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Ellis v. Siemens Enterprise Network

March 17, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

[relates to Docket Item 64]


This case arises out of injuries that Plaintiff suffered while working as a corrections officer at a state-run correctional facility. Plaintiff alleges that the alarm system at the facility, which was installed by Defendant Siemens Enterprise Network, Inc. ("Siemens"), malfunctioned and produced a false alarm, and that he was injured when responding to the alarm. Plaintiff's suit against Siemens asserts claims premised upon negligence and product liability.

Presently before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment [Docket Item 64] as to all of Plaintiff's claims. For the reasons explained below, the Court will grant Defendant's motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiff's claim for negligent maintenance and his product liability claim (Counts One and Four), but will deny Defendant's motion as to the remaining claims.


A. The August 2, 2002 Accident

Plaintiff Sidney J. Ellis filed the instant lawsuit to recover damages for injuries he allegedly sustained when the alarm system at the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility (the "Wagner Facility") malfunctioned. (Compl. ¶ 13.) At the time of the events that precipitated Plaintiff's suit, Plaintiff worked as a corrections officer at the Wagner Facility. (Id. at ¶ 9.) On August 2, 2002, Plaintiff was on duty, scheduled to work the "first shift" from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. (Id.) At approximately 8:57 a.m. on the morning of August 2, 2002, the Wagner Facility's "Emergency Red Phone" system (the "ERP system") sounded its alarm. (Id. at ¶ 10.)

The ERP system was an alarm system designed to alert the Wagner Facility's staff of security emergencies at the facility. (Schmitz Cert. Ex. H 6.) The system consisted of red telephones installed throughout the Wagner Facility that Wagner staff could activate by lifting any of the telephone receivers from its base. (Id.) When activated, an alarm would sound throughout the facility, which would alert Wagner's staff that they were in "lock-down mode." (Id.) The alert to enter lock-down mode would trigger a series of events: prisoners would be locked in their cells, cell tiers would be locked, and, most importantly for this case, corrections officers would dispatch to the site of the activated alarm to respond to the emergency. (Id. at 6-7.) When the alarm sounded on the morning of August 2, 2002, Plaintiff rushed to the site of the alarm, and while en route, he collided with another corrections officer who was coming from a different direction. (Schmitz Cert. Ex. A. ¶ 12.) Plaintiff alleges that he sustained serious injuries as a result of this collision. (Id. at ¶ 13.)

According to Plaintiff, after the accident, he discovered that the August 2, 2002 alarm was triggered not to warn of an actual emergency, but as the result of an alleged malfunction in the ERP system, the fault for which he attributes to Siemens. (Id. at ¶ 14.) According to Plaintiff, the ERP system had malfunctioned "numerous times" before the August 2, 2002 false alarm that led to Plaintiff's injuries, including multiple malfunctions during the year preceding his accident. (Id. at ¶¶ 15-16.) Plaintiff filed suit against Siemens, alleging that Siemens was negligent in designing, manufacturing, installing, and/or repairing the ERP system, and that Siemens should be strictly liable for the injuries resulting from its defective product. (Id. at ¶¶ 1-22.)

B. The ERP System

The Wagner Facility's ERP system predated Siemens' work at the facility, but in 1999 it was determined that the system needed to be upgraded in order to ensure that it would be "Y2K-compliant." (DelCastillo Dep. at 127.) In two contracts between Siemens and the New Jersey Department of Corrections ("NJDOC"), dated February 24, 1999 and October 14, 1999, Siemens agreed to upgrade various components of the Wagner Facility's ERP system, as well as to provide and install a variety of telecommunications software and equipment related to the alarm system. (Schmitz Cert. Exs. D, E.) The equipment that Siemens provided in upgrading the ERP system included an alarm notification console and a private branch exchange, and these pieces of equipment were connected to each other and to other components of the phone system through Siemens-provided fiber optic "TOSLINK" cable. (Schmitz Cert. Ex. D at 3.) The existing equipment that Siemens did not replace as part of its upgrade included a main distribution frame and multiple intermediate distribution frames. (Id.) Additionally, under the parties' agreement, Siemens was not asked to replace the existing system of "house" cabling at the facility. (Barbo Cert. ¶ 7.)

