Speaks v. Mazda Motor Corp.

Decision Date07 August 2015
Docket NumberNo. CV 14–25–M–DLC.,CV 14–25–M–DLC.
Citation118 F.Supp.3d 1212
Parties Incarnacion L. SPEAKS, Plaintiff, v. MAZDA MOTOR CORPORATION, Mazda Motor of America, Inc., d/b/a Mazda North American Operations, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Montana

Dennis P. Conner, Keith D. Marr, Conner & Marr, PLLP, Great Falls, MT, Robert M.N. Palmer, Palmeroliver, P.C., Springfield, MO, Steve Fletcher, Fletch Law Office, Missoula, MT, for Plaintiff.

David R. Kelly, Michael R. Carey, Bowman & Brooke LLP, Minneapolis, MN, Jeffrey T. Gorcyca, Bowman and Brooke LLP, Bloomfield Hills, MI, Matthew J. Cuffe, Ronald A. Bender, Worden Thane, Missoula, MT, for Defendants.



Before the Court are several motions in this diversity jurisdiction action. For the reasons explained, the Court denies Defendants' motion for summary judgment, and motions to exclude experts Syson and Hoffman, and grants in part and denies in part Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment.


Plaintiff Incarnacion Speaks ("Speaks") brings this action, now sounding solely in strict products liability, against Defendants Mazda Motor Corporation and Mazda Motor of America, Inc. ("Mazda") for injuries she sustained in a motor vehicle accident that she alleges were caused by the defective design of the automatic seatbelt in the 1994 Mazda Protegé she was riding in at the time of the accident. The accident occurred on January 29, 2011. Speaks was the front seat passenger in the Protegé and her husband Kevin Speaks was driving. A Pontiac driven by Charla Greensweight attempted an improper turn and collided with the Speaks' vehicle, striking the Protegé nearly head-on. Speaks suffered serious injuries in the accident, including abdominal injuries

and lacerations to her pancreas and duodenum. Speaks was approximately 4'9? tall and weighed 110 pounds at the time of the collision. Speaks maintains that she was properly wearing both the lap and automatic shoulder belt at the time of the collision. Speaks alleges that the Protegé's passive restraint system is defective in that it fails to properly restrain people, such as Speaks, who are of small stature.

Mazda has moved to exclude Speaks' design defect expert, Stephen Syson, and Speaks' causation expert, Michelle Hoffman, on the grounds that the opinions and testimony of the experts are unreliable and insufficient under Daubert and Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Mazda tiers these motions to its motion for summary judgment in which it asserts that Speaks lacks the necessary expert testimony and evidence to support her claims. Mazda also moves for summary judgment on the ground that Speaks' claims are preempted under Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861, 120 S.Ct. 1913, 146 L.Ed.2d 914 (2000).

Speaks moves for summary judgment on several of Mazda's affirmative defenses. Mazda has agreed to withdraw some of its affirmative defenses, but maintains that several of its affirmative defenses are proper. The Court will address each of the affirmative defenses in more detail below.

I. Mazda's Motions to Exclude ExpertsApplicable Legal Standards

Motions in limine are procedural devices to obtain an early and preliminary ruling on the admissibility of evidence. BNSF Ry. v. Quad City Testing Laboratory, Inc., 2010 WL 4337827 at *1 (D.Mont.2010). A motion in limine should not be used to resolve factual disputes or weigh evidence.Id. Evidence shall be excluded in limine only when it is shown that the evidence is "inadmissible on all potential grounds." Id. "Unless evidence meets this high standard, evidentiary rulings should be deferred until trial so that questions of foundation, relevancy and potential prejudice may be resolved in proper context." Id. "This is because although rulings on motions in limine may save time, costs, effort and preparation, a court is almost always better situated during the actual trial to assess the value and utility of evidence." Id. Rulings on motions in limine are provisional and "the trial judge may always change his mind during the course of trial." Id. (quoting Ohler v. United States, 529 U.S. 753, 758 n. 3, 120 S.Ct. 1851, 146 L.Ed.2d 826 (2000) ).

The admissibility of expert testimony is governed by Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Under Rule 702, a witness who is "qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education" may offer expert opinion testimony if the expert's expertise will "help the trier of fact to understand the evidence," the testimony is "based upon sufficient facts or data," is "the product of reliable principles and methods," and the expert "has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case." Fed.R.Evid. 702. In essence, the proffering party must demonstrate that its expert is qualified to testify about the subject of his opinion and that the opinion is relevant and reliable. Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 591, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 (1993). " Rule 702 should be applied with a ‘liberal thrust’ favoring admission."

