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North Star Mutual Insurance Co. v. CNH America LLC

United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Southern Division

March 6, 2014

NORTH STAR MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, AS SUBROGEE FOR KYLAN MEIER, Plaintiff,
v.
CNH AMERICA LLC, a Delaware limited liability company, Defendant.

ORDER RULING ON DEFENDANT'S MOTIONS IN LIMINE

KAREN E. SCHREIER, District Judge.

Defendant, CNH America LLC, moves in limine to preclude plaintiff, North Star Mutual Insurance Company, from entering any evidence, argument, discussion, or testimony concerning certain evidence. Each motion will be discussed and addressed separately.

1. Other incidents, accidents, and fires that did not occur under substantially similar circumstances and did not involve substantially similar CASE equipment as the CASE IH AF9120 combine that is the subject of plaintiff's complaint.

CNH contends that North Star should limit its evidence to other incidents involving substantially similar combine models, which include the Case IH AF7120, AF8120, or AF9120, and incidents involving facts similar to those at issue-where a broken chopper blade punctured the floor pan of the engine compartment allegedly allowing excess debris to enter the engine compartment and resulting in a fire. North Star contends that the incidents must simply arise from the same cause, namely a showing that there was a risk of fire from a debris-generating product and that the fire loss occurred under sufficiently similar circumstances.

"A party may offer evidence of prior accidents to show notice, causation, feasibility of correction, or magnitude of danger if a showing of substantial similarity is made." Ahlberg v. Chrysler Corp., 481 F.3d 630, 637 (8th Cir. 2007). "For other accident evidence to be admissible, the proponent of the evidence must show that the facts and circumstances of the other incident are substantially similar to the case at bar." Drabik v. Stanley-Bostitch, Inc., 997 F.2d 496, 508 (8th Cir. 1993).

Here, North Star has not identified for the court's review the incidents it intends to offer. Without this showing, the court is unable to determine if the incidents are substantially similar to the case at bar. Based on CNH's concession, the court finds that incidents involving combine models Case IH AF7120, AF8120, or AF9120, where a broken chopper blade punctured the floor pan of the engine compartment allegedly allowing excess debris to enter the engine compartment and resulting in a fire are substantially similar and are admissible. With regard to all other evidence of incidents, accidents, and fires on combines, the motion in limine is granted. If North Star has evidence of other fires caused by debris in other models of combines where it believes the circumstances of the fire were substantially similar to the fire at bar, North Star needs to request a hearing outside of the presence of the jury and present the evidence so the court can determine whether North Star is able to show substantial similarity before the evidence is offered or mentioned in the presence of the jury.

2. Post-sale changes to design that resulted from Product Improvement Program Bulletin H2510.

Kylan Meier purchased his Case combine on June 30, 2010. The combine caught fire on October 8, 2010. In May 2011, CNH issued a Product Improvement Bulletin making various changes to various combine models. CNH contends that the Bulletin is not admissible because it is not relevant, would unduly prejudice CNH, would confuse the issues and mislead the jury, and is a subsequent remedial measure that is not admissible under Fed.R.Evid. 407. North Star contends that the evidence is relevant to demonstrate CNH's knowledge of the risk of fire in their products and feasibility of the precautionary measure.

Rule 407 precludes evidence of subsequent remedial measures if they are offered to prove negligence, culpable conduct, a defect in a product or its design, or a need for a warning or instruction, but the evidence may be admissible "for another purpose, such as impeachment or-if disputed- proving ownership, control, or the feasibility of precautionary measures." Here, North Star argues that the evidence may be admissible to show that CNH had knowledge there was a high risk of fire in their products or feasibility. CNH states that it does not dispute that there is an inherent risk of fire in all combines due to their intended use and does not dispute feasibility.

Because the Bulletin is evidence of a subsequent remedial measure that falls under Rule 407, the court grants CNH's motion in limine. If CNH puts on evidence that North Star believes opens the door by asserting lack of feasibility or disputes the risk of fire in their products, North Star should request a hearing outside the presence of the jury and ask the court to reconsider this ruling.

3 Design features of products that are not substantially similar to the subject CASE IH AF9120.

North Star's expert, Jeffrey Wingfield, uses examples of designs using aluminum fuel tanks or other metal fuel tanks on John Deere combines or other non-combine agricultural/industrial equipment as evidence that CNH could have designed the subject combine in an alternative manner to lessen the risk of fire. Wingfield also opines that other manufacturers have wrapped their exhaust systems with exhaust blankets; used deflectors, covers, and guards to prevent debris from contacting the hot surfaces of the exhaust system; and used non-plastic fuel tanks to diminish the risk of igniting a fire. CNH contends that evidence relating to other products is not relevant and is not admissible unless the products are substantially similar to the combine at issue.

On its strict liability (design/manufacture) claim, North Star has the burden to show that the combine was in a defective condition which made it unreasonably dangerous to the purchaser. Burley v. Kytec Innovative Sports Equip., Inc., 737 N.W.2d 397, 408-09 (S.D. 2007). A plaintiff can show that "[a] product is in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user if it could have been designed to prevent a foreseeable harm without significantly hindering its function or increasing its price." First Premier Bank v. Kolcraft Enter., Inc., 686 N.W.2d 430, 444-45 (S.D. 2004). As a result, the court finds that evidence that other agricultural/industrial manufacturers have designed gas tanks using aluminum or other types of metal, or used exhaust blankets, deflectors, covers, or guards to reduce the risk of fire, is relevant to show that alternative design options were feasible to prevent a foreseeable harm.

CNH contends that even if the evidence is relevant, it is not admissible because the other products are not substantially similar to the combine at issue. The cases relied on by CNH, however, involve the introduction of evidence of other incidents, accidents, recalls, or personal injury lawsuit settlements. In those instances, the court needed to consider unfair prejudice to the non-offering party when it conducted its 403 balancing test. In the present case, the evidence offered by North Star's expert is a description of alternative designs used on various pieces of equipment. There is no unfair prejudice to CNH and if there is any unfair prejudice it is minimal, and it is ...


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