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Benitez v. JMC Recycling Systems Ltd.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 28, 2017

ANTHONY BENITEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
JMC RECYCLING SYSTEMS LTD., et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          JOSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Hon. Joseph H. Rodriguez This matter is before the Court on motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant Strip Technology, Inc. [Dkt. No. 61]. The Court heard oral argument on the motion on April 25, 2017 and the record of that proceeding is incorporated here. For the reasons placed on the record that day, and those set forth below, Strip Technology Inc.'s motion for summary judgment will be denied.

         I. Background

         This case involves claims arising from a workplace accident which occurred on May 5, 2011 when Plaintiff Anthony Benitez was operating a metal recycling machine during the course of his employment at Former Defendant Doctor Copper, a metal recycling facility in Pennsauken, New Jersey. The metal recycling machine at issue is described as an “alligator shear” and is manufactured and distributed by Former Defendant JMC Recycling System Ltd. Defendant Strip Tech is a vendor of recycling equipment and sold the alligator shear at issue to Dr. Copper. See Compl., Ex. A; see also Alexander Dep. Tr., Ex. C, at 22:21 -23; 34:10-14; 14:7-9; 25:5-31:7.

         The alligator shear is a machine used to cut and manipulate scrap metal, of various shapes and sizes, by placing the metal between two blades that resemble an alligator's jaws. See Def. Sta. of Mat. Facts; Alligator Shear Operation and Maintenance Manual, attached to Coleman Dec. as Ex. “D.” The machine is operated through the use of a foot pedal that regulates the opening of the blades and the compression of the blades through a metal object. When the pedal is releases, the blades return to an open position. See id. at p. 1. The alligator shear machine is equipped with a safety guard, also referred to as a “cage guard” or blade guard” that covers the blades during operation, if it is manually pulled down. See Alexander Dep. Tr., Ex. C, at 44:5-45:2; see also Manual, Ex. D, at p. 18. If utilized, the cage guard also functions as an “infeed clamp, ” which holds down the metal material that is being inserted into the shear to allow the user to cut material without placing his or her hands near the blades. See Pl. Dep. Tr., Ex. B, at 46:9-22; see also Manual, Ex. D, at p. 18. Importantly, the machine operates even if the cage guard is not utilized.

         The cage guard was not utilized on the day Plaintiff was injured. Benitez Dep. at 61:18-62:12. According to Plaintiff, he was injured when he was using the alligator shear to cut a copper pipe and he tripped on materials and debris on the floor, causing him to lose his balance. See id. at 72:25-73:3; 82:15 -85:13; 86:20-95:1. To brace himself for a fall, Plaintiff placed is left had onto the engaged alligator shear machine, causing significant injury to three fingers on his left hand. See id. at 86:20-95:1; 102:12-15.

         As against moving Defendant Strip Tech, Plaintiff asserts violations of the New Jersey Products Liability Act (“NJPLA”), N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:58C-2 (Counts II, II, IV), a claim of negligence (Count VI), and consumer fraud (Count V). Defendant JMC Recycling was dismissed from this action for lack of personal jurisdiction on April 10, 2015. The claims against Doctor Copper were voluntarily dismissed by Plaintiff. [Dkt. No. 10].

         Strip Tech moves for summary judgment on all counts, arguing that it had Plaintiff fails to present admissible expert testimony to establish a prima facie case of product liability. Strip Tech argues that the testimony of Plaintiff's expert, George H. Meinschein, P.E. is unreliable, based entirely on speculation and unsupported conclusions rather than upon facts in the record and scientific methodology. Defendant argues, therefore, Plaintiff cannot establish proximate cause for his design defect and failure to warn claims. In addition, because Plaintiff fails to identify an affirmation or promise made by Strip Tech, summary judgment should be granted as to the breach of warranty claim.

         In his Opposition papers and on the record during argument, Plaintiff conceded that summary judgment is appropriate on the claim of defective or inadequate warning and the claim for breach of express warranty. As a result, summary judgment is granted in favor of Strip Tech as to those claims. For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgement. Plaintiff's expert's testimony is admissible and questions of fact germane to the establishment of a prima facie case of product liability and on causation merit denial of the remained of Strip Tech's motion.

         II. Standards of Review

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) generally provides that the “court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact” such that the movant is “entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Such a showing must be supported by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . . admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 (c)(1)(A).

         A “genuine” dispute of “material” fact exists where a reasonable jury's review of the evidence could result in “a verdict for the non-moving party” or where such fact might otherwise affect the disposition of the litigation. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts, however, will fail to preclude the entry of summary judgment. Id.

