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Smith v. Toyota Motor Corp.

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

April 3, 2018

KRISTIN MARIE SMITH AND LLOYD SMITH, Plaintiffs,
v.
TOYOTA MOTOR CORPORATION TOYOTA MOTOR SALES, U.S.A., INC. Respondents.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          E. RICHARD WEBBER SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [57] and Motion to Strike Plaintiffs' Supplemental Exhibit Affidavit of Steve Chatfield [75] and Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment on Defendants' Affirmative Defenses [55] and Motion to Exclude/Disregard Declaration of Jon Sell [76].

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Undisputed Facts

         On August 7, 2012, Plaintiff Kristin Smith was driving her 1997 Toyota 4Runner (“4Runner”) on MO-6. As Ms. Smith was rounding a curve, she lost control of the vehicle, crossed the center line to the opposite side of the roadway, crossed back over to the right, and eventually rolled over in the vehicle. Parties dispute the facts immediately leading up to the vehicle roll-over. Two or three months after the vehicle crash, Plaintiff Lloyd Smith, Ms. Smith's husband, took the 4Runner to the scrapyard where it was destroyed. Plaintiffs had purchased the vehicle from a previous owner approximately five years before the crash and ten to fourteen years after it was originally sold.

         On October 28, 2013, Plaintiffs filed a products liability case in state court, and that case was dismissed by consent and without prejudice in October 2016. On April 28, 2016, Plaintiffs filed suit in this Court against Toyota Motor Corporation and Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. (collectively, “Defendants”). Plaintiffs claim the vehicle crash was a result of an alleged product defect of the 4Runner which caused the vehicle to be unreasonably dangerous and defective. Plaintiffs' Complaint includes strict liability, negligence, breach of warranty and loss of consortium causes of action. Defendants deny there was any defect in the 4Runner. They raise several affirmative defenses in their Answer, including (1) modification or alteration of the product; (2) superseding and intervening acts of negligence of third parties; (3) state of the art; (4) compliance with regulations; and (5) preemption.

         Both parties have filed motions to strike supplemental exhibit affidavits filed by the respective opposing party. Defendants seek summary judgment on all of Plaintiffs' claims, alleging Plaintiffs have failed to provide sufficient evidence to support their claims. Plaintiffs likewise seek summary judgment on Defendants' affirmative defenses, claiming no genuine issue of material fact exists with respect to each affirmative defense.

         III. MOTIONS TO STRIKE

         A. Defendants' Motion to Strike Plaintiffs' Supplemental Exhibit Affidavit of Steve Chatfield [75]

         Defendants ask this Court to strike Plaintiffs' Supplemental Exhibit Affidavit of Steve Chatfield, arguing Plaintiffs failed to identify Mr. Chatfield as required under Rule 26 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 26 states “a party must, without awaiting a discovery request, provide to the other parties…the name and, if known, the address and telephone number of each individual likely to have discoverable information-along with the subjects of that information-that the disclosing party may use to support its claims or defenses, unless the use would be solely for impeachment.” If a party fails to do so, “the party is not allowed to use that information or witness to supply evidence on a motion, at a hearing, or at a trial unless the failure was substantially justified or is harmless.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(c).

         Here, Plaintiffs failed to disclose Mr. Chatfield as a person with relevant knowledge in this case, which has been pending in state court and then in federal court since 2013. The amended discovery deadline for this case was January 5, 2018, and Plaintiffs had plenty of opportunities to disclose Mr. Chatfield prior to that date. Instead, Plaintiffs waited until March 7, 2018 to send an email to Defendants' counsel, including this affidavit of Mr. Chatfield. Plaintiffs claim Mr. Chatfield is a friend of Plaintiffs who helped Plaintiffs take the 4Runner to the scrapyard after the accident. Thus, this delay is not justified, for Plaintiffs have known about Mr. Chatfield since before this lawsuit was filed. Further, it would prejudice Defendants to allow Mr. Chatfield's affidavit because Defendants have not had the opportunity to depose Mr. Chatfield or otherwise explore his purported knowledge of the 4Runner's post-crash condition. Accordingly, this Court will grant Defendants' Motion to Strike Plaintiffs' Supplemental Exhibit Affidavit of Steve Chatfield [75].

