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Mt. Carmel Mutual Insurance Association v. CNH America, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division

March 20, 2015

MT. CARMEL MUTUAL INSURANCE ASSOCIATION, as subrogee of Jacob Kuker, insured, Plaintiff,
CNH AMERICA, LLC, Defendant.


DONALD E. O'BRIEN, Senior District Judge.


Currently before this Court is Defendant, CNH America, LLC's [hereinafter CNH], Motion for Summary Judgment. Docket No. 44. The parties appeared for a hearing on January 20, 2015. Following the hearing, the Court gave each party seven days to supplement the record, which they did. After hearing the parties' arguments and reviewing their filings, the Court took the issues under advisement and now enters the following.


This case arises out of a fire that destroyed a piece of farm equipment, a combine, owned by Jacob Kuker on October 29, 2010. The Plaintiff is Mr. Kuker's insurance company. After the fire destroyed Mr. Kuker's combine, the Plaintiff reimbursed him for his loss. CNH American, LLC, manufactured the combine. The Plaintiff alleges that a design defect exacerbated the fire damage, and the Defendant is liable for the damage caused by the design defect.

The Plaintiff originally filed this case as a state court petition on September 17, 2012. Docket No. 2. The Defendant accepted service on September 25, 2012, and filed an Answer on October 23, 2012. Docket No. 3. Thereafter, the Defendant served two discovery questions on the Plaintiff. Docket No. 1, Ex. 4. Mt. Carmel answered that none of its policy holders and/or members are citizens of the state of Wisconsin or the State of Delaware. Docket No. 1, Ex. 4. CNH then filed a Notice of Removal on December 18, 2012. Docket No. 1. On January 9, 2013, the Plaintiff filed a Motion to Remand the case back to state court. Following a hearing, this Court denied that Motion on February 22, 2013. Docket No. 15.

After the Court's Order, Docket No. 15, denying a remand to state court, the parties engaged in a protracted round of discovery which involved several disputes and deadline extensions. First, the parties engaged in a discovery dispute regarding a potential expert witness for the Plaintiff, which U.S. Magistrate Judge Strand resolved. See Docket No. 35. The parties also disputed Plaintiff's Motion for a Protective Order regarding their expert witnesses, which U.S. Magistrate Strand denied. See Docket No. 43.[1] Finally, the parties disputed Plaintiff's discovery request for documents related to fuel tanks from CNH. The Plaintiff ultimately filed a Motion to Compel, which U.S. Magistrate Judge Strand granted. See Docket No. 63.

The Defendant filed the present Motion for Summary Judgment on October 1, 2014. Docket No. 44. The Plaintiff filed a Resistence on November 26, 2014. Docket No. 62. The Defendant filed a Reply Brief on December 8, 2014. Docket No. 64. The Court held a hearing on January 20, 2015. Following the hearing, the Plaintiff filed a supplemental resistance on January 28, 2015. Docket No. 70. The Defendant filed a supplemental reply on February 3, 2015. Docket No. 71.


Many of the facts in this case are undisputed. As stated above, this case about a combine fire. Mr. Jacob Kuker manages a very large farming operation in rural Iowa and Nebraska. Mr. Kuker bought a 2009 CASE IH 8120 combine [hereinafter the combine], manufactured by the Defendant in July 2009. There is no dispute that the combine was produced by Defendant CNH.

Mr. Kuker was using the combine for normal agricultural purposes in October, 2010. Mr. Kuker used the combine on October 28, 2010. The machine was cleaned that evening. Mr. Kuker was again using the combine the next day, October 29, 2010, a dry day, in rural Monona County, Iowa. There is no evidence that the combine was cleaned on the 29th. At around noon that day, the combine caught fire.[2] Mr. Kuker retrieved a fire extinguisher and attempted to put the fire out but was unable to. Mr. Dietrich Kuker, Mr. Jacob Kuker's brother, was farming along with his brother, and called the fire department. Mr. Dietrich Kuker then began videotaping the fire. The video reveals that the fire quickly spread and consumed the combine. Although the fire department arrived and extinguished the fire, the combine was a total loss.

Following the fire, the Plaintiff paid Mr. Kuker $377, 076.00 under the applicable insurance policy. The Plaintiff now seeks to recover damages from the Defendant, as a subrogee of Mr. Kuker, for a design defect in the combine. It is undisputed that the combine has a plastic fuel tank which contained nearly 200 gallons of the appropriate type of diesel fuel. During the fire, the plastic fuel tank melted, which released the diesel fuel from the tank into the fire. The fuel acted as an accelerant for the fire. The metal oil tank on the combine survived the fire.

As indicated above, the Plaintiff's case is that the Defendant negligently designed the combine. Specifically, the Plaintiff argues that the combine's design was defective because CNH designed the combine with the above mentioned plastic fuel tank. (Plaintiff alleges a metal fuel tank would have been the non-negligent alternative.) The Defendant argues that including a plastic fuel tank on the combine was a reasonable design. The facts related to the plastic fuel tank versus mental fuel tank debate are in dispute, and will be discussed in greater detail below.


Summary judgment is appropriate only if the record shows "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P., Rule 56(c). A fact is material if it is necessary "to establish the existence of an element essential to [a] party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). There is a genuine issue as to a material fact if, based on the record before the court, a "rational trier of fact" could find for the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

When considering a motion for summary judgment, a "court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party...." Hutson v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 63 F.3d 771 (8th Cir. 1995). This requires a court to draw any reasonable inference from the underlying facts in favor of the nonmoving party and to refrain from weighing the evidence, making credibility determinations, or attempting to discern the truth of any factual issue in a manner which favors the moving party unless there is no reasonable alternative. See Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587; and Morris v. City of Chillicothe, 512 F.3d 1013, 1018 (8th Cir. 2008) (citing Thomas v. Corwin, 483 F.3d 516, 526-27 (8th Cir. 2007)).

Procedurally, the movant bears the initial burden "of informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record which show a lack of a genuine issue." Hartnagel v. Norman, 953 F.2d 394, 395 (8th Cir. 1992) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323). Once the movant has carried his burden, the non-moving party is required "to go beyond the pleadings" and through "affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, ' designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323 (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)).


Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment has two main issues. First, the Defendant argues that Plaintiff has failed to allege adequate facts to maintain a cause of action for design defect. Second, the Defendant argues that the Plaintiff, through Mr. Kuker, was at fault for the fire, because Mr. Kuker ...

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