Mercurio v. Louisville Ladder, Inc.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Pennsylvania
PartiesDENNIS G. MERCURIO, et al. Plaintiffs, v. LOUISVILLE LADDER, INC., Defendant.
Docket Number3:16-CV-412
Decision Date17 April 2019

DENNIS G. MERCURIO, et al. Plaintiffs,



April 17, 2019




Two motions in limine are pending before the Court in the above-captioned matter. The case arises from Plaintiff Dennis Mercurio's claim that he was using a stepladder designed and manufactured by Defendant Louisville Ladder, Inc., on April 29, 2014, when the stepladder failed, causing him to sustain personal injuries. (Doc. 1-2 at 3-4.) The Complaint included claims for strict liability, negligence, breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty, and loss of consortium. (Doc. 1-2 at 6-141; Doc. 18-1 at 6-15.) In May 2017, Defendant moved for summary judgment seeking judgment in its favor on all claims. (Doc. 17.) By Order of May 31, 2018, the Court granted the motion in part and denied it in part. (Doc. 31.) The motion was granted as to Plaintiffs' express warranty claim (Count Three), and the motion was granted to the extent Plaintiffs' strict liability (Count One) and

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negligence (Count Two) claims relied on allegations of manufacturing defects and/or defective warnings. (Id.) Having pled design, manufacturing, and warning defects (see Doc. 30 at at 20), the strict liability and negligence claims went forward as to alleged design defects despite the Courts' conclusion that Plaintiffs had not produced evidence sufficient to overcome summary judgment on the manufacturing and defective warning aspects of the claims. (Doc. 30 at 20-23.) Plaintiffs' breach of implied warranty and loss of consortium claims also went forward. (See id. at 24; Doc. 1-2.) At the Pretrial Conference held on April 15, 2019, Plaintiffs stated that they were withdrawing their negligence and breach of implied warranty claims. Therefore, the case will go to trial only on Plaintiffs' strict liability claim based on defective design and loss of consortium claim. Only the strict liability claim is relevant to consideration of Plaintiffs' pending motion in limine.

The pending motions are Plaintiffs' Motion in Limine to Preclude Introduction of Compliance with Industry and Government Standards (Doc. 41) and the Motion in Limine of Defendant, Louisville Ladder, Inc., to Preclude Evidence of Other Ladder Accidents and Claims (Doc. 43). By correspondence of March 15, 2019, Plaintiffs' counsel informed the Court that he did not intend to oppose Defendant's motion and withdrew his brief in opposition. (Doc. 46.) Therefore, the Court will grant the Motion in Limine of Defendant, Louisville Ladder, Inc., to Preclude Evidence of Other Ladder Accidents and Claims (Doc.

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43).2 For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiffs' motion (Doc. 41) will be denied in part and deferred in part.


"The purpose of a motion in limine is to allow the trial court to rule in advance of trial on the admissibility and relevance of certain forecasted evidence." United States v. Tartaglione, 228 F. Supp. 3d 402, 406 (E.D. Pa. 2017). A court may exercise its discretion to rule in limine on evidentiary issues "in appropriate cases." In re Japanese Elec. Prods. Antitrust Litig., 723 F.2d 238, 260 (3d Cir. 1983), rev'd on other grounds sub nom. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). Nevertheless, a "trial court should exclude evidence on a motion in limine only when the evidence is clearly inadmissible on all potential grounds." Tartaglione, 228 F. Supp. 3d at 406. "[I]n limine rulings are not binding on the trial judge, and the judge may always change his mind during the course of a trial." Ohler v. United States, 529 U.S. 753, 758 n.3, 120 S. Ct. 1851, 146 L. Ed. 2d 826 (2000).

Further, while motions in limine may serve as a useful pretrial tool that enables more in-depth briefing than would be available at trial, a court may defer ruling on such motions "if the context of trial would provide clarity." Frintner v. TruePosition, 892 F. Supp. 2d 699, 707

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(E.D. Pa. 2012). Indeed, "motions in limine often present issues for which final decision is best reserved for a specific trial situation." Walden v. Georgia-Pacific Corp., 126 F.3d 506, 518 n.10 (3d Cir. 1997). Thus, certain motions, "especially ones that encompass broad classes of evidence, should generally be deferred until trial to allow for the resolution of questions of foundation, relevancy, and potential prejudice in proper context." Leonard v. Stemtech Health Scis., Inc., 981 F. Supp. 2d 273, 276 (D. Del. 2013). Moreover, "pretrial Rule 403 exclusions should rarely be granted. . . . [A] court cannot fairly ascertain the potential relevance of evidence for Rule 403 purposes until it has a full record relevant to the putatively objectionable evidence." In re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litig., 916 F.2d 829, 859 (3d Cir. 1990) (emphasis in original).


