Clark v. River Metals Recycling, LLC

Citation929 F.3d 434
Decision Date02 July 2019
Docket Number18-3141,Nos. 18-3034,s. 18-3034
Parties Richard A. CLARK, Plaintiff-Appellant, Cross-Appellee, v. RIVER METALS RECYCLING, LLC, Defendant-Appellee, Cross-Appellant, and Sierra International Machinery, LLC, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)

Stephanie A. Brauer, Attorney, Colleen C. Jones, Attorney, Cook, Bartholomew, Shevlin & Cook, LLP, Belleville, IL, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

James Craney, Attorney, Craney Law Group, LLC, Edwardsville, IL, for Defendant-Appellant.

John M. Socolow, Attorney, Fitzpatrick & Hunt, Pagano, Aubert, LLP, Stamford, CT; David A. Schott, Scott D. Bjorseth, Attorneys, Rynearson, Suess, Schnurbusch & Champion, LLC, Edwardsville, IL, for Sierra International Machinery, LLC.

Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Scudder and St. Eve, Circuit Judges.

Wood, Chief Judge.

Accidents unfortunately happen on business premises with some regularity. The workers’ compensation system normally governs payments from employers to injured workers, but those workers are free to sue other parties, such as suppliers or lessors of machinery that is used on the site. That is what happened here: Richard A. Clark was badly injured as he was getting off a car-crushing machine known as a mobile RB6000 Logger/Baler ("the Crusher"), which was used by his employer, Thornton Auto Crushing, LLC. He sued both the manufacturer of the Crusher, Sierra International Machinery, LLC, and the company that had leased it to Thornton, River Metals Recycling, LLC, asserting that they were liable to him under Illinois tort law because it was defectively designed. The district court granted summary judgment in both defendants’ favor after it decided to strike the testimony from Clark’s expert. Even taking the facts in the light most favorable to Clark, as we must, we conclude that the district court was correct to take this action. We therefore affirm its judgment.


Scrap cars eventually end up with a company such as Thornton, which crushes cars and sends what remains to a salvage company. One of the machines Thornton used to squash the cars was the Crusher. The Crusher had been assembled in Italy and then imported into the United States by Sierra. Sierra sold it to a company called Tri-State, which in turn conveyed it to River Metals through an asset-only purchase agreement. River Metals leased it to Thornton.

The Crusher was a rather large machine, as the picture of it that appears in the record shows:


Every other day or so for about 18 months before his accident, Clark had worked with this machine. He was responsible for daily maintenance, including checking the oil, antifreeze, and hydraulic fluids. In order to perform these tasks, he would clamber up the right side of the machine, stepping and grabbing onto whatever was handy: the hydraulic lines, a hose, or a cylinder, for example. This was not a method endorsed by Sierra: it recommended instead that workers use either a ladder or a working platform, such as a manlift or a forklift, to reach the tanks. When the time came to get down, Clark typically turned, stepped down from the tank-level platform (about 60 inches above the ground) onto the steel plate on top of the stabilizer (about 45 inches from the ground), and from there jumped the rest of the way.

On March 11, 2013, Clark finished his work up on the machine and attempted to dismount as usual. But this time he slipped, fell to the ground, and landed on his outstretched arm, shattering his elbow. He was taken to the Emergency Department at Carbondale Memorial Hospital; the Hospital recorded that "[a]s he was getting off the bailer [sic ] apparently he slipped in some hydraulic fluid." Since the accident, Clark’s left arm has been almost completely useless, and he has been in constant pain. He has not been able to work, despite an effort to return to Thornton.


A little less than two years later, Clark filed a products-liability complaint against River Metals and Sierra in the Circuit Court of St. Clair County, Illinois. In it, he alleged that the Crusher was defective and unreasonably dangerous, because it failed to provide an adequate platform, handrails, or other area for performing routine maintenance. (Sierra named several third-party defendants, but the district court dismissed them, and they play no part in this appeal.) River Metals and Sierra removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois on the basis of diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). After motion practice not relevant here, the district court granted summary judgment for both defendants on the ground that Clark could use only Illinois’s risk-utility test for his defective-design theory, see Calles v. Scripto-Tokai Corp. , 224 Ill. 2d 247, 255–59, 309 Ill.Dec. 383, 864 N.E.2d 249 (2007), and that he had failed to present admissible expert evidence for that purpose.

