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Klingenberg v. Vulcan Ladder USA, LLC

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

March 9, 2018

JEFFREY KLINGENBERG and JENNIFER KLINGENBERG Plaintiffs,
v.
VULCAN LADDER USA, LLC; and G.P. INTERNATIONAL COMPANY Defendants.

          ORDER

          Kelly K.E. Mahoney United States Magistrate Judge Northern District of Iowa.

         Table of Contents

         I. BACKGROUND ..................................................................................................................... 2

         II. JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW .......................................................................... 11

         A. Fournier's Expert Testimony ........................................................................................ 11

         B. Statute of Limitations .................................................................................................... 14

         C. Sufficiency of the Evidence for Breach of Express Warranty ................................... 17

         D. Inconsistency of the Jury Verdict ................................................................................. 28

         III. NEW TRIAL ...................................................................................................................... 30

         IV. INTEREST AND COSTS ................................................................................................. 30

         V. CONCLUSION .................................................................................................................. 32

         This case involves claims brought under Iowa law by Plaintiffs Jeffrey and Jennifer Klingenberg[1] after Jeffrey fell from a ladder in February 2013 and suffered serious injuries. After a four-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Defendants, Vulcan Ladder USA, LLC (Vulcan) and G.P. International Company (GP International), on the design-defect claim, but in favor of the Klingenbergs on the breach-of-express-warranty claim. The jury awarded the Klingenbergs more than $2.4 million in damages. Defendants now move for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) or, alternatively, for a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a)(1)(A). They argue that the Klingenbergs' expert should not have been allowed to testify, that the statute of limitations bars the Klingenbergs' claims against GP International, that no evidence supports the verdict, and that the jury's verdict is inconsistent. They also argue that the great weight of the evidence demonstrates no breach of warranty occurred. I deny the motion for judgment as a matter of law and Defendants' alternative request for a new trial (Doc. 128).

         I. BACKGROUND

         On February 22, 2013, while working as a home inspector, Jeffrey fell as he attempted to move from the roof of a house onto a Vulcan-branded ladder, and he suffered serious injuries. He had purchased the ladder from a Menards store in September 2011.

         The Klingenbergs initiated this lawsuit on January 26, 2015, by filing a complaint in state court against Vulcan. Doc. 1-2. They alleged, among other things, that Vulcan breached an express warranty based on the ladder's label that its working weight limit was 300 pounds and that Vulcan defectively designed the ladder. Id. Vulcan removed the case to federal court on February 26, 2015. Doc. 1. In a disclosure statement filed in accordance with the Local Rules on March 18, 2015, Vulcan stated that GP International, a Chinese corporation, was Vulcan's parent company. Doc. 5.

         After conducting some discovery, the Klingenbergs moved on July 24, 2015-the deadline to add parties-for leave to file an amended complaint adding GP International and GP International Co., LLC (GP LLC) as defendants. Docs. 7, 9. The Klingenbergs asserted that they were still not sure of the relationship between the parties and what role the additional defendants had in designing, manufacturing, and distributing the ladder. Id. The court granted the motion on August 11, 2015, and that same day, the Klingenbergs filed an amended complaint setting forth the same claims but adding the two additional defendants. Docs. 10, 11. Vulcan and GP LLC quickly filed answers to the amended complaint (represented by the same attorneys), but the Klingenbergs were unable to serve GP International, and counsel for Vulcan declined to accept service on GP International's behalf. Docs. 14-17, 74 ¶ 12.

         The case proceeded without GP International. Vulcan and GP LLC filed a Daubert motion to exclude the testimony of the Klingenbergs' expert witness, Stephen Fournier. Doc. 26. Vulcan and GP LLC also filed a motion for summary judgment, largely based on the assumption that the Klingenbergs' expert testimony would be excluded. Doc. 25. The court[2] granted summary judgment to Vulcan and GP LLC on the Klingenbergs' manufacturing-defect claim but denied the Daubert motion and allowed the rest of the Klingenbergs' claims to proceed. Doc. 39.

         On May 30, 2017, having exhausted the requirements for service under the Hague Convention to no avail, the Klingenbergs moved for default judgment against GP International. Doc. 56. Two weeks later, the motion became moot when the attorneys for Vulcan and GP LLC entered their appearance on GP International's behalf and filed GP International's answer. Docs. 57-59, 63. GP International's answer set forth the same boilerplate affirmative defenses that had been in Vulcan's and GP LLC's answers, including a statute-of-limitations defense, and added a defense based on lack of personal jurisdiction. See Docs. 4, 14, 17, 58. GP International also filed a disclosure statement as required by the Local Rules, stating that no entities were related to it as a parent, subsidiary, or otherwise and that no other entities had a direct or indirect pecuniary interest in the outcome of the case. Doc. 61. GP LLC filed the same disclosure statement, as did Vulcan, amending (without explanation) its earlier disclosure statement that had represented GP International was its parent company. Docs. 60, 62. The court allowed the Klingenbergs to conduct additional discovery in the form of depositions to try to discern the relationship between the three defendants. Docs. 74, 83. After the additional discovery, the parties agreed to the dismissal of GP LLC as a defendant and to stipulate that the ladder was designed and distributed by Vulcan and manufactured and sold by GP International. Docs. 99, 107, 113 at 18. They also agreed not to use the additional discovery at trial. Doc. 99.

