992 F.2d 1408 (5th Cir. 1993), 92-3511, Kelley v. Price-Macemon, Inc.

Docket Nº:92-3511.
Citation:992 F.2d 1408
Party Name:Cynthia Ann KELLEY, Individually and on Behalf of Her Minor Children Jerred Seth Kelley and Cindy Lynn Kelley, Plaintiff-Appellant Cross-Appellee, v. PRICE-MACEMON, INC., et al., Defendants, Industrial Refrigerated Systems, Inc., Defendant-Appellee Cross-Appellant.
Case Date:June 15, 1993
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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Page 1408

992 F.2d 1408 (5th Cir. 1993)

Cynthia Ann KELLEY, Individually and on Behalf of Her Minor

Children Jerred Seth Kelley and Cindy Lynn Kelley,

Plaintiff-Appellant Cross-Appellee,

v.

PRICE-MACEMON, INC., et al., Defendants,

Industrial Refrigerated Systems, Inc., Defendant-Appellee

Cross-Appellant.

No. 92-3511.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

June 15, 1993

Page 1409

Henry L. Klein, New Orleans, LA, for appellant.

Claude David Vasser, Leigh Ann Schell, Vasser & Trinchard, New Orleans, LA, for appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Before KING and EMILIO M. GARZA, Circuit Judges, and COBB [*], District Judge.

KING, Circuit Judge:

After the tragic death of her husband in an ice-plant accident, Cynthia A. Kelley brought this products liability action against Industrial Refrigerated Systems, Inc., and other parties involved in the manufacture, installation, and sale of the ice plant. All named defendants except Industrial ultimately were dismissed from the action, and the case was tried to a jury, which returned a verdict in favor of Industrial. On Kelley's motion, however, the district court ordered a new trial on the sole issue of Industrial's liability as the seller of the plant. Industrial subsequently filed a motion seeking summary judgment on this same issue, which the district court granted.

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Kelley now appeals, arguing that the district court erred in granting summary judgment. On cross-appeal, Industrial contends that the district court should never have ordered the new trial. After a careful review of the record, we conclude that the district court properly granted Industrial's motion for summary judgment. We therefore affirm the judgment of the district court, and we need not reach the question of whether the district court erred in granting the new trial.

I.

In January 1987, Industrial Refrigerated Systems, Inc., ("Industrial") contracted with Delton Demere to provide the equipment for an ice plant, which was to be assembled in Leeville, Louisiana, along Bayou Lafourche. The plant was designed to provide a fully automated, or "pushbutton," system for delivering ice for sale to local fishermen, shrimpers, and seafood companies. Its primary components were: (1) a commercial ice-making machine; (2) a large refrigerated storage bin or silo, in which bulk ice would be stored; and (3) an automated delivery system, which would move the ice out of the storage bin.

The delivery system consisted of a "sweep" auger--large rotating screws which pivoted around a gearbox in the center of the storage bin's steel floor, sweeping the floor and pulling the ice into a chute--and a conveyor belt, which then transported the ice out to the point of sale. On the side of the storage bin were four small service doors, which provided access to the inside of the bin. The system's control panel was located outside of the bin, near one of the service doors.

Pursuant to the contract, Industrial arranged for the delivery of the plant's component parts to the job site, while Demere built the foundation and made arrangements for the installation of the components. Price-Macemon, Inc., the manufacturer of the storage bin and auger, provided a factory representative to supervise the installation. By late May, the ice plant was fully installed and ready for operation. Prior to commencing commercial operations, however, Damas Demere, Delton's brother and the general manager of the ice plant, held a start-up meeting, at which time he, David Easley, the installation contractor, and representatives of Industrial conducted a walk-through of the plant. During this walk-through, the participants entered the ice storage bin to "work out" some problems with the auger and, while inside, saw the auger "mutilate" a metal shovel. 1 The participants later offered differing versions of the incident: Demere stated that Easley was holding the shovel, and the auger "pulled it out of his hand"; Easley stated that he "threw it in there" as a "demonstration."

