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Kmart Corporation, A Michigan Corporation v. Footstar

November 2, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Susan E. Cox


This is a breach of contract, insurance coverage, and declaratory judgment action based on an underlying lawsuit. In that suit, a shopper of plaintiff Kmart Corporation ("Kmart") was struck by a stroller that fell off a shelf while being assisted by an employee of defendant Footstar, Inc. ("Footstar"). We previously ruled on cross motions for summary judgment finding that the indemnification obligation of Footstar and its insurer depended upon a factual determination of the relative fault of Footstar in causing the injury to the Kmart shopper. A trial is set to determine that issue. First we must address Footstar's three motions in limine: (1) to bar mention of insurance or indemnity; (2) to bar admission by Kmart of depositions from the underlying case; and (3) to bar lay opinion testimony regarding fault. Also before us are Kmart's three motions in limine to allow Kmart to introduce into evidence those same depositions from the underlying case and to preclude Footstar from asserting that the absence of any witness not called to testify is evidence of any fact.

For the reasons stated, we deny Footstar's motion in limine to bar admission by Kmart of depositions from the underlying case [dkt. 288] and grant Kmart's motions in limine to allow the Patrick depositions [dkt. 285] and the deposition testimony of Alex Sehat and Maribel Hohney [dkt. 289]. We also grant Footstar's motion in limine to bar mention of insurance or indemnity [dkt. 286] and its motion to bar lay opinion testimony regarding fault [dkt. 290]. Finally, we grant Kmart's motion in limine to bar reference to witnesses not called to testify [dkt. 292].

I. Prior Deposition Testimony

There were four witnesses to the underlying accident: the woman who was injured, Judy Patrick, her daughter Tina Patrick, Footstar employee Alex Sehat and Kmart employee Maribel Hohney. None of these individuals are apparently able to attend the trial because, first, Judy Patrick is now deceased and, second, the other individuals are more than 100 miles from the place of trial and would not be susceptible to service of subpoena under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45(b)(2). Kmart argues that these depositions should be introduced at trial and Footstar argues that these depositions are inadmissible because a representative of Footstar was not present when the depositions were taken.

The parties both stress the application of Federal Rul e of Civil Procedure 32 in this analysis. That rule governs the use of all or part of a deposition at trial and allows the use of a deposition if the following elements are met: the party was present or represented at the deposition, or had notice of it; the deposition is used in a manner that complies with the Federal Rules of Evidence if the deponent were present and testifying; and "the use is allowed by Rule 32(a)(2) through (8)."*fn1 Footstar argues that the first element was not met because it was not present at the depositions and was not, at that time, given notice of those depositions.

Because notice is an element to this inquiry, we first review the timeline of events. The date the accident occurred was July 27, 2005, when Judy and Tina Patrick were looking at baby strollers in Kmart's infant department. After Judy Patrick was struck by the stroller, an incident report was immediately sent to Kmart's third party claims administrator, noting that both Mr. Sehat and Ms. Hohney were present at the time of the accident. But it was not until several months after Judy Patrick and her husband filed their lawsuit - in May 2006 - that Kmart learned that Mr. Sehat was a Footstar employee.*fn2 In August 2006, Kmart's claims administrator documented that Mr. Sehat was from the "shoe department."*fn3

Despite this, Footstar claims that it did not learn of the underlying accident until the following year, on June 6, 2007. It was on this date that a representative of Footstar reported the accident to its insurer, Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company ("Liberty"), as an "incident only" claim.*fn4 Several days later a Liberty claims handler wrote that "I expect we will be brought in as a party to the case in the near future..." and that if so, it would "look to tender the claim to Kmart..."*fn5

The depositions in the underlying case took place from August to November of that year. Even so, there is no evidence that Kmart provided Footstar with notice of these depositions. But by February 1, 2008, Liberty was defending Footstar in connection with the underlying lawsuit. As we noted in our summary judgment ruling, the claim notes from this time indicate that Liberty and Footstar were aware of the depositions and the testimony of these individuals.*fn6 Liberty also admitted that it performed the investigation that it wanted to perform, retained two independent medical examiners in connection with its defense of Footstar, and believed Kmart interviewed all the necessary witnesses in the case.*fn7

After we inquired why Footstar had not sought to re-depose any of these individuals, Footstar referred us to its attempt to re-notice the depositions of, specifically, the Patricks back in October 2008, several days before the underlying case settled.*fn8 It chose not to pursue those depositions, however, because of the impending mediation. And Footstar provides no explanation for its failure to re-open any of these depositions in this litigation.

We now return to Footstar's principal argument that these depositions should not be admitted at trial because Footstar was not present or represented at the depositions, or had notice of them, pursuant to Rule 32(a)(1)(A).*fn9 Both parties concede that Footstar did not receive proper "notice" of the depositions, so they spend a considerable portion of their arguments on the technical point of whether Footstar was "represented" by Kmart as Footstar's "successor in interest"*fn10 or whether Kmart had the same motive. Footstar goes to great lengths to show that nobody (Kmart) was looking out for its interests at the depositions in the underlying case, specifically with respect to Judy Patrick.

We find the parties' arguments here off the mark. Though it may be true that Footstar did not have official notice of the depositions at the time, it certainly had notice of the case, even then. And, more importantly, it knew of its potential for liability. The present case was filed in June of 2009. Our review of the history of this case shows that even prior to 2009,Footstar knew that it was implicated in the case because of the involvement of its employee, Mr. Sehat, and it knew that Kmart was likely to seek contribution. We must emphasize that Footstar was never blindsided. Rather, it made the strategic decision to not re-depose any of these individuals.

Footstar clarified at the pretrial conference that they re-noticed the Patricks' depositions in October 2008. But again, they chose not to go forward with those depositions because the case was potentially being settled by Kmart. Then Kmart filed suit against it and, again, Footstar did not seek to depose any of these individuals. (After October 2008 there is no indication that Footstar attempted to locate the Patricks or even Mr. Sehat, its own employee). Instead, it has up to this point relied on the very depositions it now seeks to exclude.

Because of this history, we find that Footstar cannot rely on the technicality of not having notice, implicating Rule 32 to exclude the only testimony that exists in this case. Footstar had every opportunity to re-depose these individuals itself (with, perhaps, the exception of Ms. Patrick who is now deceased). It chose not do so and apparently chose not to attempt to even locate these individuals for purposes of this case.

We also find the more appropriate analysis to be under Federal Rules of Evidence 804(b)(1) and 807. These rules directly address the situation presented here. Rule 804(b)(1) provides that testimony is not excluded by the rule against hearsay if it:

(A) was given as a witness at a trial, hearing, or lawful deposition, whether given during the current proceeding or a different one; and

(B) is now offered against a party who had--or, in a civil case, whose predecessor in interest had--an opportunity and similar motive to develop it by direct, cross-, or redirect examination.*fn11

This is where the parties' arguments come in: whether Kmart is Footstar's "predecessor in interest." There is no question that Kmart and Footstar now have diverging motives. At trial, Kmart will be arguing that Footstar's employee, Mr. Sehat, was at fault for Ms. Patrick's accident. Footstar, in contrast, will argue that its employee had nothing to do with the accident and that it was caused by a combination of Kmart failing to secure the car seat within the stroller and Judy Patrick pulling on the baby stroller when told not do so. The dictionary definition of "successor-in-interest" also does not fit the circumstances of this case:

One who follows another in ownership or control of property. In order to be a "successor-in-interest," a party must continue to retain the same rights as original owner without change in ownership and there must be change in form only and not in substance, and transferee is not a "successor-in-interest." In a case of corporations, the term ordinarily indicates statutory ...

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