The problem was not that Clark failed to present an expert: he did, in the person of Dr. James Blundell. Dr. Blundell has been a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Missouri for over 30 years, and he has published many peer-reviewed articles in that field. He opined that the Crusher should have had a ladder, toeboards, and guardrails. In support of those recommendations, he pointed to a standard published by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) recommending that a ladder be available at the front platform of the machine for safe ascent and descent. This would have required an alteration of the front platform, but Dr. Blundell thought that this would be straightforward—it could be done by mimicking the cab end of the machine. He did not, however, develop this idea any further or provide any sketches as examples. That would have been difficult, Clark argues, because the defendants had refused to make their drawings or specifications for the machine available to him.

The district court found that Dr. Blundell’s testimony did not satisfy the threshold criteria of Federal Rule of Evidence 702 —in particular, the requirement that "the expert ... reliably appl[y] the principles and methods to the facts of the case." FED. R. EVID. 702(d). It did so for several reasons. First, looking at Dr. Blundell’s deposition, the court noted that "he repeatedly demonstrated ... that he does not understand how to perform daily maintenance on the machine." Second, because Dr. Blundell had no alternative design to offer, the court thought that his opinion was "nothing more than a bare conclusion that adds nothing of value to the judicial process." See Clark v. River Metals Recycling, LLC , No. 3:15-cv-00447-JPG-RJD, 2018 WL 3108891, at *6 (S.D. Ill. June 25, 2018) (cleaned up) (quoting McMahon v. Bunn-O-Matic Corp. , 150 F.3d 651, 658 (7th Cir. 1998) ). Third, Dr. Blundell eventually admitted that the ANSI standard to which he had pointed did not insist on a fixed ladder, as opposed to an external ladder. (Indeed, that standard—as quoted in Dr. Blundell’s report—is concerned with the need for railings, not ladders.) For all those reasons, the court struck Dr. Blundell’s testimony. It also rejected Clark’s last-ditch effort to rely on the testimony of Sierra’s Service Tech Manager, Antonio Torres, in support of the defective-design theory. Taking that testimony in the light most favorable to Clark, Torres admitted that it would be feasible to put a ladder and a handrail somewhere on the front platform, but critically, Torres also said that there were "other ways" to provide a safe way of getting on and off the machine. Id. at *7. Those "other ways" were Sierra’s designed and intended ways: an external ladder, forklift, or manlift.

Without admissible expert testimony, the district court held, Clark’s suit could not survive. The court accordingly granted summary judgment for both defendants and dismissed all other claims. It also refused to allow Clark to amend his complaint to introduce a failure-to-warn theory. Such an 11th-hour amendment would gravely prejudice the defendants, the court concluded, and there was no justification for Clark’s delay in raising the claim. Clark has appealed only from the summary judgment ruling, not from the denial of leave to amend.


Clark’s principal argument on appeal is that the district court erred in its treatment of Dr. Blundell, and more broadly in its decision that expert testimony was essential. He first contends that the court should have held a hearing before excluding Dr. Blundell’s testimony. Second, he argues that expert testimony was not necessary to establish the "common-sense" point that a safety feature such as a built-in ladder had to be included in order to make the Crusher safe.


We consider de novo the question whether the district court properly applied the Rule 702 framework (often called the Daubert framework, after the Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. , 509 U.S. 579, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 (1993), which was largely codified in the Rule). Lapsley v. Xtek, Inc. , 689 F.3d 802, 809 (7th Cir. 2012). In so doing, we bear in mind that the threshold inquiry "is not designed to have the district judge take the place of the jury to decide ultimate issues of credibility and accuracy." Id. at 805. If the district court has properly applied the Rule, our review of the decision to admit or exclude evidence is deferential. Id.

Turning first to the question of basic methodology, we find no error in the district court’s application of Rule 702. The court summarized the Rule accurately and then turned to the task of applying it to Dr. Blundell’s testimony. Our review of that application is only for abuse of discretion.

The district court’s decision to exclude the testimony represented a reasonable assessment of the proposed evidence. It found Dr. Blundell’s methodology to be unclear and conclusory, and we have no trouble following its thinking. We see no deficiency in the district court’s decision about the...

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