Siemens and the NJDOC also signed a contract for telecommunications systems maintenance services in September, 2000. (Schmitz Cert. Ex. F.) Under the terms of the maintenance contract, Siemens agreed to provide support services for the specific products it installed at the Wagner Facility. (Id. at 2.) The contract expressly provided that specific types of maintenance work were outside the scope of Siemens' contractual obligations, but were available at an additional charge. (Id. at 5.) These services included problems related to "acts of war, lightning, water, fire and other perils"; "corrosive atmosphere . . . or humidity control failure"; "[s]ervice calls necessitated by products not serviced by Siemens"; and "[a]ny cause other than your ordinary and proper use of the Products." (Id.)

The ERP system's history of false alarms predated Siemens' work at the Wagner Facility. (Kelly Cert. Ex. C.) In the year prior to Siemens' work on the ERP system, the prison's "log book" recorded the occurrence of five ERP false alarms. (Id. at 2-3.) According to the log book, the incidence of false alarms tapered off after Siemens' initial work -- with only two false alarms occurring in 2000, the year following the installation of Siemens' equipment, four false alarms in 2001, and two false alarms in 2002. (Id. at 2-26.) In contrast with the data contained in the prison log book, Plaintiff asserts in an affidavit that "[p]rior to when Siemens first worked on the Emergency Red Phone System, false alarms in the system rarely occurred," but that "[r]epeated false alarms began to occur after the initial work that Siemens did on the . . . [system]." (Ellis Aff. ¶¶ 5-6) (emphasis omitted). According to Plaintiff, the false alarms would occur "maybe once a month or twice a month for maybe a couple of months, and then the system . . . [would seem] like it's working, and then maybe two or three months later you run into the same problem again . . ." (Ellis Dep. at 65.)

In addition to generating false alarms, the ERP system would at times cease working altogether. (Brophy Dep. 14.) According to Patrick Brophy, who served as Chief of Custody Operations at the Wagner Facility from 1997 to 2002, the facility was old and had a leaky roof, and when water would leak onto the cabling or the telecommunications equipment, it would lead the ERP system to malfunction. (Id. at 12.) On July 2, 2001, Mr. Brophy wrote a letter to Julio DelCastillo, a telecommunications analyst for the NJDOP, that described the problems the Wagner Facility was experiencing with the ERP system. (Schmitz Cert. Ex. G.) The letter stated that "as a result of moisture in various areas of the cabling system," the ERP system "has degenerated to the point where the phone repair contractor has stated that there are no further repairs that can be done until the wiring is recabled." (Id.) The damaged institutional cabling was replaced in 2003. (Barbo Cert. ¶ 11.)

C. Expert Reports

On August 18, 2006, Defendant moved for summary judgment on account of Plaintiff's failure to file an expert report that could link the false alarm that led to Plaintiff's injury to Siemens' products or services. In its February 7, 2007 Order [Docket Item 36], the Court agreed that Plaintiff had to present such expert testimony in order to prove his case, but denied Defendant's motion without prejudice, affording Plaintiff the opportunity to file an expert report. The Court found that Plaintiff could not proceed on either a negligence or product liability theory without expert testimony:

Under New Jersey law, expert testimony is required to establish a proposition that is beyond the understanding of an average juror, and the need for such reports in complex products liability cases is well established. See Sanzari v. Rosenfeld, 34 N.J. 128 (1961); Sparrow v. LaCachet, 305 N.J. Super. 301, 304-05 (App. Div. 1997). Indeed, expert testimony is necessary when the product is a "complex instrumentality" because the fact-finder needs assistance in understanding its technical intricacies and in excluding other possible causes of the occurrence. Rocco v. N.J. Transit Rail Operations, 330 N.J. Super. 320, 341 (App. Div. 2000).

[Docket Item 36]. Both parties subsequently submitted brief reports in the form of letters from engineering ...

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