On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Docket No. L-1698-01.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Skillman, Winkelstein and Yannotti.
Clinton B. Warrington, Sr. (Warrington), commenced this product liability action against defendants Paint Creek Supply, Inc. (Paint Creek), Mears Welding and Manufacturing Company d/b/a Valley Trailers (Mears), Union Coal Company (Union Coal), and Richard Enderlin, Jr. (Enderlin), alleging that he sustained personal injuries in an accident involving a horse trailer manufactured by Mears. Warrington died while the matter was pending, and the complaint was amended to substitute the executor of his estate as plaintiff.
In A-1284-06T1, plaintiff appeals from an order entered on August 8, 2006, which barred plaintiff's expert from testifying at trial, and an order entered on October 6, 2006, granting summary judgment in favor of all four defendants. In A-1525-06T1, Union Coal and Enderlin appeal from the order entered on August 8, 2006, which denied their motion for summary judgment. We consolidate the appeals.
For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the judges who considered the matter erred by barring plaintiff's expert from testifying at trial and finding that plaintiff's product liability claim failed as a matter of law. We further conclude that plaintiff presented insufficient evidence to impose liability upon Union Coal and Enderlin and their motion for summary judgment should have been granted.
In 1999, Warrington was employed as a farmhand/stable manager by Plumstead Farms in Cookstown, New Jersey. Warrington's job responsibilities included caring for the farm's thirty-two horses. Warrington was sixty-two years old at the time, and he had been working as a stable hand and trainer for about forty years. On October 2, 1999, Warrington was directed to transport one of the horses to a farm in Manalapan, New Jersey, using a trailer that was manufactured by Mears in 1991.
The trailer had a drop ramp at the rear, and two stalls for horses. Each stall was equipped with a hinged breastplate at the front of the stall, and bars at the rear. A horse would be loaded onto the trailer behind the breastplate and in front of the rear bar. The breastplates were secured by four gudgeons or cylindrical receiving devices on each breastplate, into which metal pins are dropped vertically. To allow the breastplate to open, one of the pins would be manually lifted from the gudgeon, thus permitting the plate to swing on the hinge.
Warrington testified that he lowered the rear ramp and led the horse onto the trailer and into one of the two stalls. He lifted the pin from the gudgeon and opened the breastplate. Warrington placed the pin on a horizontal platform in the stall. He held the horse by its halter with his right hand, closed the breastplate, and reached with his left hand for the pin. Before Warrington could insert the pin in the gudgeon, the horse bolted and the breastplate struck him in the chest. Shortly thereafter, Warrington suffered a heart attack.
Warrington died on March 7, 2005, and in the report of his post-mortem examination, Dr. Dante A. Ragasa, the Burlington County Medical Examiner, wrote that Warrington's death was: the culmination of the coronary artery disease that had developed into the dislodgement of plaque or plaques at the time of the chest trauma which led to the acute myocardial infarction shortly after the incident. The cardiac damage from the initial trauma progressed further compromising the cardiac function and ultimately led to [Warrington's] demise.
In this action, plaintiff alleges that the horse trailer was defectively designed. In support of this claim, plaintiff furnished an expert report written by Gregory Lyon (Lyon), a professional engineer. Lyon concluded that the manual insertion of the pin in the hinge of the breastplate "necessitated a significant dwell time" during which the plate was not secure, thereby increasing the probability that an accident would occur. Lyon wrote:
A safer modification is proposed whereby a simple, spring-loaded latch mechanism would provide immediate closure of the breastplate, while simultaneously aligning the breastplate, for the insertion of the steel pin. Such a design would be practical, inexpensive and well within the state-ofthe-art considerations by trained safety engineers. Conversely, the absence of such
[a] positive safety device rendered the subject equipment unreasonably dangerous and critically defective.
Lyon stated that, to a reasonable degree of engineering probability, the absence of the "simple, spring-loaded latch mechanism" caused Warrington's injuries. He opined that Warrington was a "reasonably foreseeable user" of the trailer, and at the time of the accident, Warrington was using the trailer "in a reasonably foreseeable manner." Lyon added:
The latch mechanism would have been sufficient to temporarily contain the horse, and prevent the breastplate from being pushed open and striking Mr. Warrington in the chest, while giving Mr. ...