Messick v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., 747 F.3d 1193, 1197 (9th Cir.2014) (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 588, 113 S.Ct. 2786 ).

A trial court is obligated to act as a "gatekeeper" regarding the admissibility of expert testimony. Kumho Tire Co., Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 145, 119 S.Ct. 1167, 143 L.Ed.2d 238 (1999) ; Daubert, 509 U.S. 579, 113 S.Ct. 2786 (1993). In exercising its gatekeeping function, the trial court must ensure the relevance and reliability of the proffered testimony. Id. In testing reliability, the court must "make certain that an expert ... employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field." Kumho Tire Co., 526 U.S. at 152, 119 S.Ct. 1167. The focus of the Daubert test is on "the soundness of [the expert's] methodology." Primiano v. Cook, 598 F.3d 558, 564 (9th Cir.2010). The Supreme Court has provided lower courts with a non-exhaustive and "flexible" list of factors that a court may consider when assessing reliability: (1) whether a theory or technique can be tested; (2) whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication; (3) the known or potential error rate of the theory or technique; and (4) whether the theory or technique enjoys general acceptance within the relevant scientific community. Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592–94, 113 S.Ct. 2786 ; Messick, 747 F.3d at 1197.

In testing reliability, the trial court must avoid excluding opinions "merely because they are impeachable," as the basic objective is simply to "screen the jury from unreliable nonsense opinions." Alaska Rent–A–Car, Inc. v. Avis Budget Group, Inc., 738 F.3d 960, 969 (9th Cir.2013). The court is "a gatekeeper, not a fact finder." Primiano v. Cook, 598 F.3d at 565 (quoting United States v. Sandoval–Mendoza, 472 F.3d 645, 654 (9th Cir.2006) ). "Shaky but admissible evidence is to be attacked by cross examination, contrary evidence, and attention to the burden of proof, not exclusion."Id. (quoting Primiano v. Cook, 598 F.3d 558, 564 (9th Cir.2010) ).

1. Stephen Syson

Mazda attacks the reliability of Syson's opinions. Mazda contends that Syson's opinions—generally concluding that the restraint system is defectively designed because it results in excessive occupant torso loading in frontal collisions—are unreliable because they are rooted in irrelevant studies.1

Mazda criticizes Syson for relying on: (1) studies in which the occupant was wearing only the shoulder belt, as opposed to both the shoulder belt and the lap belt, like Speaks was doing at the time of the accident; (2) studies that concluded that the restraint system may cause spinal and neck or liver and chest injuries, but not pancreatic and duodenal injuries, like Speaks sustained; (3) studies that focused on testing the restraint system's effectiveness for restraining drivers, when Speaks was not a driver, but a passenger; and (4) studies in which the crashes and forces involved were more severe than in the subject crash. The Court concludes, however, that Syson's partial reliance on these tests—ones that don't precisely equate with the subject collision—does not compel the conclusion that Syson's opinions are so unreliable as to require exclusion of his testimony altogether.

Mazda's criticism of Syson's reliance on tests involving occupants wearing only the shoulder belt is undercut by their own expert's admission that for vehicles using automatic belting designs "occupant kinematics [are similar] whether the manual lap belt is in use or not." (Doc. 98 at 40, citing Rebuttal Expert Report of Mike Klima.) If the forces involved are similar whether an occupant is wearing the lap belt or not, Syson appears justified in relying on studies where the occupant was not wearing the lap belt, even though Speaks was wearing the lap belt. Mazda's other criticisms are similarly unimpressive. They clearly amount to impeachment evidence appropriately raised during cross-examination rather than grounds for exclusion under Rule 702. For instance, Mazda points out that none of the testing Syson relies on specifically demonstrates or discusses pancreatic and/or duodenal injuries. But Mazda admits that at least some of the testing and/or scientific literature Syson relied on shows that the automatic belting design can cause torso and/or abdominal injuries

—the same area of the body where the duodenum and pancreas are located. Mazda's criticism of Syson's reliance on testing focused on drivers, as opposed to passengers, and crashes that are more severe than the subject crash are similarly flawed. These criticisms do not constitute reasons for excluding the testimony, but instead serve as grist for a vigorous cross-examination. Moreover, though the testing Syson relied on does not exactly replicate the subject collision, this is not fatal to the admissibility of Syson's opinions since, "peer...

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