         In evaluating a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and must provide that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Halsey v. Pfeiffer, 750 F.3d 273, 287 (3d Cir. 2014). Any such inferences “must flow directly from admissible evidence[, ]” because “‘an inference based upon [ ] speculation or conjecture does not create a material factual dispute sufficient to defeat summary judgment.'” Halsey, 750 F.3d at 287 (quoting Robertson v. Allied Signal, Inc., 914 F.2d 360, 382 n.12 (3d Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255)).

         Accordingly, the moving party initially has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party has met this burden, the non-moving party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id.; Maidenbaum v. Bally's Park Place, Inc., 870 F.Supp. 1254, 1258 (D.N.J. 1994). Again, to withstand a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must identify specific facts and affirmative evidence that contradict those offered by the moving party. Andersen, 477 U.S. at 256-57. “A nonmoving party may not ‘rest upon mere allegations, general denials or . . . vague statements . . . .'” Trap Rock Indus., Inc. v. Local 825, Int'l Union of Operating Eng'rs, 982 F.2d 884, 890 (3d Cir. 1992) (quoting Quiroga v. Hasbro, Inc., 934 F.2d 497, 500 (3d Cir. 1991)). Indeed,

the plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who 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, 477 U.S. at 322. The movant can support the assertion that a fact cannot be genuinely disputed by showing that “an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the [alleged dispute of] fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(B); accord Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2).

         In deciding the merits of a party's motion for summary judgment, the court's role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). Credibility determinations are the province of the factfinder. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992). Finally, “[t]he standard by which the court decides a summary judgment motion does not change when the parties file cross-motions.” United States v. Kramer, 644 F.Supp.2d 479, 488 (D.N.J. 2008). Consequently, the court's evaluation of the pending motions remains unaltered: “the court must consider the motions independently and view the evidence on each motion in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Id. (citation omitted).

         B. The New Jersey Products Liability Act

A manufacturer or seller of a product shall be liable in a product liability action only if the claimant proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the product causing the harm was not reasonably fit, suitable or safe for its intended purpose because it: a. deviated from the design specifications, formulae, or performance standards of the manufacturer or from otherwise identical units manufactured to the same manufacturing specifications or formulae, or b. failed to contain adequate warnings or instructions, or c. was designed in a defective manner.

N.J.S.A. § 2A:58C-2. Three causes of action are established under the Act: claims for design defect, manufacturing defect, or warnings defect. Roberts v. Rich Foods, Inc., 654 A.2d 1365, 1380 (N.J. 1995).

         A successful design defect claim under the NJPLA requires that the product was defective, that the defect existed when the product left the defendant's control, and that the defect caused injury to a reasonably foreseeable user. Jurado v. Western Gear Works, 619 A.2d 1312, 1317 (N.J. 1993). “Whether a product is defective depends on whether it ‘is not reasonably fit, suitable and safe for its intended or reasonably foreseeable purposes.'” McGarvey v. G.I. Joe Septic Serv., Inc., 679 A.2d 733, 740 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. 1996) (quoting Jurado, 619 A.2d at 1317). To establish a design defect at the summary judgment stage, a plaintiff must provide sufficient evidence such that a reasonable jury could find “either that the product's risks outweighed its utility or that the product could have been designed in an alternative manner so as to minimize or eliminate the risk of harm.” Lewis v. American Cyanamid Co., 715 A.2d 967, 980 (N.J. 1998). The plaintiff thus bears a burden to demonstrate “under a risk-utility analysis the existence of an alternative design that is both practical and feasible.” Id.

         New Jersey courts use a seven-factor balancing test to determine whether a product is fit for its intended uses, considering:

(1) the usefulness and desirability of the product; (2) the likelihood and seriousness of injury; (3) the availability of a substitute product; (4) the manufacturer's ability to eliminate the danger without impairing the product's utility; (5) the user's ability to avoid danger by due care; (6) the user's anticipated awareness of the danger considering general public knowledge or the obvious condition or the existence of suitable warnings or instructions; and (7) the feasibility of the manufacturer's spreading the loss by setting the price or carrying liability insurance.

McGarvey, 679 A.2d at 740 (citing Johansen v. Makita USA, Inc., 607 A.2d 637 (1992)).

         C. Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert

         The guiding principles that inform the Court's judgment are found in Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 (1993). Federal Rule of Evidence 702 provides:

If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.

