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Jaroslaw Wielgus v. Ryobi Technologies

July 17, 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

Jaroslaw Wielgus has sued Ryobi Technologies, Inc., One World Technologies, Inc., and Home Depot, USA, Inc. (collectively, "the defendants") pursuant to this court's diversity jurisdiction, claiming that the defendants are liable under theories of negligence, strict liability, and implied warranty for hand injuries he suffered while using a tablesaw that they manufactured or sold.*fn1 On March 6, 2012, the parties filed a total of 41 motions in limine. This court has been grappling with the voluminous submissions in batches, grouping the motions by subject matter and issuing opinions resolving a particular group at a time. (See R. 248, R. 251, R. 257, R. 259.) In this fifth opinion, the court addresses the motions that are directed toward the parties' disputes over evidence regarding whether a flesh-detection technology called "SawStop" would have mitigated Wielgus's injuries. For the following reasons, the defendants' motions in limine numbers two (R. 169) and eight (R. 175) are denied, and motions in limine numbers seven (R. 174) and nine (R. 176) are granted in part and denied in part.

Legal Standard

Federal district courts have broad discretion in ruling on motions in limine. See Aldridge v. Forest River, Inc., 635 F.3d 870, 874-75 (7th Cir. 2011). Such motions perform "a gatekeeping function and permit[] the trial judge to eliminate from further consideration evidentiary submissions that clearly ought not be presented to the jury because they clearly would be inadmissible for any purpose." Jonasson v. Lutheran Child & Family Servs., 115 F.3d 436, 440 (7th Cir. 1997). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating blanket inadmissibility. See Mason v. City of Chicago, 631 F.Supp.2d 1052, 1056 (N.D. Ill. 2009).Absent that showing, evidentiary rulings should be deferred 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. Anglin v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 139 F.Supp.2d 914, 917 (N.D. Ill. 2001). "A pre-trial ruling denying a motion in limine does not automatically mean that all evidence contested in the motion will be admitted at trial," Bruce v. City of Chicago, No. 09 CV 4837, 2011 WL 3471074, at *1 (N.D. Ill. July 29, 2011), because the court is free to revisit evidentiary rulings as appropriate in its exercise of discretion, see Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41-42 (1984).

Analysis

At trial, the jury will be asked to decide whether the tablesaw 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's case revolves around his theory that at the time the defendants' saw was manufactured, a feasible alternative to the design existed in the form of a saw incorporating SawStop technology. SawStop-which was invented by Wielgus's core expert witness, Stephen Gass-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. Wielgus intends to use the testimony of Gass and other experts to show that in 2005, it was feasible to incorporate SawStop technology into tablesaws like the BTS10S, and that an alternative design incorporating flesh-detection technology would have mitigated his injuries. The defendants seek to preclude Wielgus from introducing most of this evidence.

I. Defendants' Motion in Limine No. 2 to Bar Reference to SawStop "Making Saws Safer"

The defendants' motion number two is denied. In this motion, the defendants seek to prevent Wielgus from introducing any evidence or making any argument to suggest "that SawStop technology, or other comparable flesh detection technology would have made the subject BTS 10 safer." (R. 169, Mot. at 1.) According to the defendants, the question for the jury is whether the BTS10S was "unreasonably dangerous," not whether it could have been "made safer," and so any evidence or argument referencing making the saw "safer" by incorporating SawStop would confuse and mislead the jury. (Id. at ¶ 6.) Wielgus calls this argument "facially ludicrous." (R. 233, Pl.'s Resp. at 20.) Although the descriptor "ludicrous" probably goes too far, this court, like Wielgus, is unconvinced that any reference to SawStop making the tablesaw "safer" should be excluded on the grounds of likely juror confusion.

To prevail on his strict liability claim under Illinois law, Wielgus will have to show that the BTS10S was unreasonably dangerous when it left the defendants' control. See Mikolajczyk v. Ford Motor Co., 231 Ill.2d 516, 525 (2008). Wielgus may prove that the saw was unreasonably dangerous in one of two ways. See id. at 526. Using what is known as the consumer expectation test, he may show that "'the product failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner.'" Id. (quoting Lamkin v. Towner, 138 Ill.2d 510, 529 (1990)). Alternatively, under the risk-utility test, Wielgus may show that the saw's design proximately caused his injury, leaving the defendants to "'prove that on balance the benefits of the challenged design outweigh the risk of danger inherent in such designs.'" Id. at 526-27 (quoting Lamkin, 138 Ill.2d at 529). The risk-utility test incorporates the idea that a plaintiff may establish that a product is unreasonably dangerous by presenting "evidence of an alternative design that is 'economical, practical and effective.'" Id. at 525-28 (quoting Kerns v. Engelke, 76 Ill.2d 154, 162-63 (1979)). The availability and feasibility of an alternate design is just one relevant factor by which the parties may engage the risk-utility analysis, along with the open and obvious nature of the design defect and the design's conformance with industry standards or guidelines established by industry associations, legislation, or government regulations. Calles v. Scripto-Tokai Corp., 224 Ill.2d 247, 263-64 (2007).

