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Block v. Toyota Motor Corp.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 18, 2014

Angela Block, as trustee for the next of kin of Javis D. Adams, Jr., a minor, deceased; Jassmine D. Adams, a minor, by her mother and natural guardian, Angela Block; and Angela Block, individually, Plaintiffs,
v.
Toyota Motor Corporation, Toyota Motor North America, Inc., Calty Design Research, Inc., Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, Inc., Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc., and Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., Defendants. Catrina Trice-Adams, as trustee for the next of kin of Javis Demar Trice-Adams, Sr., decedent; and as next friend of J.D.T.1, a minor child; Jemara Denise Trice, individually; and Je'Meecia Denae Trice, individually, Plaintiffs,
v.
Toyota Motor Corporation, Toyota Motor North America, Inc., Calty Design Research, Inc., Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, Inc., Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc., and Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., Defendants. Bridgette Trice, individually and as trustee for the heirs and next of kin of D.D.B., deceased, Plaintiffs, and Koua Fong Lee, Panghoua Moua, Nhia Koua Lee, Nong Lee, J.L, a minor child, A.P.L., a minor child, Y.L., a minor child, and Y.L., a minor child, Plaintiff-Intervenors, and American Family Mutual Insurance Company, as subrogee of Koua Fong Lee, Plaintiff-Second Intervenor,
v.
Toyota Motor Corporation, Toyota Motor North America, Inc., Calty Design Research, Inc., Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, Inc., Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc., and Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., Defendants. Quincy Ray Adams, Plaintiff,
v.
Toyota Motor Corporation, Toyota Motor North America, Inc., Calty Design Research, Inc., Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, Inc., Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc., and Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., Defendants

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Amy Collignon Gunn, Esq., The Simon Law Firm, PC, St. Louis, MO, behalf of Plaintiffs in Civil No. 10-2802.

Robert J. Patterson, Esq., Anderson Patterson, PLLC, Corpus Christi, TX, on behalf of Plaintiffs in Civil No. 10-2803.

Thomas P. Cleere, Esq., Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik LLP, Great River, NY; Michael B. Padden, Esq., Padden & Associates, LLC, St. Paul, MN; and Kenneth R. White, Esq., Law Office of Kenneth R. White, PC, Mankato, MN, on behalf of Plaintiffs in Civil Nos. 10-2804 and 10-2805.

Robert C. Hilliard, Esq., Marion Reilly, Esq., Rudy Gonzales, Jr., Esq., John B. Martinez, Esq., and Catherine D. Tobin, Esq., Hilliard, Muñoz & Gonzales, LLP, Corpus Christi, TX; Brent Schafer, Esq., Schafer Law Firm, PA, Eagan, MN; and Kathryn Snapka, Esq., The Snapka Law Firm, Corpus Christi, TX, on behalf of Plaintiff-Intervenors.

Kevin J. Kennedy, Esq., and Forrest G. Hopper, Esq., Borgelt, Powell, Peterson & Frauen, SC, Oakdale, MN; and Lori J. Blangger, Esq., Williams & Mahony, LLC, Beverly, MA, on behalf of Plaintiff-Second Intervenors.

Theodore Dorenkamp, Esq., Bard D. Borkon, Esq., John D. Sear, Esq., Nathan J. Marcusen, Esq., and Lawrence C. Mann, Esq., Bowman and Brooke LLP, Minneapolis, MN, and Troy, MI, on behalf of Defendants.

OPINION

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MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

ANN D. MONTGOMERY, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

I. INTRODUCTION

On December 12, 2013, the undersigned United States District Judge heard oral argument on Defendants Toyota Motor Corp., Toyota Motor North America, Inc., Calty Design Research, Inc., Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, Inc., Toyota Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc., and Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc.'s (collectively " Toyota" or " Defendants" ) Motions for Summary Judgment. Six groups of Plaintiffs and Plaintiff-Intervenors (collectively and unless more specifically stated, " Plaintiffs" ) filed six complaints in four lawsuits against Toyota in connection with the same underlying events. The four actions were consolidated for discovery and other pretrial purposes. See Block v. Toyota Motor Corp., No. 10-2802 (D. Minn.), Catrina Trice-Adams v. Toyota Motor Corp., No. 10-2803 (D. Minn.), Trice v. Toyota Motor Corp., No. 10-2804 (D. Minn.), and Adams v. Toyota Motor Corp., No. 10-2805 (D. Minn.); Order, Sept. 19, 2011 [Block Docket No. 95].[1] Toyota filed six motions for summary judgment: one against each group of Plaintiffs [Block Docket No. 135], [Trice-Adams Docket No. 124], [Trice Docket Nos. 273, 274, 275], [Adams Docket No. 149]. Plaintiffs filed a consolidated

