819 F.2d 1158 (D.C. Cir. 1987), 86-5061, Exum v. General Elec. Co.

Docket Nº:86-5061.
Citation:819 F.2d 1158
Party Name:Reginald EXUM, Appellant v. GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY.
Case Date:May 29, 1987
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
 
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Page 1158

819 F.2d 1158 (D.C. Cir. 1987)

Reginald EXUM, Appellant

v.

GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY.

No. 86-5061.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

May 29, 1987

Argued Dec. 12, 1986.

Page 1159

Leonard J. Koenick, Washington, D.C., for appellant.

Frank J. Martell, Rockville, Md., for appellee.

Before WALD, Chief Judge, MIKVA, Circuit Judge, and GESELL [*], District Judge.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge MIKVA.

MIKVA, Circuit Judge:

Appellant Reginald Exum suffered first- and second-degree burns while using a french fryer designed and marketed by General Electric ("GE"). He sued the company under several theories, the most important of which for purposes of this appeal is negligent design. At the close of Exum's case, the trial court directed a verdict

Page 1160

for General Electric. Exum contends in this appeal that the trial court erroneously excluded expert testimony and evidence of similar accidents. He also argues that the evidence he did adduce at trial was sufficient to send the case to the jury. Finally, he challenges the trial court's decision not to sanction General Electric for alleged recalcitrance in discovery. We affirm the trial court's decision not to sanction GE, but reverse its other rulings.

I. BACKGROUND

Mr. Exum was 19 years old and a new employee at a Wendy's franchise on June 10, 1983, the date of the accident giving rise to this suit. One of Exum's duties was filtering the hot grease used in his employer's GE Model 811 french fryer (the "Model 811"). This task required Exum to lift a six-pound pan containing 15 pounds of grease at a temperature of 350 degrees and pour the grease through a paper cone filter into a second pan placed on the floor.

Exum is asthmatic and carries with him a pressurized asthma inhaler. As he poured the grease through the filter, the inhaler dropped from his shirt pocket into the scalding liquid. An explosion occurred, and Exum was burned and scarred on his face, neck, and chest.

Exum brought suit in the District Court of the District of Columbia against GE and Wendy's (which is not a party to this appeal). GE responded to Exum's interrogatories after the court granted a motion to compel, and its responses were, in Exum's opinion, evasive and incomplete. Exum moved for sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(d), but the trial court denied the motion.

The premise of Exum's negligent design theory was that the Model 811 is an obviously and unreasonably dangerous machine. At trial, Exum hoped to show that the company was unreasonable to market an industrial french fryer requiring the use of two open pans when a safer fryer with a closed filtration system could have been created by installing an inexpensive manual siphon. In support of this theory, Exum sought to introduce evidence of other cases in which young employees of Wendy's had been burned seriously while filtering grease with the Model 811. The trial court first made a tentative decision to admit evidence of these other incidents, but ultimately it excluded the evidence. The court reasoned that all but one of the other cases were not sufficiently similar to Mr. Exum's to be relevant, because they did not involve an employee's accidentally dropping an object into the grease. The court excluded the remaining case on the rationale that because it occurred after Exum's accident, it could not be used to show either notice or dangerousness.

Exum also sought to introduce the expert testimony of a Mr. Stanley Kalin, a registered professional engineer who had experience with occupational injuries and issues of safety and health. Exum intended to use Mr. Kalin to demonstrate that there were feasible and economical alternatives to GE's open-pan system. This testimony would have tended to show that the Model 811 is unreasonably dangerous. The court, however, decided that Kalin was not qualified to testify because he had no experience with kitchen equipment, including french fryers, found in fast food restaurants such as Wendy's.

The court did permit Exum to introduce a blueprint of an inexpensive manual siphon marketed by GE and to read into evidence answers to interrogatories indicating that the siphon cost under $100. Exum argued that this evidence, combined with his own testimony concerning his injuries, presented a jury question on the issue of negligent design even without the excluded evidence. The court disagreed and granted GE's motion for a directed verdict. This appeal followed.

II. DISCUSSION

Exum raises four issues on appeal. First, he argues the court should have admitted the evidence of other injuries involving the Model 811. Second, he challenges the trial court's exclusion of Mr. Kalin's expert testimony. Third, he contends that...

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