From its first day of operation, the ice plant had problems. Apparently because the storage bin was inadequately insulated, a layer of ice at the top of the bin often would freeze or "clump" up while the ice-maker was not actually in production. When this clump of ice reached the bottom of the bin, the auger would not grab the ice and move it to the chute. Instead, the ice would "bridge," or stay on top of the auger, which then would push the ice around the floor of the bin. The result was a complete interruption in the delivery of the ice. Efforts to change the consistency of the ice produced by the ice-maker failed to remedy the problem. Consequently, it occasionally became necessary for an ice-plant employee to climb into the storage bin to break up the ice clump with a pick or a shovel. In order to clear the ice from the bin as quickly as possible, plant employees developed the unfortunate practice of climbing into the bin while the auger was running, chopping the ice, and feeding it into the auger.

On the morning of July 5, 1987, Steve Fillimich, an ice-plant employee, turned on the delivery system, climbed into the storage bin, and began breaking up the approximately eighteen inches of ice that lay on the floor of the storage bin. When a second employee, Jack Kelley, arrived for work, he took over the ice-chopping duties inside the bin while Fillimich went outside to feed the ice into a truck. After several minutes, Fillimich

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noticed that the ice had stopped coming out of the bin. When Fillimich investigated, he discovered that Jack Kelley, who somehow had become entangled in the auger, was dead.

In July 1988, Cynthia Kelley filed this diversity action on behalf of herself and her two minor children, seeking damages arising from her husband's death. In her complaint, Kelley named as defendants eleven parties, including Industrial, allegedly involved in the manufacture, installation, and sale of the ice plant. 2 Prior to trial, however, Kelley's claims against all defendants except Industrial were dismissed. 3

Kelley's claims against Industrial were tried before a jury in early October 1991. Kelley pursued two theories of liability. She argued primarily that Industrial, as the "manufacturer" of the ice plant, was strictly liable for her husband's death. Alternatively, she argued that, even if Industrial were found not to be the manufacturer of the plant, it nonetheless would be liable as the seller of the plant for its failure to warn of a dangerous condition. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Industrial, and the district court entered a judgment in accordance with the jury's verdict on October 11, 1991.

Kelley timely moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, alternatively, for a new trial. Concluding that "reasonable and fair-minded" jurors could have reached the same verdict, the district court denied Kelley's request for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The court nevertheless granted Kelley's motion for a new trial on the sole issue of Industrial's liability as the seller of the ice plant. 4

Thereafter, on April 10, 1992, Industrial filed a motion for summary judgment. In its motion, Industrial asserted that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the summary judgment evidence demonstrated that it did not have knowledge of any defects or dangerous conditions in the ice plant and, alternatively, that it had no duty to warn of the auger's obvious danger. The motion was set for hearing on April 29. Thus, under Uniform Louisiana Local Rule 2.07E, Kelley was required to file her response to the motion for summary judgment on April 21, or eight calendar days prior to the hearing date.

Industrial's motion for summary judgment arrived at the office of Kelley's attorney, Henry L. Klein, on Monday, April 13. Mr. Klein, however, was out of town during the entire week of April 13 on a "combination vacation/brief-writing" trip. He allegedly did not discover the motion until late Tuesday, April 21. At that time, Mr. Klein contacted opposing counsel to request an extension of time in which to file his response, and he was informed that Industrial would not oppose an extension. Significantly, Mr. Klein failed to contact the district court on April 21 to request an extension.

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The district court, having received no response from Kelley on April 21, reviewed Industrial's motion for summary judgment without the benefit of opposition. It found the motion to have merit and therefore granted summary judgment in favor of Industrial. A judgment to that effect was entered by the district court on April 22. Thus, when Mr. Klein finally contacted the district court on April 24, he discovered that his client's action against Industrial had been dismissed.

Four days later, on April 28, Mr. Klein filed a motion for reconsideration and a short memorandum in opposition to Industrial's motion for summary judgment. In the motion for reconsideration, Klein argued that Kelley was entitled to relief from judgment under Rule 60(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on the grounds of inadvertence or excusable neglect. 5 The district court disagreed, but, "in an abundance of caution," reconsidered Industrial's motion for summary judgment "on the merits with the benefit of plaintiff's opposition." After considering Industrial's motion in light of Kelley's response, the district court concluded that, although a fact issue did exist with respect to Industrial's knowledge of the auger's dangerousness, Industrial nevertheless was entitled to summary judgment because the auger in which Kelley had become entangled presented an obvious danger against which Industrial had...

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