         The court held a final pretrial conference on September 11, 2017 (before the additional discovery had been conducted). Doc. 92. The parties discussed with the court the foreseeable issues for trial, and the court entered a final pretrial order. Defendants made no mention of a potential statute-of-limitations defense, and this defense was not included as a potential issue for trial in the final pretrial order (even though the final pretrial order does note “Defendants will argue at the close of Plaintiffs' case[-]in[-]chief that . . . [GP International] should be dismissed” based on a lack of evidence that it designed and distributed the ladder). Docs. 93, 102.

         The parties submitted joint proposed jury instructions. Doc. 86. They requested the model Iowa instructions for design-defect claims and breach-of-express-warranty claims. Id. Defendants also proposed the following instruction related to the alternative-design element of the design-defect claim:

[T]he Court has instructed you to consider “the technological feasibility” of the alternative design. This is also known as “state of the art.” Whether or not a reasonable alternative design existed must be tested by what was technologically available at the time of sale, as opposed to what has developed since that time.
The Defendants contend that the rail bracing design of the . . . ladder was, at the time of sale, state of the art. You have received evidence regarding the [American National Standards Institute (ANSI)] ¶ 14.2 Standard and [Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)] 1926.1053 Regulation. Those standards and regulations required this ladder to withstand a thousand pound load when fully extended at 75˚ in the “straight” configuration when a single locking pin (or “J” hook) is engaged. The evidence in this case is uncontroverted that this model of Vulcan ladders met the ANSI testing requirements.
You may consider such evidence in determining whether or not the [ladder] rail bracing design met the state of the art.

Doc. 86 at 12. The Klingenbergs objected that this instruction was based on a withdrawn model Iowa instruction that now stated under “Wright v. Brooke Group, Ltd., 652 N.W.2d 159 (Iowa 2002)[, ] . . . ‘State of the Art' [is] an element of plaintiff's proof in product liability cases, but remains an affirmative defense under Iowa Code section 668.12.” Doc. 86 at 12.

         The court submitted proposed jury instructions on September 15, 2017, and included instructions only on the design-defect claim because both sides' model verdict forms contained only that claim. Docs. 88, 89, 94-1. Neither did the court include Defendants' proposed state-of-the-art instruction. Doc. 94-1. The court instructed the parties to file any objections to the jury instructions by 5:00 p.m. on September 20, 2017, or the objection would be deemed waived. Doc. 94. The Klingenbergs objected, requesting instructions on additional claims. Doc. 96. Defendants filed no response.

         The court filed revised proposed jury instructions on September 21, 2017, which included instructions on breach of express warranty, and ordered the parties to respond by 5:00 p.m. the next day. Docs. 98, 98-1. The court further stated that “[a] party may not object to any portion of these instructions that remains unchanged from the [previous]

         version” and that “[a]ny objection not included in a party's response will be deemed to be waived.” Doc. 98. By email, counsel for Defendants requested additional time to object (Doc. 148 at 1), which the court allowed. When Defendants filed their response to the jury instructions, they had no objections to the instructions on breach of express warranty. Doc. 103. During the pretrial conference on the first day of trial, the court presented the parties with the final jury instructions and inquired into whether any changes needed to be made. Trial Tr. vol. 1, 4-6.[3] Again, Defendants made no objection to the breach-of-express-warranty instructions. Id. The final jury instruction on breach of express warranty included the following elements (as it had throughout the revision process):

         First, the Defendants sold the Vulcan ladder and expressly warranted that the working weight load of the ladder was 300 pounds and that it could be used in different positions under the 300-pound working weight.

• An express warranty is any promise by a seller about a product that naturally or ordinarily leads the buyer to purchase the product.
• For a promise to be an express warranty, no particular form of words have to be used, nor do the terms “warrant” or “guarantee” have to be used, nor does the seller have to intend to make a warranty. The warranty must relate to a fact and not an opinion about the quality or condition of the product sold. An expression of opinion or belief only, a statement of value, or mere words of praise do not create a warranty.

         Second, the Plaintiffs made the purchase relying on the express warranty.

• The fact that a buyer may, to some extent, rely upon his or her own judgment in purchasing goods does not prevent him or her from also relying upon an express warranty made by the seller. Third, the Vulcan ladder did not conform to the express warranty.
• A p1roduct does not conform to an express warranty when defects are substantial and sufficiently serious so that the product fails to materially comply with the express warranty. It is not enough if the defects are small, minor, or insignificant.

         Fourth, the breach of the express warranty was a cause of the ...


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