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Landi v. Home Depot USA, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division

September 24, 2019

JOHN LANDI and LORI LANDI, Husband Plaintiffs,

          OPINION AND ORDER [1]


         Before the Court are Defendant Makita USA, Inc.’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Strict Liability and Negligence Claims (Doc. 87) and Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Failure to Warn Claims (Doc. 88), Defendant Home Depot USA, Inc.’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 91), Defendants’ Motion to Strike or Exclude Untimely Opinions of Dr. Charles E. Benedict (Doc. 89) and Motion to Exclude, as Unreliable, Expert Testimony of Dr. Charles E. Benedict (Doc. 90), and Plaintiffs John and Lori Landi’s responses (Doc. 98; Doc. 99; Doc. 104; Doc. 105; and Doc. 108).


         This products liability case arises from an injury John Landi suffered while operating a miter saw manufactured by Makita and allegedly purchased from Home Depot. Plaintiffs’ case relies in part on the opinions of their expert witness, Dr. Charles E. Benedict. Defendants have asked the Court to exclude Dr. Benedict’s testimony and grant them summary judgment on certain claims.

         The following facts are undisputed. John Landi worked as a general contractor beginning in 2009. (Doc. 102 at 23). Landi claims that in September 2014, he purchased a Makita 10’ miter saw from Home Depot Store # 280 in Naples, Florida. (Doc. 88 at 2; Doc. 105 at 4). Landi says he told a Home Depot employee he was looking for a saw that “would be able to cut crown molding, baseboards, chair rail molding and wood flooring.” (Doc. 102 at 64). The employee pointed Landi to the Makita saw, Landi decided it was what he was looking for, and the employee loaded a box onto Landi’s cart. (Doc. 102 at 64-65).

         When Landi took the saw home and opened the box, the saw appeared to be new, but it did not include upper fences and a vertical vise. (Doc. 102 at 90, 99). The saw was packaged with an instruction manual, which Landi read and considered “clear and understandable.” (Doc. 88). The manual warns the user not to “perform any operation freehand” or “use your hand to secure the workpiece.” (Doc. 88-3 at 4). It instructs the user to instead “ALWAYS use vise to secure workpiece.” (Doc. 88-3 at 4).

         On October 8, 2015, Landi used the saw to cut a section of crown molding, operating the saw with his right hand and holding the crown molding with his left. (Doc. 102-1 at 24-29). While the blade was spinning, the piece of molding was pulled to the right, Landi’s left arm went with it, and the blade cut into Landi’s left forearm. (Doc. 102-1 at 29-34).

         A. Motion to Exclude Testimony of Dr. Benedict under Daubert

         Federal Rule of Evidence 702 provides the starting point when considering the admissibility of expert testimony:

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.

Fed. R. Evid. 702. In Kumho Tire Co., Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999) and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), the Supreme Court held that trial courts have a gatekeeping function designed to test expert evidence for relevance and reliability. In performing this function, the Court applies a “rigorous three-part inquiry” by considering whether (1) the expert is qualified to testify competently about the issues at hand, (2) the expert’s methodology is sufficiently reliable, and (3) the expert’s testimony helps the trier of fact understand the evidence or determine a factual issue. U.S. Frazier, 387 F.3d 1244, 1260 (11th Cir. 2004). “While there is inevitably some overlap among the basic requirements-qualification, reliability, and helpfulness-they remain distinct concepts and the courts must take care not to conflate them.” Id. Defendants’ challenges span all three elements, and Plaintiffs must prove each by a preponderance of the evidence. Id.

         Dr. Benedict has worked as an engineer since 1971, when he earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. (Doc. 99-1 at 19-24). Since then, he has co-authored more than 20 publications, filed over 100 patents (including one for a miter saw blade guard) and testified in more than 200 trials. (Doc. 99-1 at 21-23). In his expert report, Dr. Benedict provided Defendants a list of twenty-one opinions he planned to express at trial, including foreseeable ways users will operate and alter the saw, dangerous defects in the saw’s design, feasible alternative designs, steps Makita could have taken to avoid the design defects, and how the defects caused Landi’s injury. (Doc. 99-1).

         1. Qualifications

         Defendants contend that while Dr. Benedict is an expert in some fields, he is not “uniquely qualified” to opine about miter saw design and manufacture, product warnings and instructions, saw operation, biomedical engineering, or human factor considerations relating to miter saws. (Doc. 90 at 7-11). To support their attack, Defendants list some things Dr. Benedict has not done, like work for a power tool manufacturer and design a saw that was sold to the public. (Doc. 90 at 9). But Defendants set an impossibly high standard. A person need not be “uniquely qualified” to testify as an expert, and Dr. Benedict’s failure to gain expertise one way (e.g., working for a manufacturer), does not invalidate his education, training, and over 40 years of experience as a mechanical engineer. The Court finds that Dr. Benedict is qualified under Rule 702 to testify about the matters he intends to address.

         2. Reliability

         Under the guise of attacking Dr. Benedict’s methodology, Defendants let fly a bevy of reasons Dr. Benedict’s opinions are unpersuasive. (Doc. 90 at 12-16). But when performing its gatekeeping function, the Court is concerned with admissibility, not the credibility of Dr. Benedict or the weight of his testimony. Defendants may instead use “traditional and appropriate means of attacking” Dr. Benedict’s testimony, such as “[v]igorous cross-examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof.” Daubert, 509 U.S. at 596. 3. Helpfulness Defendants confront the helpfulness of Dr. Benedict’s opinions as they attacked reliability, by listing reasons the trier of fact should not believe him. These points are appropriate fodder for cross-examination; they do not render Dr. Benedict’s opinions inadmissible. The Court finds that Dr. Benedict’s testimony will help the jury understand the evidence and decide whether a defect in the saw caused Landi’s injury. It is up to the jury to decide whether Dr. Benedict’s conclusions are correct.

         B. Motion to Strike or Exclude Untimely Opinions of Dr. Benedict

         In their next motion, Defendants accuse Dr. Benedict of withholding biomechanical engineering opinions from his report before disclosing them at his deposition, months after the deadline to disclose expert reports. Defendants ask the Court to preclude Dr. Benedict from “rendering any biomechanical engineering opinions at the trial” and “from commenting, critically or otherwise, on the opinions of Defendants’ biomechanical engineering expert.” (Doc. 89 at 13). But Defendants have drawn no clear line between the mechanical engineering opinions in ...

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