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Pitterman v. General Motors LLC

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 25, 2018

BERNARD PITTERMAN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
GENERAL MOTORS LLC, Defendant.

          RULING RE: DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO CERTIFY QUESTIONS TO THE CONNECTICUT SUPREME COURT (DOC. NO. 313)

          Janet C. Hall United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Pending before the court is a Motion to Certify Questions to the Connecticut Supreme Court, filed by the defendant General Motors LLC (“New GM”). See Motion to Certify Questions to the Connecticut Supreme Court (“Mot. to Certify”) (Doc. No. 313). New GM seeks to certify two questions:

(1) Under what circumstances, if any, does Connecticut impose a post-sale duty to warn?
(2) Does a “product seller” under the Connecticut Product Liability Act (“CPLA”) include an entity that purchased certain assets and assumed certain liabilities of the product's bankrupt manufacturer, but is not a successor-in-interest of the bankrupt manufacturer and did not manufacture or sell the product at issue?

Mot. to Certify at 1.

         For the reasons stated below, the Motion to Certify is DENIED.

         II. BACKGROUND

         The plaintiffs, Bernard Pitterman, as administrator of the Estate of Margaret Rose O'Connor (“M.O.”) and as guardian of the Estate of Grant O'Connor (“G.O.”), and Rose O'Connor, sued New GM under the Connecticut Product Liability Act (“CPLA”).[1] See Amended Complaint (“Am. Compl.”) (Doc. No. 239). According to the Amended Complaint, on July 13, 2011, M.O., then eight years old, climbed into her parents' 2004 Chevrolet Suburban, inserted the key into the ignition, and pulled the shift lever from Park to Neutral. See id. at ¶¶ 6-8. Once in Neutral, the Suburban rolled down a sloped yard and crashed into a tree, killing M.O. See id. at ¶¶ 8, 12.

         The 2004 Suburban was manufactured and sold by General Motors Corporation (“Old GM”). See id. at ¶¶ 15-17. In June 2009, Old GM fiiled for bankruptcy, and New GM then purchased certain of Old GM's assets and liabilities. See Memorandum in Support of Mot. to Certify (“Mem. in Supp.”) (Doc. No. 313-1) at 2. The plaintiffs alleged that the Suburban was defective when manufactured and that neither old GM nor new GM sufficiently warned of the risk of injury caused by “rollaway” incidents, such as occurred to M.O. See Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 26-28.

         At trial, the plaintiffs asserted three claims against New GM: strict liability due to design defect at the time of sale, failure to warn at the time of sale, and negligence. See Jury Charge (Doc. No. 292) at 28. The plaintiffs put forth two bases for the third claim of negligence: (1) that Old GM had negligently breached its post-sale duty to warn from December 12, 2007, to July 10, 2009, and that New GM was responsible for Old GM's liability; and (2) that New GM had negligently breached its post-sale duty to warn from July 10, 2009, to July 13, 2011. See id.

         The plaintiffs could only prevail on either theory of negligence if Connecticut law recognizes the existence of a post-sale duty to warn. During trial, New GM argued that no such duty exists under the CPLA, but the court, interpreting state law, concluded that, “if this question were before the Connecticut Supreme Court, they would conclude there was such a theory of liability under the Connecticut Product Liability Act.” Redaction of Transcript (“Tr.”) (Doc. No. 242) at 162; see also id. at 158-162. The court permitted the claims to advance to the jury.

         Additionally, the plaintiffs could only prevail on the second theory of negligence, occurring from July 10, 2009, to July 13, 2011, if, as a matter of law, New GM qualifies as a “product seller” within the meaning of the CPLA. See Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-572q(a) (2017). The court acknowledged that New GM did not manufacture or sell the 2004 Chevrolet Suburban in that year and model, nor was New GM a “successor in interest” of Old GM. See Tr. at 155-57. However, the court concluded that New GM was nonetheless a product seller because “New GM continues to manufacture such products, quote unquote, within the meaning of the CPLA by virtue of its ongoing production of Chevrolet Suburbans and the use of the goodwill accruing to the GM name as well as the assumption of some obligations with respect to servicing and provision of parts for the model year in question in this case.” Id. at 156. The court thus permitted the plaintiffs to advance their negligence claim on this theory to the jury. The court noted, however, that “this is a difficult question” and “a question best answered by the Connecticut Supreme Court.” Id. The court declined to certify the question at that time because the issue was raised ten days before trial and trial would proceed regardless of the resolution of the issue. See id. at 156-57.

         On July 19, 2017, a jury entered a verdict against New GM in an amount of $1, 750, 00 to Pitterman as administrator of the Estate of M.O., $250, 000 to Pitterman as guardian of the Estate of G.O., and $375, 000 to Rose O'Connor. See Verdict Form (Doc. No. 296) at 7-8. The jury found that New GM was not liable to plaintiffs for defective design or failure to warn at the time of sale, but was liable under both theories of negligence. See id. On August 23, 2017, New GM filed a Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law After Trial (“Renewed Mot. for JMOL”) (Doc. No. 307). New GM then filed the Motion to Certify currently pending before the court on October 12, 2017. See Mot. to Certify.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         A federal court can certify a question of state law to be answered by the Connecticut Supreme Court “if the answer may be determinative of an issue in pending litigation in the certifying court and if there is no controlling appellate decision, constitutional provision or statute of this state.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 51-199b(d) (2017). Certification is not obligatory any time “there is a doubt as to local law and where the certification procedure is available.” Lehman Bros. v. Schein, 416 U.S. 386, 390-91 (1974). Rather, certification is intended to “save time, energy, and resources and help[ ] build a cooperative judicial federalism.” Id. at 391.

         In determining whether to certify a question to the Connecticut Supreme Court, a federal court can consider a number of factors, some of which include “whether a state court decision has ever produced an authoritative answer, the extent to which the question implicates the weighing of policy concerns of particular importance, and if the Connecticut Supreme Court's answer may be determinative of the appeal.” Corsair Special Situations Fund, L.P. v. Pesiri, 863 F.3d 176, 183 (2d Cir. 2017) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). ...


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