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response in opposition to these motions. See Pls.' Resp. Opp'n to Summ. J. [Block Docket No. 147] (" Pls.' Opp'n" ) (identical brief filed in each action). Toyota also filed a consolidated motion to exclude the expert testimony of John Stilson [Block Docket No. 130], which Plaintiffs opposed in a consolidated response [Block Docket No. 144] (identical briefs filed in each action). For the reasons stated herein, Toyota's motions for summary judgment are granted in part and denied in part, and its motion to exclude expert testimony is denied.

II. BACKGROUND[2]

In February 2006, Koua Fong Lee (" Lee" ) purchased a used 1996 Toyota Camry from a private party. The car had been driven about 173,000 miles at the time of purchase. Marion Reilly Decl. [Trice Docket No. 313] Ex. 7 (" Lee Dep." ) 14-15.

On June 10, 2006, Lee was driving the Camry to Saint Paul after attending a graduation ceremony at a church in Minneapolis. In the car with Lee were his then-pregnant wife, Panghoua Moua, his daughter J.L., his brother, Nong Lee, and his father, Nhia Koua Lee. Id. at 65-66. As Lee proceeded up the Snelling Avenue exit ramp from Interstate 94, he alleges pressing the brake pedal, only to find the brakes unresponsive. Id. at 71-72. The Camry continued up the ramp and struck the rear of an Oldsmobile Ciera at a high rate of speed. The Ciera, which was stopped at the red light at the top of the ramp, received severe structural damage and was forced into oncoming traffic. Pls.' 2d Am. Compl. [Block Docket No. 103] (" Block Compl." ) ¶ ¶ 23-27. Later estimates were the Camry was traveling at about 90 miles per hour at the time of the collision. Id. ¶ 28.

Javis Trice-Adams was the driver of the Ciera at the time of the accident. In the Ciera with him were Quincy Ray Adams, an adult, as well as Javis Adams, Jr., Jassmine Adams, and Devyn Bolton, all minors. Javis Trice-Adams and his passengers belonged to the same extended family and were en route to a St. Paul home to install a washer and dryer. Block Compl. ¶ ¶ 20-21. Javis Trice-Adams and his son, Javis Adams, Jr., died at the scene of the collision. Jassmine and Quincy Adams suffered serious and permanent injuries, but survived. Bolton, six years old at the time, was rendered a quadraplegic and subsequently died in October 2007. Pls.' 2d Am. Compl. [Trice-Adams Docket No. 165] (" Trice-Adams Compl." ) ¶ 17.

Following the accident, Lee was charged with seven counts of vehicular homicide and injury, and one count of careless driving. Block Compl. ¶ 34. Although Lee testified at trial that the Camry's brakes had stopped working, a jury convicted Lee on all counts. In October 2007, the state court sentenced Lee to eight years in prison.

In 2009 and 2010, Toyota issued recalls for vehicles with " unintended acceleration." These recalls did not include Lee's 1996 Camry, but nevertheless reignited interest in his defense that a car defect had caused the accident. Lee filed a petition for post-conviction relief, and the court granted Lee an evidentiary hearing. The three-day hearing included the testimony of eleven 1995 and 1996 model Camry owners who had also experienced unintended acceleration. Block Compl. ¶ ¶ 33-51. At the end of the hearing, the court granted Lee's petition and vacated his convictions.

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The county attorney decided not to appeal or re-file criminal charges, and Lee was released from prison after over two years of incarceration. Id. ¶ 52.

In June 2010, Plaintiffs Angela Block (" Block" ), Catrina Trice-Adams (" Trice-Adams" ), Bridgette Trice (" Trice" ), and Quincy Adams (" Adams" ) filed the present actions in state court.[3] These Plaintiffs brought individual claims as well as claims in their capacities as trustees for the next of kin of the deceased. On June 30, 2010, Toyota removed all four actions to federal court.

On October 25, 2010, Lee, and his family (" Plaintiff-Intervenors" ) moved to intervene. Plaintiffs did not oppose intervention, and Toyota ultimately stipulated that Lee and his family could permissively intervene in the Trice action and file claims against Toyota [Trice Docket No. 61]. In January 2011, Toyota also stipulated that Lee's insurance company, American Family Insurance Company (" American Family" ), could intervene in the Trice action as Lee's subrogee [Trice Docket No. 78].

