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Jaroslaw Wielgus v. Ryobi Technologies

June 18, 2012

JAROSLAW WIELGUS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
RYOBI TECHNOLOGIES, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Young B. Kim

MEMORANDUM OPINION and ORDER

In this diversity case Jaroslaw Wielgus alleges that Ryobi Technologies, Inc., One World Technologies, Inc., and Home Depot, USA, Inc. (collectively, "the defendants"), are liable under theories of negligence, strict liability, and implied warranty for hand injuries he suffered while using a table saw that they manufactured or sold. This is the third memorandum opinion this court has issued addressing a subset of the 41 motions in limine the parties have filed. In the current opinion, this court will resolve the eight motions in limine brought by the defendants to exclude evidence centering around Wielgus's theory that the defendants and other manufacturers agreed to avoid incorporating flesh-detection technology into their saws in an effort to control their collective liability for blade-contact injuries. For the following reasons, the defendants' motion number 14 (R. 181) is denied, motion numbers 13 (R. 180), 21 (R. 188), 35 (R. 202), 36 (R. 203), and 37 (R. 204) are denied without prejudice, motion number 33 (R. 200) is granted, and motion number 34 (R. 201) is granted in part and denied in part.

Legal Standard

Included in the district court's inherent authority to manage trials is the broad discretion to rule on motions in limine. Jenkins v. Chrysler Motors Corp., 316 F.3d 663, 664 (7th Cir. 2002). The purpose of a motion in limine is to prevent the jury from hearing evidence that is "clearly inadmissible on all possible grounds." Anglin v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 139 F.Supp.2d 914, 917 (N.D. Ill. 2001).Accordingly, in some instances it is best to defer rulings until trial, where decisions can be better informed by the context, foundation, and relevance of the contested evidence within the framework of the trial as a whole. Id. A pre-trial ruling denying a motion in limine "does not necessarily mean that all evidence contested by the motion will be admitted at trial." Hawthorne Partners v. AT&T Techs., Inc., 831 F.Supp. 1398, 1401 (N.D. Ill. 1993). The court will consider objections as to specific proffers in the context of the trial, "even though the proffer falls within the scope of a denied motion in limine." Id.

Analysis

At the trial in this case the jury will be asked to decide whether the table saw model that caused Wielgus's injuries-the Ryobi BTS10S-was unreasonably dangerous when it left the defendants' control in 2005. See Faucett v. Ingersoll-Rand Min. & Mach. Co., 960 F.2d 653, 655 (7th Cir. 1992). Wielgus plans to show that the saw was unreasonably dangerous in part by offering evidence that a feasible alternative design was available at the time the Ryobi BTS10S was manufactured. See Mikolajczyk v. Ford Motor Co., 231 Ill.2d 516, 525-26 (2008). One of the alternative designs to which Wielgus intends to point involves the incorporation of flesh-detection technology called "SawStop," which was designed by Steven Gass, a physicist and recreational table saw user. SawStop relies on the capacitance of the human body to detect contact between human flesh and a saw blade. When the flesh-detection device is triggered it signals the saw to brake. The result, according to Wielgus, is that accidents that might otherwise have resulted in a severe laceration or amputation will cause only a scratch or minor cut. The motions in limine addressed in this opinion all center around evidence that Wielgus intends to introduce to show that the defendants refused to incorporate SawStop technology into its table saws for reasons other than its feasibility.

I. Defendants' Motion in Limine No. 14 to Bar Reference to Conduct of Non-Parties and Alleged Conspiracy Theory

The defendants' motion number 14 is denied. In this motion the defendants seek to preclude Wielgus from introducing any evidence or arguments "regarding any alleged improper conduct of other manufacturers, or industry trade groups or alleged conspiracy among manufacturers." (R. 181, Mot. at 1.) They bring the motion in response to Wielgus's intention to show at trial that in 2002, the defendants abandoned negotiations then underway with Gass to license the SawStop technology. According to Wielgus, they ended the negotiations because they had entered into what Wielgus describes as a "conspiracy" among competitors in the table saw industry to boycott SawStop. Wielgus intends to show that between 2003 and 2009 the defendants and other manufacturers were part of a joint venture-affiliated with the Power Tool Institute and partially led by the defendants' former director of engineering, David Peot, and the defendants' expert, Peter Domeny-to develop their own flesh-detection technology. Wielgus asserts that the joint venture was formed because the manufacturers decided it would be "easier for any given manufacturer to argue that SawStop was not feasible in any subsequent personal injury suit if none of the major saw manufacturers had adopted the technology." (R. 233, Pl.'s Resp. at 74 n.8.) Peot admitted to the existence and purpose of this conspiracy in a related case, according to Wielgus, where he testified that the defendants "were concerned that if one manufacturer adopted SawStop and the other manufacturers didn't that they would be subject to potential liability for not adopting something that was shown to be feasible because one manufacturer put it out on the market." (Id., Dwyer Aff. Ex. S, Feb. 25, 2010 Tr. at 125-26.)

