Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Zofia Leja, Individually and As General Administratix and v. Schmidt Manufacturing

August 22, 2011

ZOFIA LEJA, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS GENERAL ADMINISTRATIX AND ADMINISTRATIX AD PROSEQUENDUM OF THE ESTATE OF KAZIMIERZ LEJA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SCHMIDT MANUFACTURING, INC. AND SYLVAN EQUIPMENT CORP., DEFENDANTS.



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

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

This matter arises out of an industrial accident that occurred on May 4, 2000. That day, decedent Kazimierz Leja suffered severe injuries ("the accident") when he attempted to open a bulk sandblasting unit ("the machine") manufactured by Defendant Schmidt Manufacturing, Inc. ("Schmidt") while the machine was still pressurized. Mr. Leja died of an alcohol overdose on March 25, 2008. Alleging that the machine was defectively designed*fn1 and that the accident caused his eventual overdose, his widow, Plaintiff Zofia Leja, asserts claims against Schmidt for (1) wrongful death, (2) survivor benefits for damages suffered by Mr. Leja before his death, and (3) loss of consortium. In support of her design defect allegations, Plaintiff argues that the "camlock closure," the cover at the top of the machine, qualified as a "quick-opening or quick-actuating closure" under the 1995 edition of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' Code-a list of industry standards on the design and manufacture of machines such as the one at issue in this case. That edition of the Code required manufacturers of devices that utilized such closures to install a visible or audible warning device in order to warn users not to open the closure while the machine is pressurized. As such, Plaintiff maintains that Schmidt should have installed a pressure-indicating device at the top of the machine, such as a pressure gauge, that would have indicated to Mr. Leja that the machine was pressurized before he attempted to open it. Schmidt argues that it was not required install such a device on the machine because the camlock closure was not quick-actuating.

As this matter nears trial, the parties seek reconsideration and/or clarification of several prior rulings. On July 8, 2011, Schmidt filed a Motion for Reconsideration of the Court's April 6, 2011 ruling that (1) the statements in Schmidt's expert report by its Human Factors Expert, Steven Wilcox, regarding Mr. Leja's conduct as the cause of the accident be redacted, and that

(2) Mr. Leja is entitled the presumption that he would have heeded a pressure-indicating device had such a device been installed on the machine on the day of the accident. Schmidt also seeks clarification regarding whether, in pursuing its cross-claim against former Defendant Sylvan Equipment Corporation (Sylvan), it is entitled to the presumption that Mr. Leja would have heeded certain warning labels that were removed from the machine by Sylvan.

That same day, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Reconsideration of the Court's March 31, 2010 ruling allowing Schmidt to argue at trial that Sylvan's removal of warning labels from the machine was the sole proximate cause of the accident. Plaintiff also seeks clarification regarding whether the jury will be allowed to apportion liability for the accident between Schmidt and Sylvan at trial.

For the reasons set forth below, both motions will be granted in part and denied in part. Schmidt may introduce evidence of Mr. Leja's conduct at trial to show that (1) it was unforeseeable and therefore that the machine was not defective, and (2) it was the proximate cause of the accident. However, to the extent the jury finds (1) an instance of Mr. Leja's conduct to have been a foreseeable misuse of the machine, and (2) that the machine is defective based on Schmidt's failure to adequately prevent that foreseeable misuse, it may not consider whether that instance proximately caused the accident. Accordingly, the statements in Schmidt's expert report by its Human Factors Expert, Steven Wilcox, regarding Mr. Leja's conduct as the cause of the accident need not be redacted. However, the jury may not consider those statements to the extent that they are based on one or more instances of conduct that the jury finds (1) to have been a foreseeable misuse of the machine, and (2) that the machine is defective based on Schmidt's failure to adequately prevent that foreseeable misuse.

Plaintiff is entitled to the presumption that Mr. Leja would have heeded a pressure-indicating device, notwithstanding whether Plaintiff's pursues a theory of liability at trial based on a design defect or a warning defect. Similarly in pursuing its cross-claim against Sylvan, Schmidt is entitled to the presumption that Mr. Leja would have heeded the warning labels that Schmidt removed from the machine.

Finally, under the doctrine of concurrent causation, the jury may not apportion liability at trial between Schmidt and Sylvan. However, the jury may relieve Schmidt of liability entirely by finding that Sylvan's removal of warning labels from the machine was the sole proximate cause of the accident.

I. BACKGROUND

The facts underlying this action are set forth in the Court's March 31, 2008 and March 31, 2010 rulings, See Leja v. Schmidt Manuf., Inc., 2008 WL 906252 (D.N.J. 2008) and Leja v. Schmidt Manuf., Inc., 2010 WL 1372226 (D.N.J. 2010), respectively. Thus, for the sake of brevity, the Court will incorporate by reference the "background" section of those rulings and will refrain from revisiting the majority of the information set forth therein. However, the Court will summarize relevant portions of those rulings, as well portions of its April 6, 2011 ruling, that inform today's ruling.

In its March 31, 2010 ruling, the Court considered, among other things, a Motion for Summary Judgment submitted by Sylvan against Schmidt's claims against it for contribution and indemnification. In its motion, Sylvan argued that the evidence in the record, particularly the expert deposition testimony, "overwhelmingly suggests that the missing warning labels did not proximately cause the accident." Leja, 2008 WL 906252, at *2. In denying Sylvan's motion, the Court noted that "while the experts' opinions cast doubt on the causation issue, they are not conclusive." Id. at *4. In addition, the Court found "evidence to the contrary." Id. at *3. As a result, the Court held that "a jury could reasonably infer that the absence of the warning labels was a proximate cause of Leja's injuries." Id. at *4.

