Ex parte Harbor Freight Tools USA, Inc., 012221 ALSC, 1190969

Docket Nº1190969
Opinion JudgeMENDHEIM, Justice.
Party NameEx parte Harbor Freight Tools USA, Inc. v. Harbor Freight Tools USA, Inc., et al. In re: Thomas Webster and Juanita Webster
Judge PanelParker, C.J., and Shaw, Wise, Bryan, Stewart, and Mitchell, JJ., concur. Bolin and Sellers, JJ., concur in the result. SELLERS, Justice (concurring in the result). Bolin, J., concurs.
Case DateJanuary 22, 2021
CourtSupreme Court of Alabama

Ex parte Harbor Freight Tools USA, Inc.

In re: Thomas Webster and Juanita Webster

v.

Harbor Freight Tools USA, Inc., et al.

No. 1190969

Supreme Court of Alabama

January 22, 2021

Lowndes Circuit Court, CV-18-900016

PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS

MENDHEIM, Justice.

Harbor Freight Tools USA, Inc. ("Harbor Freight"), petitions this Court for a writ of mandamus directing the Lowndes Circuit Court to vacate its order granting a motion to compel discovery in an action Thomas Webster and Juanita Webster ("the Websters") commenced against Harbor Freight and others and to enter a protective order involving the requested discovery. We deny the petition.

I. Facts

The Websters previously hired Randall "Bubba" Wills and Jason Little to construct and install an elevator system in their house. In November 2016, Wills repaired the elevator system. To complete the repairs, Wills purchased from Harbor Freight a "Haul Master" 4, 000-pound lifting block, which was designated by Harbor Freight as item, or "SKU," number 60644. According to the Websters' operative complaint, the Haul Master lifting block "was used as a pulley at the top of the elevator to facilitate the lifting process." According to Harbor Freight, its instruction manual for the lifting block expressly states that the lifting block should not be used to transport people in an elevator system. In fact, Wills posted a sign in the elevator car, or basket, that provided: "OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS

"FREIGHT LIFT ONLY

"11-30-16

"DO NOT USE AS ELEVATOR.

"DO NOT RIDE ON, RIDE IN, SIT ON, OR SIT IN LIFT WHILE IT IS BEING OPERATED.

"THIS IS NOT AN ELEVATOR.

"OWNER/INSTALLER NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR INJURY DUE TO RIDING LIFT."

(Capitalization in original.) Despite that posted warning, Wills tested the elevator system and rode in the elevator basket with Thomas Webster after Wills had installed the lifting block and completed the repairs.

On December 18, 2016, the Websters, along with their son Robbie, were riding in the elevator basket when it fell. The Websters' operative complaint alleges that "[t]he 'Haul-Master' 4, 000-pound lifting block failed and, as a result, the elevator basket fell with the Websters inside." According to that complaint, the Websters were injured and have had to receive continuing medical treatment because of their injuries. That complaint further alleges that the Websters "are unable to perform some of their normal activities" and "have suffered, and will continue to suffer in the future, severe pain, mental anguish, and disfigurement."

On April 16, 2018, the Websters filed their original complaint in the circuit court asserting claims against Harbor Freight, Wills, Randall Lee Wiring, and various fictitiously named defendants. On August 6, 2018, the Websters filed a first amended complaint that added Central Purchasing, LLC, as a defendant but was otherwise identical to the original complaint. Against Harbor Freight, the Websters alleged claims of negligence, wantonness, and products liability under the Alabama Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine ("the AEMLD"). Along with their original complaint, the Websters propounded their first set of interrogatories and requests for production of documents to Harbor Freight. In those discovery requests, the Websters sought, among other things, information concerning whether Harbor Freight had "received any complaints prior to this accident, of any accident or incident resulting in personal injury or property damage, which allegedly resulted from a lifting block failing or malfunctioning" and information about the design and development of the lifting block at issue in the case. According to the Websters, Harbor Freight objected to those requests and largely failed to provide the requested information and documents.

On January 16, 2020, the Websters deposed Harbor Freight's corporate representative, Casper Wypich. Wypich testified that Harbor Freight no longer sells the Haul Master lifting block designated as item number 60644, [1] but that it now sells another 4, 000-pound lifting block, designated as item number 62456, and that there is no design difference between item number 60644 and item number 62456. In explaining Harbor Freight's reason for switching to item number 62456, Wypich stated that one of Harbor Freight's vendors manufactures item number 60644 while another vendor manufactures item number 62456 and that Harbor Freight decided to sell only item number 62456 because "it was more in line with our pricing structure."

