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Baugh v. Cuprum S.A. de C.V.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

January 11, 2017

John Baugh, by and through his Wife and Next Friend, Sharon Baugh, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Cuprum S.A. de C.V., Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued November 2, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 08 CV 4204 - John Z. Lee, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Posner and Williams, Circuit Judges.

          Williams, Circuit Judge.

         John Baugh fell off a ladder while replacing gutter screws and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He sued the ladder's manufacturer, Cuprum, alleging that the ladder had unexpectedly collapsed and caused him to fall because it had been defectively designed. At the conclusion of trial, a jury, finding in Baugh's favor, awarded him over $11 million in damages. Following the verdict, Cuprum filed a motion for a new trial and for judgment as a matter of law, but the district judge denied it.

         On appeal, Cuprum contends that this denial was improper. Cuprum maintains that it was entitled to a new trial primarily because the district judge erroneously permitted two of Baugh's experts to testify about critical issues. But both experts' methodologies were adequate, and Cuprum's various complaints affected the weight of the experts' testimony rather than its admissibility. In addition, Cuprum contends that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Baugh had failed to prove that the ladder contained an unreasonably dangerous condition and that this condition was the most probable cause of the accident. When viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Baugh, however, we conclude that a reasonable jury could have found in Baugh's favor. Baugh supplied sufficient evidence demonstrating that a feasible alternative existed, and that the accident was more likely attributable to the ladder's original defective design than to an improper use of the ladder. So we affirm the district court's judgment in Baugh's favor.

         I. BACKGROUND

         John Baugh fell off a five-foot, A-frame aluminum ladder while replacing several rusty screws in a gutter on his garage. Baugh sustained significant bruising and bleeding in the frontal area of his brain, which caused him to suffer seizures, dementia, and quadriplegia and inhibited his ability to perform myriad routine functions such as taking medicine orally, urinating without a catheter, recognizing shapes and angles, and reading a one-paragraph excerpt and answering simple questions like who, what, and where. On his behalf, Baugh's wife Sharon sued Cuprum, a Mexico-based company that designed and manufactured the ladder, alleging a design defect under strict liability and negligence theories. Baugh argued that the ladder was not designed to be strong enough to accommodate the weight of individuals at or near 200 pounds, [1]and that a feasible alternate design would have prevented the accident. But Cuprum argued that the ladder was designed to adequately support the weight of individuals weighing up to 200 pounds, and that the accident occurred because Baugh climbed too high on the ladder and stood on its fourth step and pail shelf, neither of which were intended to be stood on. (Pail shelves are often square in shape, attached near the top of ladders, and used to hold paint cans and other painting equipment.)

         The parties proceeded to trial and a jury found in Cuprum's favor. However, we remanded the case for a new trial because the exemplar ladder, which had the same core specifications as Baugh's, was improperly given to jurors during jury deliberations. See generally Baugh ex rel. Baugh v. Cuprum S.A. de C.V., 730 F.3d 701 (7th Cir. 2013).

         During the second trial, Baugh elicited testimony from two of his neighbors and a paramedic, all of whom arrived to the scene post-accident. However, Baugh-the only eyewitness to the accident-did not testify at either trial, we assume, because of the severity of his injuries. Baugh also elicited testimony from a number of experts relating to the cause of the accident and the severity of his resulting physical injuries. Notably, Dr. Jack Vinson, a mechanical engineer, testified about the ladder's design. Relying on handwritten calculations based on centuries-old mathematics principles, Dr. Vinson opined that the ladder could withstand up to 35, 000 pounds per square inch (PSI), and that a 200-pound person could exert as many as 97, 700 PSI while using the ladder. Dr. Vinson opined further that the ladder could have accommodated a 200-pound person if it had thicker legs and thicker and longer gussets. (Gussets are metal bars that provide bracing support by connecting the leg of a ladder to the first step.)

         Kevin Smith, a mechanical engineer, supplied causation testimony on Baugh's behalf. He opined that: (i) Baugh was facing the house and the gutter as he climbed the ladder (which was the intended use); (ii) all four of the ladder's feet were in Baugh's concrete driveway; (iii) Baugh was standing on the third step of the ladder (the highest intended step); (iv) the ladder tipped to the right; (v) the shorter-than-necessary gusset on the ladder's right front side could not support Baugh's weight, thereby causing the ladder's right front leg to fail and Baugh to fall onto his concrete driveway; and (vi) a longer gusset would have prevented the accident.

         Cuprum elicited contrary testimony regarding design and causation. Dr. Michael Stevenson, a metallurgical engineer, opined that a 250-pound person could never exert more than 24, 000 PSI-well within the ladder's range of tolerance. Dr. Stevenson reached this conclusion using the computer-based "finite element analysis" method. In addition, Michael Van Bree, a mechanical engineer, opined that: (i) Baugh was facing away from the house and gutter as he climbed the ladder (an improper use); (ii) two of the ladder's feet were in the driveway, while the other two were in an adjacent flower bed; (iii) the ladder tipped to the left while Baugh was straddling it, with one foot on the pail shelf and the other on the ladder's fourth step (both improper uses); and (iv) Baugh lost balance, causing the ladder to tip over and Baugh to fall into the flower bed.

         The jury ultimately found in Baugh's favor and awarded him $11 million. The district judge denied Cuprum's motion for judgment as a matter of law and, alternatively, for a new trial. This appeal followed.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Cuprum Not Entitled to a New Trial

         On appeal, Cuprum maintains that the district judge erred in denying its motion for a new trial. We review such denials for abuse of discretion and where, as here, the moving party alleges an erroneous admission of evidence during trial, "we will grant a new trial only if the error had a substantial influence over the jury and the result reached was inconsistent with substantial justice." Saathoff v. Davis, 826 F.3d 925, 930 (7th Cir. 2016).

         Cuprum's principal justification for a new trial concerns the district judge's denial of several of its motions in limine (MILs) concerning Dr. Vinson, Baugh's design expert, and Smith, Baugh's causation expert. Although none of the MILs explicitly cited Federal Rule of Evidence 702 or Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993), their substantive arguments were unequivocally rooted in both-specifically, that Dr. Vinson's alternative-design opinions were un- reliable, and that Smith was unqualified and proffered causation opinions based on unreliable methodology. Indeed, the MILs repeatedly used these Rule 702/Daubert buzzwords and cited multiple cases applying the related framework. So the district judge should have treated the MILs as invoking Rule 702 and Daubert. And it ...

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