As amended, Plaintiffs' complaints state several similar claims against Toyota. Plaintiff Block is the mother of Jassmine Adams, and brings claims for: (1) design defect, (2) failure to warn, and (3) negligence against Toyota on Jassmine Adams' behalf. Block was also the mother of Javis Adams, Jr., and brings the same claims as trustee for the next of kin of Javis Adams, Jr., through Minnesota's wrongful death statute, Minn. Stat. § 573.02.

Plaintiff Trice-Adams, Javis Trice-Adams' widow, brings claims as trustee for Javis Trice-Adams' next of kin. Trice-Adams alleges wrongful death claims based on: (1) design defect, (2) failure to warn, and (3) negligence.[4] She also alleges a claim for (4) negligent infliction of emotional distress on behalf of herself and her children.

Plaintiff Trice brings wrongful death claims as trustee for the next of kin of her daughter, Bolton. Trice alleges claims of: (1) design defect, (2) failure to warn, and (3) negligence.

Plaintiff-Intervenors Lee and his relatives bring claims for: (1) design defect, (2) failure to warn, (3) negligence, (4) fraud/misrepresentation, and (5) negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Plaintiff-Second Intervenors American Family brings claims for: (1) design/manufacture defect, (2) failure to warn, and (3) negligence.

Finally, Plaintiff Quincy Adams, a survivor of the accident, brings claims for: (1) design defect, (2) failure to warn, and (3) negligence.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states a court shall grant summary judgment if no genuine issue as to any material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. " While a party moving for summary

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judgment has the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of fact for trial, a nonmoving party seeking to avoid having summary judgment entered against it may not rest on mere allegations or denials, but must set forth specific facts sufficient to raise a genuine material issue for trial." Thomas v. Runyon, 108 F.3d 957, 959 (8th Cir. 1997).

A fact dispute is " material," and will thus preclude summary judgment, only if the dispute " might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). And where the moving party has carried its burden, the nonmoving party must then " do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586. The " very mission of the summary judgment procedure is to pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e) advisory committee's note to 1963 Amendment.

B. Statute of Limitations

1. Wrongful Death Claims

Plaintiffs Block, Trice-Adams, and Trice allege wrongful death claims based on theories of design defect, failure to warn, and negligence. Minnesota law states that a cause of action arising out of a personal injury " dies with the person of the party in whose favor it exists." Minn. Stat. § 573.01; see also Ortiz v. Gavenda, 590 N.W.2d 119, 121 (Minn. 1999) (holding that under the common law, " a claim for personal injuries died with the victim" ). But § 573.02 allows a cause of action to be brought:

When death is caused by the wrongful act or omission of any person or corporation, the trustee appointed as provided in subdivision 3 may maintain an action therefor if the decedent might have maintained an action, had the decedent lived, for an injury caused by the wrongful act or omission.

Thus, where a personal injury claim, such as a strict product liability or negligence claim, would have otherwise " died" with the injured person, the wrongful death statute allows a duly-appointed trustee to bring the claim on the decedent's behalf. Because a wrongful death claim is " purely statutory" and " in derogation of the common law," courts must strictly construe the wrongful death statute's requirements. Ortiz, 590 N.W.2d at 121-22. This includes the wrongful death statute of limitations. Id. at 122-23.

a. Bridgette Trice

Trice's claims must be addressed separately from those brought by Block and Trice-Adams. Trice brings claims as trustee for the heirs and next of kin of Devyn Bolton. As previously noted, the June 10, 2006, collision rendered Bolton a quadriplegic, and Bolton died over a year later, in October 2007. In its memorandum supporting summary judgment, Toyota addresses Trice's claims as though they were standard strict product liability claims. Because Devyn Bolton was injured on June 10, 2006, Toyota argues the four year strict liability statute of limitations began running on that date. Trice did not serve Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing, North America, Inc. and Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. until July 9, 2010, and she did not serve Toyota Motor Corporation until July 14, 2010. Bard Borkon Decl. [Trice Docket No. 283] Ex. 26. As a result, Toyota argues Trice's claims for design defect and failure to warn are time-barred as to these three Defendants.

Toyota ignores the wrongful death statute of limitations. There is no dispute that Trice ...


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