Summary Judgment In ABS Case on Causation: Try, Try Again Doesn't Work

A federal court has dismissed a case against Ford Motor Co. brought on behalf of a minor who was severely hurt when she was struck by a Ford pickup truck while riding her bike.  The court concluded that plaintiff offered insufficient evidence that the alleged defect in the truck (absence of front-wheel anti-lock brakes) caused the accident and thus the ensuing injuries. BancFirst v. Ford Motor Co., 2009 WL 5168342 (W.D.Okla. 12/21/09). 

A seven-year-old rode her bicycle into the path of an oncoming Ford F150 pickup truck driven by Brandon Moore. Although he took evasive action, Moore was unable to avoid hitting the child, who was severely injured as a result of the impact. Plaintiff alleged that the truck wheels locked and the truck began to rotate in a counter-clockwise direction. The truck slid on wet pavement through the intersection, and the child was hit by the right rear corner of the truck as it passed through the inside lane.  Plaintiff brought an action against the manufacturer of the truck, Ford Motor Company, alleging that the truck was unreasonably dangerous because it lacked front-wheel anti-lock brakes (“ABS”).  Ford moved for summary judgment.

Under either a strict liability or negligence theory, plaintiff must show that the lack of front-wheel anti-lock brakes on the F-150 truck caused the accident. In support of its contention that the failure to equip Moore’s truck with ABS on all four wheels caused the accident, plaintiff offered the opinion of William Medcalf, a registered professional engineer. During his deposition, plaintiff’s expert conceded that he could not testify to a reasonable degree of engineering certainty that the alleged defect – lack of all-wheel ABS – caused the accident in this case. Expert testimony in this regard was crucial to plaintiff’s case as the efficacy and functionality of anti-lock braking systems are not within the understanding of ordinary jurors.

So far, so good. A basic failure of an expert to perform at deposition the way the plaintiff probably hoped he would.  But its what happened next that makes the case more useful.

The plaintiff offered a later affidavit from the same expert, but it was ignored because it was based on the same data he had when he gave his first opinion.  Readers of MassTortDefense may be interested in the discussion of another tactic, as the expert attempted to change his previous testimony to avoid summary judgment, through an errata sheet to his deposition, the court said. While Rule 30(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits "corrections" to deposition transcripts, it does not permit wholesale changes to sworn testimony. Coleman v. Southern Pac. Transp. Co., 997 F.Supp. 1197, 1205 (D. Ariz.1998) (discrediting deposition testimony directly contradicted by errata sheet); S.E.C. v. Parkersburg Wireless, L.L. C., 156 F.R.D. 529, 535 (D.D.C. 1994) (noting trend in which courts do not allow a party “to make any substantive change she so desires” in deposition testimony); Rios v. Bigler, 847 F.Supp. 1538, 1546-47 (D. Kan.1994) (court will consider only those changes which clarify the deposition, and not those which materially alter it); Greenway v. International Paper Co., 144 F.R.D. 322, 325 (W.D. La. 1992) (suppressing deponent's attempt to rewrite material answers given in deposition); Barlow v.. Esselte Pendaflex Corp., 111 F.R.D. 404, 406 (M.D.N.C. 1986) (refusing to consider changes to deposition that were made in bad faith).

The changes here were not a clarification; they were substantive changes diametrically opposed to the answers given during the deposition, said the court. Moreover, although Medcalf stated that his new answers were just clarifications to the record, there was no indication that he was confused during the deposition. That the expert treated the deposition like a "take home examination" was clear to the court not only from his proposed changes, but also from the timing of the errata sheet, which appeared only after Ford moved for summary judgment.

Plaintiff had no competent evidence that the accident would not have occurred had Moore’s truck been equipped with four-wheel ABS. It thus had no evidence that the alleged defect caused the accident and the subsequent injuries to plaintiff.  And the last minute attempts to fix that problem were of no avail. Defendant was therefore entitled to summary judgment in its favor.