In its March 31, 2010 ruling, the Court considered two Motions for Summary Judgment submitted by Schmidt and two Motions in Limine-one submitted by Plaintiff and one by Schmidt. In its second Motion for Summary Judgment, Schmidt argued that Plaintiff's claim that the machine was defectively designed should be dismissed because she failed to submit evidence of a reasonable alternative design. The Court dismissed Plaintiff's design claim to the extent that it was based on Schmidt's failure to install a "pop-up valve"-a device that would have prevented Mr. Leja from opening the machine while it was still pressurized-but allowed the claim to move forward to the extent that it was based on Schmidt's failure to include a visible gauge or other pressure-indicating device near the camlock closure that would have indicated to Mr. Leja that the machine was pressurized before he attempted to open it. In doing so, the Court found that Plaintiff failed to provide meaningful expert testimony regarding the feasibility of an alternative design that included a "pop-up valve." In addition, the Court rejected Schmidt's argument that the failure to include a pressure-indicating device only gives rise to a claim premised on a warning defect, and not one premised on a design defect. Specifically, the Court found that "[t]he categorization of Plaintiff's claim is unimportant-her cause of action arises under the same statute, requires the same standard of proof, and will result in the same damages regardless of whether she argues at trial that the machine was defectively designed because it did not include a visible and/or audible warning device near the top of the pressure vessel or that Schmidt failed to properly warn users of the danger of opening the machine while pressurized by failing to include such a device." Leija, 2010 WL 1372226, at *9. As a result, the Court permitted Plaintiff to "argue under either theory at trial." Id.

In her Motion in Limine, Plaintiff argued, among other things, that Schmidt should not be allowed to introduce evidence of Mr. Leja's comparative negligence in operating the machine. The Court ruled that the Schmidt may not introduce evidence of Mr. Leja's conduct at trial to establish comparative negligence, but that such evidence could be introduced to show that his conduct was the sole proximate cause of the accident. In doing so, the Court rejected Plaintiff's argument that Mr. Leja's conduct is inadmissible under the New Jersey Supreme Court's decision in Jurado v. Western Gear Works, 131 N.J. 375 (1993), which carved out an exception to the traditional proximate cause inquiry in cases where a product is found defective solely because the manufacturer failed to include a safety device that would have prevented the plaintiff's injuries. See 131 N.J. at 388.

The Court noted that there were "at least two factual questions that must be answered by the jury before the Jurado exception would apply: (1) whether Schmidt's failure to include a warning gauge constituted a design defect, and (2) whether Mr. Leja would have noticed and heeded such a gauge." Leija, 2010 WL 1372226, at *12. These factual questions precluded a ruling that would prevent Schmidt from introducing evidence of Mr. Leja's negligent conduct at trial. As to the second factual question, the Court found that Plaintiff was entitled to a rebuttable presumption under New Jersey state law that Mr. Leja would have heeded a pressure-indicating device had such a device been installed by Schmidt ("the heeding presumption").

On April 6, 2011, the Court held a pre-trial hearing where it (1) ruled, among other things, that the statements in Schmidt's expert report by its Human Factors Expert, Steven Wilcox, regarding Mr. Leja's conduct as the cause of the accident must be redacted and cannot be used at trial, and (2) reaffirmed that Plaintiff is entitled to the heeding presumption.

II. DISCUSSION

Schmidt now moves for reconsideration of the two aforementioned April 6, 2011 rulings pursuant to Local Civil Rule 7.1(i). In doing so, it argues that (1) redacting Mr. Wilcox's statements regarding Mr. Leja's negligent conduct as the cause of the accident would be inconsistent with the Court's March 31, 2010 ruling allowing Schmidt to introduce such conduct as the sole proximate cause of the accident, and (2) Plaintiff is not entitled to the heeding presumption because that presumption only applies to claims premised on a warning defect, while Plaintiff's claim is premised on a design defect. Schmidt also seeks clarification regarding whether it is entitled to the heeding presumption with respect to its cross-claim against Sylvan. In doing so, it argues that the heeding presumption should apply to that claim because it is premised on a warning defect.

Plaintiff moves for reconsideration of the Court's March 31, 2010 ruling allowing Schmidt to argue at trial that Sylvan's removal of warning labels from the machine was the sole proximate cause of the accident. In doing so, Plaintiff contends that such an argument lacks support in the record. Plaintiff also seeks clarification regarding whether the jury will be allowed to apportion liability for the accident between Schmidt and Sylvan at trial. In doing so, Plaintiff argues that Schmidt may only be relieved of liability if the jury finds Schmidt's removal of the warning labels from the machine to be the sole proximate cause of the accident.

A. Standard of Review

"[I]t is well-established in this district that a motion for reconsideration is an extremely limited procedural vehicle." Resorts Int'l v. Greate Bay Hotel & Casino, 830 F. Supp. 826, 831 (D.N.J. 1992). As such, a party seeking reconsideration must satisfy a high burden, and must "rely on one of three major grounds: (1) an intervening change in controlling law; (2) the availability of new evidence not available previously; or (3) the need to correct clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice." N. River Ins. Co. v. CIGNA Reins. Co., 52 F.3d 1194, 1218 (3d Cir. 1995).

Since the evidence relied upon in seeking reconsideration must be "newly discovered," a motion for reconsideration may not be premised on legal theories that could have been adjudicated or evidence which was available but not presented prior to the earlier ruling. See id. Local Civil Rule 7.1(i), which governs such motions, provides that they shall be confined to "matter[s] or controlling decisions which the party believes the Judge or Magistrate Judge has 'overlooked.'" The word "overlooked" is the dominant term, meaning that except in cases where there is a need to correct a clear error or manifest injustice, "[o]nly dispositive factual matters and controlling decisions of law which were presented to the court but not considered on the original motion may be the subject of a motion ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.