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Wallace v. Ford Motor Co.

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

June 28, 2013

NATHANIEL WALLACE, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendant.

ORDER

CARLTON W. REEVES, District Judge.

Before the Court is Ford Motor Company's motion for summary judgment on all of Nathaniel Wallace, Jr.'s claims. Wallace has responded in opposition and Ford has replied. The motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. Factual and Procedural History

On July 6, 2008, Mississippi State Trooper Nathaniel Wallace, Jr. was driving his state-issued 2008 Ford Crown Victoria in Clarke County, Mississippi, while on duty. The vehicle ran off the road and struck a tree, causing him to suffer injuries.

In July 2011, Wallace filed this suit in the Circuit Court of Hinds County, Mississippi, bringing a variety of negligence, warranty, contract, and product liability claims against Ford. Ford removed the case to this Court shortly thereafter.

The parties agree that a bolt in the vehicle's suspension system fractured, but differ on whether that fracture was a cause or a consequence of the crash. Wallace contends that the bolt was defectively manufactured and that its failure caused him to lose control of the vehicle. Ford argues that the accident was caused by Wallace's speed - approximately 60 mph in a 55 mph zone, it has asserted in another filing [Docket No. 124] - while traveling on wet pavement, and that the accident's impact caused the bolt to fracture, not the other way around.

II. Present Arguments

Ford contends that Wallace's manufacturing defect and inadequate warnings claims fail because the expert testimony supporting them is neither competent nor reliable, among other reasons. It next argues that the entire case should be dismissed because Wallace failed to preserve the subject vehicle. Finally, Ford claims that Wallace's remaining causes of action are subsumed by the Mississippi Products Liability Act (MPLA) or fail for a lack of evidence. See Miss. Code § 11-1-63.

Wallace responds that expert testimony is not required in a products liability case, and even if it is, says Ford has not challenged his accident reconstruction experts. He contends that the Mississippi Highway Patrol (MHP) controlled the vehicle, disposed of the vehicle, and retained key components, adding that Ford's expert was the person that manipulated critical evidence. Wallace concludes by arguing that dismissal of his remaining claims is inappropriate at this juncture.

III. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A party seeking to avoid summary judgment must identify admissible evidence in the record showing a fact dispute. Id. at 56(c)(1). The Court views the evidence and draws reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-movant. Maddox v. Townsend and Sons, Inc., 639 F.3d 214, 216 (5th Cir. 2011).

Because this case is proceeding in diversity, the applicable substantive law is that of the forum state, Mississippi. Capital City Ins. Co. v. Hurst, 632 F.3d 898, 902 (5th Cir. 2011); Smith v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 495 F.3d 224, 228 (5th Cir. 2007). State law is determined by looking to the decisions of the state's highest court. St. Paul Fire and Marine Ins. Co. v. Convalescent Services, Inc., 193 F.3d 340, 342 (5th Cir. 1999).

IV. Discussion

A. Expert Testimony Under the MPLA

The Court will begin with Wallace's arguments that expert testimony is not required in a product liability case in Mississippi, or alternatively that his accident reconstruction experts satisfy that requirement.

First, "[i]n general, claims of a manufacturing or design defect must be supported by expert testimony." Thomas v. Kyocera Wireless Corp., No. 2:11-CV-9, 2012 WL 379481, at *3 (N.D. Miss. Feb. 3, 2012) (citations omitted). "Merely offering evidence that damage occurred after the use of a product is insufficient to establish liability." Id. (citation omitted). This Court has previously ruled that a plaintiff's failure to provide expert testimony in a MPLA case is cause for dismissal. Cothren v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 798 F.Supp.2d 779, 782 (S.D.Miss. 2011).

Second, in a manufacturing defect case, expert testimony must support the plaintiff's burden to prove that "[t]he product was defective because it deviated in a material way from the manufacturer's specifications or from otherwise identical units manufactured to the same manufacturing specifications." Miss. Code § 11-1-63(a)(i)(1). The mere testimony of any expert does not satisfy the MPLA's requirement to provide appropriate expert testimony on the defect itself.

Thus, if Wallace's accident reconstruction experts are qualified to speak about manufacturing defects, then Wallace is correct that Ford's failure to seek exclusion of those experts counsels against granting summary judgment for lack of appropriate expert testimony. If Wallace's accident reconstruction experts cannot speak to manufacturing defects, however, Ford may have a viable argument if it can exclude Wallace's manufacturing defect experts.

Wallace has two accident reconstruction experts: Michael Cain and Tim Corbitt. Cain, who formerly worked for the MHP Crash Team, investigated the scene the morning of the accident. See Docket No. 131-10. He found a bolt missing from the lower control arm area of the right front wheel. Id. at 6-7. Cain also met with William Davis, who found a broken bolt north of the collision site and gave it to Cain. Id. at 7, 9. Because Wallace was traveling ...


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