         B. Plaintiffs' Motion to Exclude/Disregard Declaration of Jon Sell [76]

         Plaintiffs ask this Court to exclude Defendants' Declaration of Jon Sell stating it “does not meet the basic requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(4).” That rule states:

An affidavit or declaration used to support or oppose a motion must be made on personal knowledge, set out facts that would be admissible in evidence, and show that the affiant or declarant is competent to testify on the matters stated.

         Mr. Sell was disclosed as a prior owner with knowledge of the history and condition of the subject vehicle over three years ago. Mr. Sell's declaration confirms he was the prior owner of the 4Runner and he believes, to the best of his recollection, he installed larger tires and “leaf spring spacers” to the vehicle. Though Mr. Sell may not be completely certain of his memories, these are not “subjective beliefs” that warrant exclusion under Rule 56(c)(4). They are based on his personal knowledge and recollection. Accordingly, this Court will deny Plaintiffs' Motion to Exclude/Disregard Declaration of Jon Sell [76].

         III. MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

         A court shall grant a motion for summary judgment only if the moving party shows “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). By definition, material facts “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, ” and a genuine dispute of material fact is one “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). If the non-moving party has failed to “make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, . . . there can be ‘no genuine issue as to any material fact, ' since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the non-moving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23.

         The moving party bears the initial burden of proof in establishing the non-existence of any genuine issue of fact that is material to a judgment favorable to the non-moving party. City of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa v. Associated Elec. Co-op., Inc., 838 F.2d 268, 273 (8th Cir. 1988). If the moving party meets this initial burden, the non-moving party must then set forth affirmative evidence and specific facts demonstrating a genuine dispute on the specific issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. When the burden shifts, the non-moving party may not rest on the allegations in its pleadings, but, by affidavit and other evidence, must set forth specific facts showing a genuine dispute of material fact exists. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1); Stone Motor Co. v. Gen. Motors Corp., 293 F.3d 456, 465 (8th Cir. 2002). The non-moving party must demonstrate sufficient favorable evidence that could enable a jury to return a verdict for it. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Rule 56 “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

         In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court may not “weigh the evidence in the summary judgment record, decide credibility questions, or determine the truth of any factual issue.” Kampouris v. St. Louis Symphony Soc., 210 F.3d 845, 847 (8th Cir. 2000). The Court instead “perform[s] only a gatekeeper function of determining whether there is evidence in the summary judgment record generating a genuine issue of material fact for trial on each essential element of a claim.” Id. The Court must view the facts and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Reed v. City of St. Charles, 561 F.3d 788, 790 (8th Cir. 2009).

         A. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [57]

         i. Strict Liability and Negligent Design Defect - Rollover Resistance

         Defendants allege Plaintiffs cannot show the 4Runner was “defectively designed in terms of its rollover resistance characteristics” because their experts cannot reliably render an opinion the design defect was the cause of the accident. A manufacturer is liable under a strict liability product defect claim “if the product was in an unreasonably dangerous defective condition when put to a reasonably anticipated use, and the plaintiff was damaged as a direct result of such defective condition as existed when the product was sold.” Richcreek v. General Motors Corp., 908 S.W.2d 772, 775 (Mo. App. 1995). Defendants admit genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether the 4Runner was defectively designed as alleged by Plaintiffs. However, largely relying on arguments also included in their Motion to Exclude Expert Testimony [58], Defendants state because the 4Runner was destroyed before Plaintiffs filed suit, no expert can determine whether an alleged defect in its rollover resistance characteristics caused Plaintiffs' damages or whether it was caused by something else, such as modifications to the vehicle.

         This Court has already ruled both parties' experts are allowed to testify as to whether or not they believe a design defect in Plaintiffs' rollover characteristics contributed to the accident and damages [79]. Specifically, Plaintiffs' expert, Mr. Arndt, relied on his own vehicle testing, vehicle testing and records produced by Toyota, the inspection and testing of exemplar vehicles and components, and his own reconstruction of the accident. Defendants are free to submit their own expert testimony countering Plaintiffs' evidence. However, genuine issues of material fact remain, and thus this Court finds this issue must be left for the jury to decide. See Hartford Acc. & Indem. Co. v. Stauffer Chemical Co., 741 F.2d 1142, 1144 (8th Cir. 1984) (“[T]here must be nothing left for the jury to decide with respect to the matters presented in the motion for summary judgment.”).[1]

         ii. Strict Liability and Negligent Design Defect ...


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