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Gaudreault v. Elite Line Services, LLC

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

May 21, 2014

Brock Gaudreault, Plaintiff,
v.
Elite Line Services, LLC, a subsidiary of G& T Conveyor Company, Inc., a Florida company, Defendant

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Brock Gaudreault, Plaintiff: Stuart L Goldenberg, LEAD ATTORNEY, GoldenbergLaw, PLLC, Mpls, MN.

For Elite Line Services, Llc, a subsidiary of G& T Conveyor Company, Inc., a Florida company, Defendant: Michael C Lindberg, LEAD ATTORNEY, Johnson & Lindberg, PA, Mpls, MN.

For Delta Airlines, Inc., Defendant: Donald Chance Mark, Jr, LEAD ATTORNEY, Tyler P Brimmer, Fafinski Mark & Johnson, PA, Eden Prairie, MN; Michael C Lindberg, Johnson & Lindberg, PA, Mpls, MN.

OPINION

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MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

JOAN N. ERICKSEN, United States District Judge.

This is a personal injury case brought under Minnesota negligence law pursuant to the Court's diversity jurisdiction. The matter is now before the Court on the Defendant's Daubert Motion and Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 36.

For the reasons discussed below, the motion is denied.

Background

The facts that follow are undisputed. Plaintiff Brock Gaudreault is a former equipment service employee of Delta Air Lines. On May 23, 2010, Gaudreault was working on the tarmac at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as an airplane was being directed to a gate. While Gaudreault was preparing to block the plane's tires, a ground power unit (" GPU" ) cord that was hanging from the jetway above him came loose and fell onto him, resulting in head and neck injuries.

The GPU is a piece of ground equipment that provides power to a plane while it is parked with its engines off. The GPU connects to the plane with a very large power cord that can weigh in excess of 150 pounds. When not in use, the cord can be strung from the side of the jetway by a hanger assembly consisting of saddle clamps, carabiners, and u-bolts. The cord can be hoisted up and down from this position by the ground crew as needed.

Soon after Gaudreault was injured, a Delta employee removed and photographed one of the saddle clamp, carabiner, and u-bolt assemblies from the GPU cord that had fallen from the jetway. The photographs show that the u-bolt was deformed, with one of its stems bent away from the saddle clamp to which it had been affixed. This damaged u-bolt has since disappeared.

Since the accident, Gaudreault has been receiving workers' compensation benefits from Delta. In 2012, Gaudreault brought this action against Defendant Elite Line Services (" ELS" ). ELS is a company that provides operation and maintenance services to airports and airlines. At the time of accident, ELS had a contract to inspect and maintain Delta's ground equipment at MSP Airport, including the jetway under which Gaudreault was injured. Gaudreault's amended complaint asserts a single

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count of negligence against ELS, alleging that its " negligence and carelessness were a direct and proximate cause of [his] injury by failing to properly inspect, maintain and repair the GPU, the u-bolt and the cables in violation of airline regulations."

ELS subsequently filed a third-party complaint against Delta, alleging that its negligence had caused Gaudreault's injury and asserting a right of contribution. ELS also alleged that Delta was liable for spoliation of evidence because the u-bolt went missing while in its possession. Delta moved to dismiss ELS's third-party complaint; the Court dismissed the spoliation claim, but denied the motion as it pertained to ELS's contribution claim. Shortly thereafter, Delta and ELS filed a stipulation in which Delta waived its right of subrogation and ELS dismissed its contribution claim with prejudice.

Discovery has since been completed, and ELS has filed the motion that is currently before the Court.

Discussion

ELS's motion has three components: a Daubert motion seeking the exclusion of Gaudreault's expert; a motion for summary judgment; and, in the alternative, a motion for partial summary judgment.

These three motions are addressed in turn below.

