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Jaroslaw Wielgus v. Ryobi Technologies

July 23, 2012


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


In this diversity suit, Jaroslaw Wielgus brings claims of negligence, breach of implied warranty, and strict liability under Illinois law (R. 84), alleging that Ryobi Technologies, Inc., One World Technologies, Inc., and Home Depot, USA, Inc. (collectively, "the defendants"), are liable for hand injuries he sustained in March 2006 while using the Ryobi Model BTS10S tablesaw, a product that the defendants manufactured or sold and Wielgus contends was unreasonably dangerous when it left the defendants' control in 2005.*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, R. 261.) In this sixth opinion, the court rules on the defendants' motions seeking to preclude the admission of evidence relating to changes in the tablesaw industry safety standards which became effective after the manufacture of the BTS10S model, changes in the guard design of the saw that were implemented after Wielgus's accident, and post-accident discussions regarding the licensing of an alternative design technology. For the following reasons, defendants' motion in limine number 11 (R. 178) is denied, motion number 22 (R. 189) is granted in part and denied in part, and motion number 27 (R. 194) is denied without prejudice.

Legal Standard

Included in the district court's inherent authority to manage trials is the broad discretion to rule on motions in limine. Aldridge v. Forest River, Inc., 635 F.3d 870, 874-75 (7th Cir. 2011). The purpose of such motions is to perform a "gatekeeping function and permit[] the trial judge to eliminate from further consideration evidentiary submissions that clearly ought not to 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 such a showing, evidentiary rulings should be deferred until trial, when 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), for the court may revisit evidentiary rulings during trial as appropriate in its exercise of its discretion, see Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41-42 (1984).


I. Defendants' Motion in Limine No. 11 to Bar Reference to the Post-1994 Changes to the Underwriters Laboratory Safety Standards

The defendants' motion number 11 is denied. In this motion, the defendants seek to preclude Wielgus from presenting evidence concerning the Underwriters Laboratory ("UL") post-1994 safety standards that became effective after the BTS10S tablesaw left the defendants' control in 2005. UL is an independent, not-for-profit safety testing organization that tests products and formulates safety standards which it then publishes. See Ross v. Black & Decker, Inc., 977 F.2d 1178, 1184 (7th Cir. 1992); see also (R. 178, Defs.' Mot. at ¶ 3). At the time of Wielgus's March 26, 2005 accident (R. 1, Compl. ¶ 12), UL 987 (6th edition)-which was published in 1994-was in effect. Since then, UL 987 has undergone several revisions. On January 31, 2005, the 6th edition of UL 987 was amended to require an independent riving knife, but this modification did not become effective until January 31, 2010. On November 5, 2007, UL 987 (then the 7th edition) was revised to introduce the use of a modular safety system that included the riving knife, barrier guards, and kickback pawls (referred to as a "new-style guard"); this modification also did not become effective until January 31, 2010. The defendants seek to preclude Wielgus from introducing evidence of these changes at trial.

Under both federal and Illinois law, evidence of a defendant's compliance with an accepted safety standard is relevant, but not a conclusive defense to a claim that the product is unreasonably dangerous. Ross, 977 F.2d at 1184; see also Schwartz v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 710 F.2d 378, 383 (7th Cir. 1983); Ruffiner v. Material Serv. Corp., 116 Ill.2d 53, 57 (1987) (noting that "evidence of standards may be relevant and admissible even though the standards have not been imposed by statute or promulgated by a regulatory body and therefore do not have the force of law"). Thus, in a products liability action, "[safety] standards may be relevant in determining whether or not the condition of the product is unreasonably dangerous." Ross, 977 F.3d at 1184. Under Illinois law, to be admissible, standards must be relevant "in terms of both time and conduct involved." Murphy v. Messerschmidt, 68 Ill.2d 79, 84 (1977).

The defendants do not dispute that the modifications to the guarding system reflected by the newly revised UL 987 safety standards were technologically feasible at the time of Wielgus's accident. (R. 178, Defs.' Mot. at ¶¶ 12, 18.) In other words, the defendants agree that the changes accounted for by the UL standards could have been incorporated onto their tablesaws at the time that the BTS10S model that injured Wielgus left their control in June 2005 and injured Wielgus in March 2006. But, relying on several Illinois cases, the defendants contend that the change to the UL safety standard should not be admitted into evidence because it became effective after the tablesaw at issue left the defendants' control and is therefore not relevant in terms of time.