On January 23, 2020, the Websters propounded a second set of requests for production of documents upon Harbor Freight, following up on information they had gathered from Wypich's deposition. In those requests, the Websters sought, among other things, "all customer reports and or complaints regarding all Haul-Master 4, 000 lb. lifting blocks' bushing, pulley wheel bolt, and/or pulley wheel suffering damage as a result of use"; "contact information for all customer commenters for the Haul-Master 4, 000 lb. lifting block from Harbor Freight's website"; and "the contact information for all customer complaints regarding all Haul-Master 4, 000 lb. lifting blocks' bushing, pulley wheel bolt, and/or pulley wheel suffering damage as a result of use." On February 24, 2020, Harbor Freight served the Websters with responses and objections to the second set of requests for production of documents in which Harbor Freight contended that the requests were overbroad, unduly burdensome, and not limited to substantially similar incidents or limited in scope as to time, geographical area, incidents involving only item number 60644, or complaints involving any substantially similar incidents of the use or misuse of item number 60644. Additionally, Harbor Freight stated that it would "produce responsive and discoverable documents as soon as an appropriate Protective Order ... has been entered in this case." Harbor Freight attached to its responses a proposed protective order, by which it sought to protect "documents and information [Harbor Freight] believes to be proprietary, to contain confidential trade secrets, research, development, and/or commercial information, or to be material that may invade the privacy of individuals." The proposed protective order sought to limit the use of any documents Harbor Freight produced to only this action, to guard information Harbor Freight deemed to be proprietary to its business, and to protect what Harbor Freight considered to be private information of its customers.

On February 25, 2020, the Websters' counsel sent an e-mail to Harbor Freight's counsel stating that Harbor Freight's responses to the second set of requests for production of documents had been received but that, "[a]s was the case with the first responses, [Harbor Freight] has objected to each and every request and largely failed to provide the information sought." The e-mail noted that, after Harbor Freight had objected to the first set of requests for production of documents as overly broad, the Websters had "limited the request to similar 4, 000 lb 'lifting blocks failing as a result of the bolt running through the pulley wheel failing, breaking, shearing or the nut backing off.'" The Websters' counsel further observed that the Websters had sought "information regarding other 4, 000 lb Harbor Freight lifting blocks with different SKU numbers" because of Wypich's testimony about an identical product with a different item number. The e-mail concluded by stating that, if Harbor Freight did not respond to the second set of requests for production of documents by "the end of the week," the Websters would file a motion to compel production of the requested documents.

On February 27, 2020, Harbor Freight's counsel sent the Websters' counsel a letter responding to the February 25, 2020, e-mail. The letter began: "First, the 'elephant in the room' is the failure of the [Websters] to agree with either our proposed Protective Order, or an edited version of the same, that [Harbor Freight] will require before the production of any additional documents that might be responsive and discoverable to [the Websters'] recent requests for production. The main purpose of this Protective Order is to limit protected documents for use only in this current lawsuit. It is also for the protection of any privileged/proprietary/confidential information that concerns [Harbor Freight], non-party vendors/corporations/individuals who also have a right to privacy/confidentiality, and customers of [Harbor Freight] who have a right to privacy/confidentiality, as well."

With respect to documents sought concerning failures of item number 60644, Harbor Freight stated that it "need[s] to know specifically what [the Websters] are claiming as to the cause of the alleged damage, or alleged failure of Item 60644 pulley block at issue in this cause, and need[s] to review the expert opinions and evidence in support of these allegations and opinions." The letter also complained that the Websters' "discovery requests for information related to similar lifting block damage/failure are in no manner limited to a reasonable scope, as to time and geographical area." Harbor Freight further insisted that it had "responded to almost all of the requests made" by the Websters in their first set of requests for production of documents.

On February 28, 2020, the Websters filed a motion to compel in which they sought an order requiring Harbor Freight "to produce all documents regarding customer complaints of 4, 000 lb. lifting blocks failing, breaking, or wearing, customer reports or complaints regarding the 4, 000 lb. lifting block not withstanding the rated load capacity, customer reports of...

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