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In re McNeilus Manufacturing Explosion Coordinated Litigation

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

May 17, 2019

In re McNeilus Manufacturing Explosion Coordinated Litigation
v.
Swagelok, et al., 17cv5237; and McNeilus Truck and Mfg. Filed as to See, et al.
v.
Swagelok Co., 18cv997

ORDER

          Katherine Menendez United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Swagelok Company's and San Diego Valve and Fitting Company's (“San Diego Valve”) Joint Motion to Certify Question to Minnesota Supreme Court and to Stay Proceedings.[1] [ECF No. 131.] For the reasons that follow, Swagelok and San Diego's joint motion is denied.

         I. Relevant Factual Background

         This is a products-liability case arising out of an explosion that occurred at the McNeilus Truck and Manufacturing, Inc., facility in Dodge Center, Minnesota, on January II, 2017. McNeilus manufactures large trucks for waste removal purposes that are powered by a compressed natural gas (“CNG”) system, with the CNG stored in pressurized cylinders on top of the vehicles. During the manufacturing process, after the CNG trucks are painted, they are moved into a heated baking room so that the paint can cure.

         On January 11, 2017, McNeilus was finishing a CNG vehicle for Waste Management, a national disposal and recycling company. Four natural gas cylinders were mounted on the top of the truck, connected to a manifold with a high-pressure CNG hose. Swagelok and San Diego Valve manufacture and sell the high-pressure hose and the hose assemblies used on this vehicle. The truck was inside the baking room during the morning of January 11th.

         At approximately 10:00 a.m., a massive explosion occurred inside the factory. Several workers were injured, two very seriously, and the facility suffered significant damage. Eemou See was the most severely injured. She and her husband, Sing See, brought this lawsuit against Swagelok and San Diego Valve under negligence and strict-liability theories for the defective design and manufacture of the hose and hose assemblies, and for failure to attach proper warnings regarding use of the equipment. The Sees allege that Swagelok and San Diego Vale defectively manufactured the hose assemblies, causing the CNG to escape the canisters. Specifically, they claim that the gas was able to escape the hose assembly because the high-pressure hose was improperly seated in a fitting. The gas came into contact with a spark in the baking room, causing the explosion.

         Swagelok, San Diego Valve, and McNeilus all agree that Ms. See is not at fault for her injuries, but they dispute who among them is responsible for the explosion. Swagelok and San Diego Valve deny that their hose assemblies are defective, and filed a third-party complaint against McNeilus, alleging that McNeilus is responsible for the explosion. They contend that McNeilus unreasonably allowed the CNG truck to be brought indoors without first defueling the vehicle. They claim that the industrial heater in McNeilus' baking room raised the temperature near the CNG cylinders on the truck above 200 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended time prior to the explosion. These factors, according to Swagelok and San Diego Valve, were the cause of the explosion rather than a problem with the CNG hose. Moreover, even if they are found to be somewhat at fault, Swagelok and San Diego Valve assert that their responsibility for the harm in this case will be less than 50%.

         Meanwhile, McNeilus sharply contests Swagelok and San Diego Valve's allegations. [See McNeilus Mem. at 5-7, ECF No. 136.] McNeilus argues that: (1) the hose was under-inserted into its fitting at the time of the explosion, causing the hose to separate and allowing the release of CNG; (2) testing of the non-involved end of the same hose reveals that it was also significantly under-inserted in its fitting; and (3) McNeilus has used the same process and the same oven for curing the paint in the baking room for many years at its plant with no prior instance of a CNG release in the paint building. [Id.] McNeilus, therefore, takes the position that Swagelok and San Diego Valve are fully responsible for the explosion and Ms. See's injuries. Indeed, McNeilus has filed its own complaint against Swagelok and San Diego for the damage caused to the McNeilus factory.

         Procedural History

         The Sees filed their original Complaint in November of 2017. [ECF No. 1.] On May 22, 2018, this case was consolidated with several that were filed by other McNeilus employees who were injured in the January 11, 2017 explosion. [Order Granting Consolidation (May 22, 2018).] The Court has held several status conferences with the parties to discuss the progress of the litigation, to aid in their efforts at resolution, and to resolve certain discovery disputes. This case is not in its earliest stages, and significant work has already been accomplished by the parties. Nevertheless, the schedule anticipates that there is more to be done. The deadline for completion of fact discovery is still a month away. Expert disclosures and discovery will not be completed until September 20, 2019, and dispositive motions, which are anticipated, must be served, filed, and heard by October 15, 2019. [Third Am. Scheduling Order (Mar. 5, 2019), ECF No. 123.] The case is expected to be trial-ready in December 2019.

         In addition to litigation, there have been meaningful efforts to resolve all of the cases arising from the explosion at McNeilus. All parties participated in two days of private mediation in January 2019 with retired Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan. Then, the Court held a global settlement conference on April 10, 2019 for the cases that were not resolved at the mediation. Although many of the cases that arose from this tragedy have now been settled, the Sees, Swagelok, and San Diego Valve were unable to come to a resolution. The day before the undersigned held the April 10th settlement conference, Swagelok and San Diego filed the pending motion to certify a question to the Minnesota Supreme Court. [ECF No. 131.]

         II. The Motion to Certify

          Swagelok and San Diego Valve argue that the Court should certify the following question to the Minnesota Supreme Court:

When a worker is injured through the combined fault of the employer and third-party tortfeasors, can the third-party tortfeasors be held jointly and severally liable for payment of the entire verdict amount if, when the employer's fault is compared, they are ...

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