Fed. R. Evid. 702. Consistent with that Rule, Daubert established a “trilogy of restrictions” on the admissibility of expert testimony relating to scientific knowledge. See Calhoun v. Yamaha Motor Corp., 350 F.3d 316, 321 (3d Cir. 2003). This “trilogy” consists of “qualification, reliability and fit.” Id. The Third Circuit liberally construes the qualifications of an expert, noting that “a broad range of knowledge, skills, and training will qualify a witness as an expert ...” See Yarchak v. Trek Bicycle Corp., 208 F.Supp.2d 470, 495 (D.N.J. 2002) (quoting In re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litig., 35 F.3d 717, 741 (3d Cir. 1994) (“Paoli II”)) (internal quotations omitted). The qualifications of Mr. Meinschein are not at issue.

         With respect to reliability, the focus is on the “principles and methodology, not on the conclusions that they generate.” Daubert, 509 U.S. at 595. Four benchmarks help determine whether a theory or technique qualifies as “scientific knowledge” such that it will assist the trier of fact. See Daubert, 509 U.S. at 593. The Court considers: (1) whether the theory can be or has been tested; (2) whether the theory or technique has been subjected to peer review and/or publication; (3) the rate of error; and (4) whether the theory or technique has been generally accepted within the putative expert's respective community. Id. at 593-94. The Third Circuit adds other factors, including: (5) the existence and maintenance of standards controlling the technique's operation; (6) the relationship of the technique to methods which have been established to be reliable; (7) the qualifications of the expert testifying based on the methodology; and (8) the non judicial uses to which the method has been put. Paoli II, 35 F.3d at 742 n. 8. When considering these factors, the Court's inquiry must be a “flexible one.” Id.

         As for the third prong, Rule 702 requires that the “proffered expert testimony must ‘fit' within the facts of the case.” Yarchak, at 208 F.Supp.2d at 496. The fit requirement mandates that the testimony “in fact assist the jury, by providing it with relevant information, necessary for a reasoned decision of the case.” Id. (citing Magistrini v. One Hour Martinizing Dry Cleaning, 180 F.Supp.2d 584, 595 (D.N.J. 2002)). Thus, even if an expert is qualified and relies on sound methodology, he must still “apply this expertise to the matter at hand.” See Calhoun, 350 F.3d at 324. These factors are not exclusive. They “are intended to serve only as ‘useful guideposts, not dispositive hurdles that a party must overcome in order to have expert testimony admitted.'” Yarchak, 208 F.Supp.2d at 495 (quoting Heller v. Shaw Industries, Inc., 167 F.3d 146, 152 (3d Cir. 1999)). With the help of these guideposts, the Court performs its essential gatekeeper role under Federal Rules of Evidence 702.

         III. Analysis

         There are questions of fact related to whether Plaintiff satisfies his burden of demonstrating defective design by satisfying the “risk-utility” analysis and whether the design defect is a proximate cause of the accident. In addition, the Court rejects Defendant Strip Tech's argument that Mr. Meinschein's opinion is an unreliable net opinion. Giving Plaintiff the benefit of every doubt and available inference, summary judgment is denied because reasonable jurors could disagree as to whether the reasonably foreseeable risk of harm posed by the reasonably foreseeable use of the product could have been reduced or avoided by a reasonably alternative design and whether the defective design is a proximate cause of the accident.

         Here, the parties agree that the risks associated with the use of the machine are high and that operation of the machine can be hazardous. The tension in this case is created by the fact that the cage guard was not operational and that there was debris in the area of the machine which created a tripping hazard for the operator. In addition, although the machine came with various operational guidelines and warnings, Plaintiff's employer Dr. Copper, which is not a party to this action, never properly trained Plaintiff on the use of the alligator shear and did not provide plaintiff with the Operations Manual. See Pl. Dep. at 12.

         Plaintiff testified that he never used the cage guard while operating the machine and never saw any of his co-corkers use the cage guard when operating the machine. See id. at 61:14-63:5; see also Manual, Ex. D, at p. 2-3, 9 & 18.

Q. Okay. Just to go back to what Gio told you in terms of how to operate the shear he told you how to turn it on by pressing the green button; correct?
A. Correct.
Q. Was there anything else that he told you about how to operate this machine?
A. No.
Q. Did anybody else at Dr. Copper provide you with any other information on how to operate the machine?
A. No, Ma'am.
Q. Did anybody ever tell you the type of metal that could be used in the machine?
A. No, Ma'am.
Q. Did anybody ever show you or tell you that this what I just referred to as a ...

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