The Seventh Circuit's decision in Ross v. Black & Decker, 977 F.2d 1178, 1184 (7th Cir. 1992), is instructive. There, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the 1982 UL safety standard as evidence of whether a power saw was unreasonably dangerous when manufactured, even though that standard became effective after the manufacture of the saw at issue. Id. Distinguishing Murphy v. Messerschmidt, 68 Ill.2d 79 (1977)-the same case on which the present defendants primarily rely-the Seventh Circuit concluded that in a products liability case where the focus is on the unreasonable dangerousness of a product, subsequent safety standards may be relevant to the issue of unreasonable dangerousness. Ross, 977 F.2d at 1184. "The fact that the standards were promulgated subsequent to the manufacture goes to the weight and not to admissibility." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). That reasoning is applicable in this case.

The defendants attempt to distinguish Ross by arguing that the defendants in Ross disputed feasibility whereas here, they do not. This argument is based on the defendants' assumption that the change in the UL safety standards is properly characterized as a subsequent remedial measure under Federal Rule of Evidence 407. Under Rule 407, "[w]hen measures are taken that would have made an earlier injury or harm less likely to occur," evidence of those measures is not admissible to prove negligence, culpable conduct, a defect in a product or its design, or a need for a warning or instruction. Fed. R. Evid. 407. "But the court may admit this evidence for another purpose, such as impeachment or-if disputed-proving ownership, control, or the feasibility of precautionary measures." Id. Thus, evidence of post-manufacture remedial measures are inadmissible to prove negligence or a design defect but may be admissible to demonstrate the feasibility of those measures, if disputed. Fed. R. Evid. 407; Ross, 977 F.2d at 1184-85. According to the defendants, their concession regarding the technological feasibility of the post-1994 UL standard changes renders them inadmissible as subsequent remedial measures under Rule 407.

The court is not convinced that the change in the UL industry standard at issue in this case is a subsequent remedial measure contemplated by Rule 407. Here, the change was announced in January 2005, prior to the tablesaw's manufacture in June 2005. Even though the change became effective after the saw's manufacture, the change was announced prior to it. Given that timing, the change to UL 987 is not properly characterized as a subsequent remedial measure. And Ross did not hold to the contrary. Instead, Ross concluded that the announced change by the UL was relevant to whether the saw was unreasonably dangerous. 977 F.2d at 1184. Indeed, such a change speaks to the dispute between the parties regarding the technological and commercial feasibility of an alternative design. It seems unlikely that the UL would promulgate a safety standard for a consumer product that was neither technologically, nor commercially feasible. At the very least, the UL must have considered the technological or economic feasibility of a safety standard prior to announcing it.

The defendants attempt to distinguish Ross by arguing that their concession regarding the technological feasibility of either a riving knife or a modular blade guard makes the UL standard change irrelevant. This argument fails for in Ross, the Seventh Circuit did not hold that a party could preclude the admission of a change in an industry safety standard by conceding the technological feasibility of an alternative design. 977 F.2d at 1184. The discussion to which the defendants cite in Ross regarding stipulating to feasibility arose in a different section of the Ross opinion, where the court was not dealing with the change in industry standards, but instead, with subsequent remedial measures squnder Rule 407. That analysis is simply not applicable here because the court has concluded that the change in the UL safety standard, which was announced prior to, but became effective after, the manufacture of the BTS10S tablesaw, cannot be considered a subsequent remedial measure under Rule 407.

In sum, because evidence of the post-1994 changes to the UL safety standards are relevant to technological and economic feasibility, they are admissible as evidence of whether the BTS10S tablesaw was unreasonably dangerous when it was manufactured. Ross, 977 F.2d at 1184 (citing Jones v. Black & Decker Mfg. Co., 202 Ill.App.3d 401 (1st Dist. 1990); Seward v. Griffin, 116 Ill.App.3d 749 (3d Dist. 1983)). The court further adds that the defendants' concession regarding technological feasibility does not render the pronounced UL changes prejudicially cumulative of other evidence Wielgus seeks to present regarding the feasibility of alternative designs. See Blue v. International Broth. of Elec. Workers Local Union, 159 F.3d 579, 585 (7th Cir. ...

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