I. Daubert.

ELS first moves to exclude Gaudreault's liability expert, Matthew Lykins. Federal Rule of Evidence 702 governs the testimony of expert witnesses. Under that rule,

[a] witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:
(a) the expert's scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;

(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;

(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and

(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

The rule thus charges the trial court with performing a " gatekeeping" function, whereby it must " first . . . determin[e] whether the witness is qualified to offer expert testimony" and then ensure that that testimony " is not only relevant, but reliable." Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 589, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 (1993). See also Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 142, 119 S.Ct. 1167, 143 L.Ed.2d 238 (1999) (applying Daubert gatekeeping principles to expert testimony on non-scientific " technical" or " other specialized" matters); Lauzon v. Senco Products, Inc., 270 F.3d 681, 686 (8th Cir. 2001).

As with any evidence, the proponent of the proffered expert testimony " has the burden of establishing that the pertinent admissibility requirements are met by a preponderance of the evidence." Fed.R.Evid. 702 advisory committee's notes to 2000 amendments. See Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592 n.10. With that said, a court must be vigilant not to exclude an expert where the opponent's challenge to the proffered testimony " goes to the weight that the jury accords the testimony rather than to its admissibility." Miles v. GMC, 262 F.3d 720, 724 (8th Cir. 2001). See also Lauzon, 270 F.3d at 686 (noting that Rule 702 " reflects an attempt to liberalize the rules governing the admission of expert testimony" and

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" clearly is [a rule] of admissibility rather than exclusion" ) (internal quotations omitted). The gatekeeper need not be " overly pessimistic about the capabilities of the jury and of the adversary system generally. Vigorous cross examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof are the traditional and appropriate means of attacking shaky but admissible evidence." Daubert, 509 U.S. at 596.

Pursuant to these considerations, and as explained below, the Court concludes that ELS's challenges to Lykins' proffered testimony, while certainly fodder for adversary testing at trial, do not warrant his wholesale exclusion under Rule 702.

A. Qualifications.

First, Lykins must be " qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education" in the subject matter about which he seeks to testify. Fed.R.Evid. 702; Holmgren v. Massey-Ferguson, Inc., 516 F.2d 856, 857-58 (8th Cir. 1975) ( " The broad and generally stated test for determining the qualifications of a given witness to testify as an expert is whether his knowledge of the subject matter is such that his opinion will most likely assist the trier of fact in arriving at the truth." ).

The parties disagree about whether Lykins' education and experience qualify him as an expert in the subject matter of his proposed testimony. In his report, Lykins addresses whether " the actions/inactions of [ELS] caused or contributed of [sic] Gaudreault's injury." Lykins concludes that they did, specifically opining that ELS " fail[ed] to adequately inspect and recommend appropriate maintenance/inspection intervals on the incident [jetway]" which would have " remediated the hazardous condition" posed by " the incident GPU cable saddle assembly."

ELS argues that Lykins is not qualified to offer this opinion because his education and experience lie in airframe (airplanes) and powerplant (airplane engines) maintenance, rather than in the maintenance of airport ground equipment like jetways and hanger assemblies for GPU cords. Gaudreault counters that the subject matter of Lykins' testimony is the inspection and maintenance of safety-critical components of mechanical systems used in the aviation industry, about which his knowledge, education, training, and experience qualify him to opine.

Gaudreault has the better of this argument. Lykins has an A.A. and a B.A. in Aviation Maintenance Technology, numerous FAA certifications, and nearly two decades of experience performing and teaching aviation maintenance. ELS is correct that Lykins has no particular experience maintaining jetways or hanger assemblies for GPU cords. But that, while a topic for cross-examination, is not disqualifying in these circumstances. This is not a case about the design, engineering, or operation of a jetway, and the hanger assembly -- consisting of a carabiner attached to a u-bolt attached to a saddle clamp attached to a GPU cord -- does not appear to be a piece of high technology. Lykins' proffered testimony focuses on principles of preventive maintenance, including the identification of safety-critical components in a piece of mechanical equipment, the recognition of potential hazards posed by those components falling into disrepair, and the development and implementation of inspection ...


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