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Cummins v. Lyle Industries

August 16, 1996

GRACE L. CUMMINS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

LYLE INDUSTRIES, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Fort Wayne Division. No. 92 C 108 William C. Lee, Judge.

Before EASTERBROOK, RIPPLE and KANNE, Circuit Judges.

RIPPLE, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED APRIL 9, 1996

DECIDED AUGUST 16, 1996

Grace Cummins, an employee of Mullinix Packages, Inc. ("Mullinix"), severed three of her fingers while operating a trim press manufactured by Lyle Industries, Inc. ("Lyle"). She brought this products liability action against Lyle, alleging that the trim press was defectively designed and bore inadequate warnings. After conducting extensive hearings, the district court granted Lyle's motion in limine to exclude certain testimony by Ms. Cummins' expert witness, Dr. Thomas Carpenter, on the issues of the feasibility of alternative designs and warnings. The jury returned a verdict for Lyle. Ms. Cummins now appeals the district court's exclusion of Dr. Carpenter's testimony. For the reasons set forth in the following opinion, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

I.

BACKGROUND

Lyle Industries, Inc., a manufacturer of production machinery, sold an industrial trim press to Mullinix. When the trim press left Lyle's control, both sides of the press were equipped with safety-interlocked wire-mesh guard doors. If either of these side guard doors was opened or removed, the safety interlock circuit would stop the movement of the trim press and would disconnect power to the unit until the guard door was replaced. Lyle also installed a third, fixed guard beneath the cutting area. This guard, which did not have to be opened or removed to service the press or to change the cutting dies, was permanently bolted onto the trim press frame.

After purchasing the trim press, Mullinix elected to remove the fixed guard on the bottom of the trim press and to replace it with a scrap removal system of its own design. Mullinix designed the scrap chute to cover the opening created when the fixed guard was removed. However, the system incorporated a hinged door that permitted access to the cutting area of the trim press. Mullinix did not equip this scrap chute door with a safety interlock circuit.

Mullinix also designed the "Position Press for Auto Feed" ("PPAF") function on the trim press. After Mullinix designed the PPAF function, it showed its design to Lyle. Lyle then installed the PPAF control on the trim presses that it sold to Mullinix. The PPAF function stops the press in the "open" position; it is used by the operator during the initial set-up of the trim press. In order to use the PPAF function, the operator presses the "PPAF" control on the side of the trim press. When pressed, the "PPAF" control sends a signal to a limit switch on the fly wheel of the trim press. The limit switch causes an arm to make contact with a cam on the rotating fly wheel, which, in turn, causes a disc brake to be applied to the fly wheel. Unlike the "STOP" control, however, the "PPAF" control does not cut power to the trim press; it merely arrests the movement of the cutting mechanism.

On March 12, 1991, Grace Cummins, an employee of Mullinix, was operating the trim press on Mullinix's production line. She and another employee were setting up the press for the next production run. In the process, Ms. Cummins opened the scrap chute door and attempted to remove the scrap material that had accumulated. As she reached into the scrap chute, three of her fingers were severed by the trim press. Ms. Cummins later testified that, although she had intended to press the "STOP" control before opening the scrap chute door, she inadvertently had pressed the "PPAF" control instead. Following the accident, Mullinix's maintenance department inspected the trim press and discovered that the PPAF limit switch was out of adjustment. As a result, the adjustable arm of the limit switch was not in position to contact the cam on the rotating flywheel, and the brake did not activate.

Ms. Cummins brought this products liability action against Lyle, the manufacturer of the trim press. Before trial, Lyle filed a motion in limine to exclude certain testimony from one of the plaintiff's experts, Dr. Thomas Carpenter. Specifically, Dr. Carpenter was prepared to testify as follows concerning the feasibility of alternative designs for the braking system on the trim press: (1) the trim press ought to have been equipped with a "noncontact" limit switch instead of the mechanical limit switch actually installed; (2) a parallel time relay could have been wired to the PPAF circuit to shut down the trim press if the limit switch failed; and (3) the limit switch installed in the trim press ought to have had a longer useful cycle life. In addition, Dr. Carpenter was prepared to testify that the warnings and the instruction manual for the trim press were inadequate because they did not describe many of the controls for the press and because they did not explain the function of the trim press. The district court denied Lyle's motion to exclude these portions of Dr. Carpenter's testimony subject to reconsideration at trial.

On the second day of trial, the district court held a hearing to inquire into Dr. Carpenter's qualifications and the basis for his testimony. Following the hearing, the district court ruled that, although Dr. Carpenter would be permitted to testify with respect to certain other matters, he would not be permitted to offer an expert opinion concerning either the adequacy of warnings and the instruction manual or the feasibility of alternative designs for the trim press. The trial resumed and, during the direct examination of Dr. Carpenter, plaintiff's counsel began to question him on matters foreclosed by the district court's earlier order. When Lyle objected, Ms. Cummins presented a motion to reconsider the earlier order. The district court denied the motion but allowed Ms. Cummins to make a second offer of proof.

During the second offer of proof, Dr. Carpenter testified on direct examination that the cycle life of the limit switch used in the trim press "is indicated to be about three million cycles." Tr. at 91 (May 4, 1994). Dr. Carpenter opined that three million cycles is too short a cycle life for a machine designed to be subjected to a production schedule as rigorous as Mullinix's; the limit switch would last only a few months. On cross-examination, Dr. Carpenter testified that he had obtained the three million cycle figure in conversations with "several representatives from Allen Bradley," the manufacturer of the limit switch. Tr. at 5 (May 5, 1994). He admitted, however, that he could not identify the persons with whom he had spoken. Dr. Carpenter also admitted that he had not supplemented his discovery responses to include the three million cycle figure or otherwise disclosed this information to Lyle.

Applying Rule 702 and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 113 S. Ct. 2786 (1993) to the facts of this case, the district court took the view that Dr. Carpenter lacks a reliable basis for his proposed opinion. In evaluating the subject matter of Dr. Carpenter's testimony, the court found significant the fact that he had never tested his alternative designs and warnings or read any studies of such tests. The district court further noted that Dr. Carpenter does not have practical knowledge concerning the use of the alternative components in an industrial, machine-tool production environment.

Following the second offer of proof, the district court ruled that Dr. Carpenter would not be permitted to testify with respect to the cycle life of the limit switch because (1) Ms. Cummins had failed to disclose the cycle life of the switch as a basis for Dr. Carpenter's opinion prior to trial, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(a)(2)(B), and had failed to supplement Dr. Carpenter's discovery responses to reflect this newly-discovered information, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(e); and (2) the cycle life information amounts to unreliable hearsay which would not be reasonably relied upon by experts in the particular field, see Fed. R. Evid. 703. Ms. Cummins filed a "Renewed Motion to Reconsider," but the district court ...


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