The defendants acknowledge that Wielgus is entitled to present evidence of an alternative design to the BTS10S, but argue that whether that alternative design "is safer" than the existing saw is irrelevant because manufacturers are not required to produce "'a product which represented the ultimate in safety.'" (R. 246, Defs.' Reply at 6 (quoting Curry v. Louis Allis Co., Inc., 100 Ill.App.3d 910, 916 (1st Dist. 1981)).) They rely heavily on Jarke v. Jackson Prods., 258 Ill.App.3d 718, 724-25 (1st Dist. 1994), which characterized the question of whether "the product could have been made safer" as irrelevant to the analysis of whether a product is unreasonably dangerous. The plaintiff in Jarke was a welder who claimed that the manufacturers of a welding mask were strictly liable for injuries he sustained when molten slag dripped down the mask he was wearing and into his ear. Id. at 720. The court determined that the mask's lack of ear protection was an "open and obvious" condition which would preclude the plaintiff's recovery, but Jarke proposed an alternative design incorporating ear protection and argued that the defendant "was obligated to incorporate the safer design." Id. at 724. In analyzing this argument, the court acknowledged that "the law imposes no obligation on a manufacturer to render its products absolutely incapable of inflicting injury on its purchaser," and noted that "'the availability of an alternative design does not translate into a legal duty in products liability.'" Id. at 724-25 (quoting Artis v. Fibre Metal Prods., 115 Ill.App.3d 228, 233 (1983)). In other words, the Jarke court confirmed that "it is beyond argument that the law of products liability imposes no obligation to use a design which a plaintiff contends is preferable." Id. at 725.

Whether a defendant manufacturer has a legal obligation to incorporate a tort plaintiff's proposed alternative design is a separate question from whether a plaintiff should be allowed, in the context of the risk-utility analysis, to describe its proposed alternative design as "safer" than the accused product. The Jarke court did not speak to whether the plaintiff could argue that a proposed alternative was safer, but rather held that he could not recover for injuries stemming from an open and obvious defect just because he had pointed to a safer alternative design. Jarke, 258 Ill.App.3d at 725. That idea is consistent with the cases holding that whether a feasible alternative design is available is just one, non-mandatory factor to be weighed by the jury in determining under the risk-utility test whether the accused product is unreasonably dangerous. See, e.g., Mikolajczyk, 231 Ill.2d at 546; Calles, 224 Ill.2d at 263-66.

Stacked against the defendants' characterization of the Jarke decision is a string of cases explicitly using the term "safer" in connection with the method of establishing that a product is unreasonably dangerous through evidence of a feasible alternative design. For example, in Calles the Illinois Supreme Court described a policy reason for subjecting even simple products to scrutiny under the risk-utility test as necessary to encourage manufacturers to adopt a "reasonable and feasible alternative design . . . that would make a product safer." 224 Ill.2d at 262. In describing why a proposed alternative must be shown to be "economical, practical and effective," the Illinois Supreme Court reasoned that "a manufacturer's product can hardly be faulted if safer alternatives are not feasible." Kerns, 76 Ill.2d at 163; see also Stallings v. Black & Decker, Inc., 342 Ill.App.3d 676, 684 (5th Dist. 2003) (noting that a manufacturer should only be liable if the proposed "safer alternatives" were feasible). And in finding that a window-screen manufacturer was entitled to summary judgment on a design-defect claim, the Illinois Supreme Court noted that the claimant failed "to provide evidence of how the window screens' design could have been altered to create a safer screen . . . or any evidence of the form and feasibility of the alternative screen design." Lamkin, 138 Ill.2d at 531; see also Staecker v. Hitachi Seiki U.S.A., Inc., 95 CV 0743, 1998 WL 30698, at *5 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 22, 1998) (describing relevant test as whether "some technologically feasible, safer alternative existed"). All of these cases represent the common-sense view that the alternative-feasible design factor only makes sense if the proposed alternative is better or safer than the design that injured the plaintiff. If the proposed alternative is only equally safe or less safe than the accused product, there would be no point of proposing it as an alternative.

The defendants' argument springs from their concern that if Wielgus is allowed to characterize a saw incorporating flesh-detection as "safer" than the BTS10S, the jury will be confused into holding them liable for not producing a risk-free product. That concern can be allayed through instructions informing the jury that Illinois law does not require manufacturers to produce "the ultimate in safety" or obligate them to ...


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