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Klingenberg v. Vulcan Ladder USA, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 29, 2019

Jeffrey Klingenberg; Jennifer Klingenberg Plaintiffs - Appellees
v.
Vulcan Ladder USA, LLC Defendant-Appellant GP International Co LLC Defendant GP International Company Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: May 14, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa - Sioux City

          Before BENTON, WOLLMAN, and GRASZ, Circuit Judges.

          BENTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         Jeffrey Klingenberg and his wife sued Vulcan Ladder USA, LLC, and GP International Company, for a design defect and breach of express warranty. After a four-day trial, the jury returned a verdict for the Klingenbergs. Though the jury rejected the design-defect claim, it found Vulcan and GP breached an express warranty. The jury awarded the Klingenbergs $2, 434, 000 in damages. The district court[1] denied defendants' post-trial motions for judgment as a matter of law and, alternatively, a new trial. Klingenberg v. Vulcan Ladder USA, LLC, 2018 WL 1248007 (N.D. Iowa Mar. 9, 2018). Vulcan and GP appeal. Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, this court affirms.

         I.

         Jeffrey suffered serious injuries after falling from a ladder that Vulcan designed and distributed. GP manufactured and sold it. The ladder's label says its "Working Load" is "300 lbs." and it was manufactured to "OSHA ANSI A 14.2 SPECIFICATIONS." The Klingenbergs sued Vulcan and GP for breach of an express warranty created by the label. They also alleged the ladder was defectively designed.

         The trial centered on competing expert testimony. The Klingenbergs' expert, Stephen E. Fournier, testified that a design defect caused the ladder to fail while Jeffrey was stepping onto it from the roof of a home. The defendants' expert disagreed, opining that Jeffrey slipped off the roof or ladder due to snow. Both experts agreed that the ladder met American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards. Fournier, however, added that these were minimum safety standards, that a product could be defective despite meeting them, and that no ANSI standard or test existed for the defect involved in the case.

         Vulcan and GP moved for judgment as a matter of law before the case was submitted to the jury, arguing that Fournier's testimony should be stricken under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, and that the Klingenbergs could not establish causation for either claim without his testimony. The defendants also asserted there was no breach of express warranty because both experts agreed the ladder met ANSI standards, and, as to GP, that the statute of limitations barred the Klingenbergs' claims. The district court reserved ruling on the statute-of-limitations issue until after trial, but otherwise denied the motion.

         The jury returned a verdict for the Klingenbergs. It rejected their design-defect claim, but found they proved their breach-of-express-warranty claim. Vulcan and GP renewed their motion for judgment as a matter of law, alternatively requesting a new trial. The district court denied relief. Vulcan and GP appeal, arguing Fournier's testimony should have been excluded, the statute of limitations bars claims against GP, and insufficient evidence supports the verdict.

         II.

         This court reviews the "decision to admit expert testimony for abuse of discretion, giving substantial deference to the district court." United States v. McDaniel, 925 F.3d 381, 385 (8th Cir. 2019). Vulcan and GP challenge Fournier's qualifications and methodology. The district court correctly rejected their challenges.

         Fournier, a licensed Professional Engineer, has investigated over 1, 000 constructed-related incidents, 200 of which involved ladders. He has qualified as an expert over 20 times in prior ladder cases. He participates in continuing education to maintain his engineering license and is OSHA-certified in fall protection. In his decades of experience in construction as a civil engineer, he regularly handled ladders and ensured that construction met safety standards. His "knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education" qualify him as an expert. Fed.R.Evid. 702. See Kozlov v. Associated Wholesale Grocers, Inc., 818 F.3d 380, 394 (8th Cir. 2016) (professional registered engineer with degrees in civil engineering was qualified as expert in tractor-trailer accident case). Cf. McDaniel, 925 F.3d at 385 (upholding admission of police officer's expert testimony where officer with extensive drug-investigation experience had testified as a drug-trafficking expert in federal court about 25 times). Contrary to the defendants' position, Rule 702 imposes no requirement that Fournier have designed an articulating ladder or participated on an ANSI committee. See Robinson v. GEICO Gen. Ins. Co., 447 F.3d 1096, 1100 (8th Cir. 2006) ("Gaps in an expert witness's qualifications or knowledge generally go to the weight of the witness's testimony, not its admissibility." (citation omitted)).

         Because Fournier is a qualified expert, Rule 702 allows his testimony if his "specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;" the testimony is "based on sufficient facts or data" and "the product of reliable principles and methods;" and he "has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case." Fed.R.Evid. 702. "The inquiry envisioned by Rule 702 is . . . a flexible one. Its overarching subject is the scientific validity-and thus the evidentiary relevance and reliability-of the principles that underlie a proposed submission." Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 594-95 (1993).

         Vulcan and GP argue that Fournier's testimony should have been excluded because he did not test his theories on the damaged ladder or an exemplar model. This court disagrees. He was not required to conduct physical testing here. See Shuck v. CNH Am., LLC, 498 F.3d 868, 875 (8th Cir. 2007) (rejecting that experts must be excluded where they do not test the product at issue or exemplar products). See generally Russell v. Whirlpool Corp., 702 F.3d 450, 456-57 (8th Cir. 2012) ("[A] court should use, adapt, or reject Daubert factors as the particular case demands. There is no single requirement for admissibility as long as the proffer indicates that the expert evidence is reliable and relevant." (internal citation omitted)), citing Daubert, 509 U.S. at 594. Fournier's conclusions were based on his experience and expertise in ladder investigations, general engineering principles, information from Jeffrey about the accident, and his examination of the damaged ladder, its design and specifications, competitors' ladders, and photos of the accident scene. The district court acted within its discretion in admitting his testimony. See Russell, 702 F.3d at 457-58 (upholding admission of expert's testimony where expert "observed the relevant evidence, applied his specialized knowledge, excluded alternative causal theories, and reached a conclusion").

         Fournier testified that a reasonable alternative safer design-installing retaining straps on the ladder-was feasible based on his review of competitors' ladders. Two models of similar ladders from competitors used retaining straps. In a prior case he worked, a competitor's model with its strap removed failed in the same way as the ladder here. He did not have to conduct a more detailed analysis. See Young v. Pollock Eng'g Grp., Inc., 428 F.3d 786, 790 (8th Cir. 2005) (expert "did not need to conduct a detailed feasibility study" of proposed safety modifications that defendant-manufacturer successfully installed and used). Vulcan and GP cross-examined him about his alleged weaknesses, including his knowledge of the differences between the competitors' ladders and the ladder here. See Daubert, 509 U.S. at 596 ...


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