The defendants ask this court to exclude under Federal Rules of Evidence 402 and 403 any evidence or argument pertaining to this alleged "conspiracy." According to the defendants, the conduct of non-party manufacturers is irrelevant to any issue in this case, and even if the evidence is marginally relevant, it should be excluded because it is "designed simply to inflame the jury." (R. 181, Mot. ¶¶ 2, 6.) But evidence is relevant "if it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence," Fed. R. Evid. 401(a), and this court agrees with Wielgus that the proposed evidence is relevant in at least two respects. First, to the extent that the defendants intend to argue that they did not incorporate SawStop technology into their table saws because it was not feasible to do so, Wielgus's evidence regarding their collective plan to avoid SawStop as a means of limiting potential liability directly contradicts that position. Second, even the defendants concede that to succeed on his negligence claim Wielgus will have to show that the defendants deviated from the standard of care followed by other table saw manufacturers. See Blue v. Environmental Eng'g, Inc., 215 Ill.2d 78, 96 (2005). Wielgus's conspiracy evidence is therefore also relevant to contradict any assertion by the defendants that incorporating flesh-detection was not the standard of care followed by table saw manufacturers. The purpose of Wielgus's evidence is to show that the reason flesh-detection technology was not the standard of care was not about its feasibility, necessity, or effectiveness, but instead was about the defendants' collective desire to shield themselves from tort liability while they developed their own technology over time. The resolution of that issue is relevant to the jury's ultimate determination of whether the BTS10S was unreasonably dangerous.

This court also disagrees with the defendants' position that the conspiracy-related evidence should be excluded under Rule 403. Evidence will be excluded under this rule only if its probative value is "insignificant compared to its inflammatory nature so that the evidence unfairly prejudices the defendant." United States v. Gorman, 613 F.3d 711, 720-21 (7th Cir. 2010) (emphasis in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Evidence is unfairly prejudicial in the context of Rule 403 if it will induce the jury to decide the case on an improper basis, commonly an emotional one, rather than on the evidence presented." Whitehead v. Bond, __ F.3d __, 2012 WL 1813683, at *10 (7th Cir. May 21, 2012) (quotation and citation omitted). Although the disputed evidence may prejudice the defendants' case from the standpoint that it casts doubt on their feasibility stance, it is unclear that there is anything unfair about that potential prejudice. Most relevant evidence is prejudicial to the opposing side. This court understands the defendants' concern about the jury's potentially emotional reaction to a term like "conspiracy" when none has been pled, but the probative value of the details of the manufacturers' agreement is significant enough for the court to tolerate that small risk. See id. The defendants will remain free to object at trial if Wielgus's counsel crosses any lines using inflammatory words to describe the conspiracy or in characterizing the facts to the jury. Because the proposed evidence is relevant and its probative value outweighs any potentially unfair prejudicial impact, defendants' motion number 14 is denied.*fn1

II. Defendants' Motion In Limine No. 21 to Bar Evidence Regarding Proposed Licensing Agreement Between SawStop LLC and One World Technologies, Inc.

The defendants' motion number 21 is denied without prejudice. The defendants seek to preclude Wielgus from offering any evidence regarding their negotiations with Gass to license the SawStop technology and to bar any reference to the terms of those negotiations. According to the defendants, because they have admitted that such negotiations took place, any facts surrounding those negotiations are no longer in contention. They argue that their admissions regarding the negotiations should simply be read into evidence at trial and that Wielgus's counsel should be prohibited from eliciting "lengthy testimony on these matters."

(R. 188, Mot. ¶ 4.) Although it is true that binding judicial admissions effectively withdraw the admitted facts from contention, see Keller v. United States, 58 F.3d 1194, 1199 n.8 (7th Cir. 1995), the defendants have not cited any cases to support their contention that their admission regarding the negotiations prevents Wielgus from presenting evidence about those negotiations to fill in the groundwork for other relevant information supporting his claims. The defendants' stipulation as to the existence of the negotiations does not handcuff Wielgus from presenting evidence to the jury regarding, for example, the close timing of the negotiation breakdown and the defendants' decision to enter the flesh-detection joint venture. See Blue v. International Bhd. of Elec. Workers Local Union 159, 676 F.3d 579, 2012 WL 1071704, at *5 (7th Cir. April 2, 2012) (noting that the defendant's concession regarding a fact does not alter the plaintiff's entitlement "to make her case with evidence of her own choosing"). In any event, the defendants' objection is one best raised in the context of the trial, where the court will be in a better position to determine whether Wielgus is belaboring in a way that will distract or confuse the jury a point that is not in contention.

The defendants also seek to preclude as irrelevant any evidence regarding the details (rather than the existence) of their negotiations with Gass. According to the defendants, their discussions with Gass only involved the possibility of incorporating SawStop into an expensive and heavy cast-iron cabinet saw, not an inexpensive, light-weight table saw like the BTS10S. (R. 188, Mot. ΒΆΒΆ 6-8.) They argue that because the only issue in this case is whether the BTS10S was unreasonably dangerous or negligently designed, the evidence regarding the details ...


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