With their motion, Plaintiffs seek to preclude the introduction of evidence regarding Defendant's compliance with industry and government standards in the design of the ladder at issue. (Doc. 41 at 10.) Plaintiffs' assertion that standards evidence is properly excluded is based on their interpretation of Pennsylvania strict liability law pursuant to which they argue such evidence is irrelevant and inadmissible. (Doc. 42 at 3.) Defendant's argument that evidence of compliance with regulations and standards "is clearly relevant and admissible on [Plaintiffs'] negligence and breach of implied warranty claims" (Doc. 47 at 4) is now moot based on Plaintiffs' withdrawal of these claims. However, Defendant also avers the Court must consider that Plaintiffs' expert, "[i]n his report, . . . states that his opinions are

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based on testing the subject ladder, as designed/manufactured and with his proposed design modification, in accordance with two of the ANSI A14.5 design verification tests, the racking and tortional stability tests." (Id.) Finally, Defendant states that evidence regarding industry and government standards is admissible under current Pennsylvania law. (Id. at 5.)

To put the issue in context, Azzarello v. Black Bros. Co., Inc., 391 A.2d 1020 (Pa. 1978), which drew a strict line between negligence and strict liability, provided the foundation for the development of the rule precluding evidence of a product's compliance with government standards as "irrelevant and inadmissible in a strict products liability action under section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts." Webb v. Volvo Cars of North America, 148 A.3d 473, 480-81 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016). The rule, developed in Lewis v. Coffing Hoist Division, Duff-Norton Company, Inc., 528 A.2d 590 (Pa. 1987), and Gaudio v. Ford Motor Co., 976 A.2d 524 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2009), with reliance on Azzarello, was not in dispute until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., 104 A.3d 328 (Pa. 2014), and overruled Azzarello. Tincher confirmed that Pennsylvania continued to follow section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts,3 but the overruling

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of Azzarello and other aspects of the decision cast doubt on the rule that evidence showing compliance with government and industry standards was inadmissible.4

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As a threshold matter, the parties agree that Pennsylvania law applies in this diversity action.5 (Doc. 42 at 4; Doc. 47 at 5.) Beyond that, the parties steadfastly adhere to their divergent positions regarding the admissibility of the evidence at issue under Pennsylvania strict liability law.

Because this is a diversity action and the Court must apply Pennsylvania law, the Court must now determine the current state of Pennsylvania law on the issue of admissibility of evidence of compliance with government/industry standards in a strict products liability case, evidence which was clearly inadmissible before Tincher. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has not spoken on the issue since Tincher. Thus, the issue continues to present a question of Pennsylvania law not addressed by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and our task is to predict how that court would rule. See, e.g., Pa. Sand Corp. v. Caterpillar Tractor Co., 652 F.2d 1165, 1167 (3d Cir. 1981). "The policies underlying the applicable legal doctrines, the doctrinal trends indicated by these policies, and the decisions of other courts may also inform our analysis." Pa. Glass Sand, 652 F.2d at 1167. Following Pa. Sand Corp., the Circuit Court explained that consideration of lower

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state courts' decisions on the matter at issue are an integral part of predicting how the highest state court would rule:

In making this prediction, "we must consider the pronouncements of the lower state courts." Connecticut Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Wyman, 718 F.2d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1983). Although such pronouncements "are not controlling on an issue on which the highest court of the state has not spoken, [we] must attribute significant weight to these decisions in the absence of any indication that the highest state court would rule otherwise." Wisniewski v. Johns-Manville Corp., 759 F.2d 271, 273-74 (3d Cir.1985) (citations omitted).

State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Rosenthal, 484 F.3d 251, 253 (3d Cir. 2007).

Plaintiffs cite Cancelleri v. Ford Motor Co., No. 267 MDA 2015, 2016 WL 82449 (Pa. Super. Ct. Jan. 7, 2016) (not precedential) (not reported in A.3d), in support of the assertion that Tincher had no effect on the admissibility of industry standards in a products liability case. (Doc. 42 at 8.) Cancelleri concluded that the precedent set out in Lewis and Gaudio remained unchanged and the trial court had properly determined that evidence of government and industry standards was not admissible. 2016 WL 82449, at *3.

The Court does not find Cancelleri persuasive for several reasons. First, the Superior Court provided limited analysis in support of its determination. Second, the opinion was not precedential and,...

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