBRO, Circuit Judges
In this products liability claim under maritime law, a jury rendered a defense verdict. The principal issue on appeal is the proper application of Federal Rule of Evidence 702 to the proffered testimony of plaintiffs' experts.
Because this matter has been twice before our court, see Calhoun v. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A., 40 F.3d 622 (3d Cir. 1994); Calhoun v. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A., 216 F.3d 338 (3d Cir. 2000), and also before the Supreme Court, see Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199 (1996), its tragic facts have been well documented. But we detail certain facts as they relate to the matters currently under appeal.
In June 1989, twelve-year-old Natalie Calhoun was vacationing with her friend, thirteen-year-old Melanie Fox, and Melanie's family at the Palmas del Mar resort in Puerto Rico. On June 6, Melanie's mother, Corinne Fox, gave permission to the girls to rent a jet ski at the marina. Melanie and Natalie rented a Yamaha Wavejammer WJ500G Personal Water Craft from nineteen-year-old Samuel Roffe, a beach concessionaire at the Palmas del Mar resort. Affixed to the jet ski was a warning that the minimum recommended age for operation was fourteen. Neither girl had ridden a jet ski before.
In Natalie's presence, Roffe gave Melanie ten minutes of instruction. No parents or guardians were present at this time. While Melanie was riding the jet ski, her mother arrived at the marina. Roffe assured Mrs. Fox that riding the jet ski was "safe." After Melanie's uneventful thirty minute ride, she reported that the jet ski was "fun" and "easy."
When it was Natalie's turn, she was uncertain and expressed doubts. Mrs. Fox left the decision to Natalie, and eventually, she elected to ride. Roffe asked Natalie whether she was the requisite fourteen years of age, and she responded affirmatively. Roffe then gave her the same instructions given to Melanie. Natalie mounted the machine and began her ride in the lagoon near the resort.
Unlike Melanie, however, Natalie struggled and fell off while attempting to turn. Alarmed by this development, Mrs. Fox urged Roffe to "bring her back." Roffe rode out to Natalie in another jet ski, but by the time he reached her, she had remounted and assured him she was "okay." Natalie restarted the jet ski, made a sudden turn, and planed at high speed across the lagoon toward an anchored boat. As she approached the boat, she screamed but did not appear to attempt to veer away. Roffe testified she appeared "frozen" and "scared stiff." Tragically, Natalie crashed into the boat and died from massive head and neck trauma.
Natalie's parents, Lucien and Robin Calhoun, brought suit against Yamaha Motor Company, Ltd. and Yamaha Motor Corporation, U.S.A., the manufacturer and distributor of the jet ski.*fn1 The Calhouns asserted several bases for recovery, including strict liability, negligence, and breach of implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. Plaintiffs focused on an alleged defect with the design of the jet ski's accelerating mechanism, which is referred to as a "squeeze finger throttle" and resembles the braking mechanism on a bicycle. Plaintiffs also alleged the warnings were inadequate. The warning on the foot well of the jet ski provided in part:
3. MINIMUM RECOMMENDED OPERATOR AGE: 14
A MINOR USING THIS WATER VEHICLE REQUIRES CLOSE ADULT SUPERVISION. CHECK FEDERAL/ STATE LAWS FOR MINIMUM AGE REQUIREMENTS.
After several appeals, the suit went to trial.*fn2 A jury rendered a verdict for defendants.
At trial, the District Court made several rulings that plaintiffs challenge on appeal. Although the District Court permitted plaintiffs' three expert witnesses to testify, it limited the extent of their testimony. Moreover, the District Court refused to submit the negligence claims to the jury, holding that plaintiffs could proceed only on their strict liability claims.*fn3 Furthermore, in jury interrogatories*fn4 and instructions,*fn5 the District Court applied comparative fault principles and conditionally asked the jury to consider the negligence of two non-parties to the suit.
The jury returned a verdict in favor of Yamaha on the strict liability claims. The Calhouns appeal, arguing that errors made by the District Court require reversal and a new trial.*fn6 Yamaha cross-appeals, contending the District Court should have precluded the testimony of ...