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Klorczyk v. Sears

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 29, 2019

FREDERICK KLORCZYK, JR. et al., as co-administrators of the Estate of Christian Klorczyk, Plaintiffs,
v.
SEARS, ROEBUCK & CO. et al., Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING MOTION TO PRECLUDE AND GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          JEFFREY ALKER MEYER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a case about the tragic death of a young man named Christian Klorczyk. He died in March 2011 when the car he was working on in his family garage fell and crushed him. Plaintiffs Frederick and Lynne Klorczyk are Christian's parents and the executors of his estate. They claim that Christian died because of a defective jack stand that allowed the car to fall on him. They have sued Sears, Roebuck & Co. and several other companies that they allege designed, manufactured, and sold the jack stand. Defendants deny that Christian used their jack stand or that their jack stand was defective.[1]

         Before me are four pending motions. First, defendants move to preclude the testimony of plaintiffs' principal expert witness, Frederick Heath. I will deny this motion, because I conclude that defendants' objections go to weight and not admissibility of this expert testimony.

         Second, defendants move for summary judgment on grounds that plaintiffs cannot prevail on multiple elements of their claim under the Connecticut Products Liability Act. I will deny this motion because I conclude that genuine fact issues remain as to causation, design defect, adequacy of warnings, and foreseeable misuse.

         Third, defendants Shinn Fu Corporation and Shinn Fu Company of America move for summary judgment on grounds that they were not sellers within the responsible chain of commerce to be held liable under the Connecticut Products Liability Act. I will grant this motion as to Shinn Fu Corporation but deny it as to Shinn Fu Company of America.

         Lastly, defendants argue that there is no genuine fact issue to support plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages. I will deny this motion on the ground that there is a genuine issue of fact to show recklessness sufficient to allow for a jury to consider whether to award punitive damages.

         Background

         The facts laid out here are taken from the parties' submissions and viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving plaintiffs.

         The events of March 11, 2011

         On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, Christian Klorczyk was performing an oil change on his family's BMW sedan in Waterford, Connecticut. Christian was a University of Connecticut senior. At the time of the accident, he was home for spring break, and his parents and brothers were away from the house at the time. Doc. #302-1 at 8, 10-14, 39-42. After Christian raised the car to work underneath it, the car fell on and killed him.

         When a car is elevated for purposes of under-carriage maintenance in a garage, there are at least two kinds of equipment that are commonly used. The first is a “jack” or “floor jack” that is used to raise the car in the first instance. The second is a “jack stand” that may be used to support the car after it has already been raised using a floor jack.

         A central fact in dispute in this case is what type of device was holding up the car before it fell on Christian. Plaintiffs argue that Christian used a single model 50163 Sears jack stand to support the car when it fell, but defendants contend that Christian raised and supported the car with a floor jack that plaintiffs do not allege was defective. Although they do not dispute that their jack stand was in the garage that day, they dispute that Christian used their jack stand at all. Doc. #302 at 2 (¶¶ 3-5); Doc. #296-1 at 13-17.

         Christian bought the jack stand at issue from a Sears store on January 1, 2011, and no one had used it before. Doc. #302-4 at 5-6, 17, 19. Assuming that the car was resting on a jack stand, it is undisputed that the jack stand was not overloaded when the car fell. Doc. #302 at 20 (¶ 59).

         Christian's parents, Frederick and Lynne Klorczyk, were the first people to enter the garage after the car fell. They returned home together at about 3:30 p.m. Doc. #302-1 at 14; Doc. #302-4 at 27-28. Lynne opened the door to the garage from the house and saw Christian's legs sticking out from under the BMW's front bumper. Doc. #302-1 at 17-19. She called out to Christian, who did not respond. Id. at 18. She then called the Waterford Police Department. Doc. #302 at 3 (¶ 8); Doc. #302-1 at 18-19; Doc. #302-4 at 30. A few minutes later, she opened the garage's center bay door. Doc. #302-1 at 30.

         Frederick saw that, as he had previously taught Christian to do when working on the BMW, the front passenger-side of the car had been raised and the front passenger-side tire placed beneath the front passenger-side brake rotor. Doc. #302-4 at 15-16, 30, 33; see Doc. #302-15. The BMW's front passenger-side was now tilted downward, and the exposed brake rotor was not in contact with the removed tire. Doc. #302-4 at 29-30, 32-33.

         Frederick ran to the side of the car, where the Klorczyks saw the car's transmission assembly crushing Christian's face, Christian's chest under equipment around the rear engine, and Christian's right hand holding the wrench, which was connected to the oil drain plug. Doc. #302-1 at 27-29, 31; Doc. #302-4 at 29-30, 39-40; see also Doc. #302-10 at 4-5.

         Frederick also observed the jack stand beneath the BMW's front passenger-side. It rested on its side with the ratchet bar fully retracted. Doc. #302-4 at 30, 34-35, 41-42, 59-60. The car's underside was not in contact with the jack stand. Id. at 30, 34-35. The other three jack stands in the set stood next to one another away from the BMW on the other side of the car. Id. at 62-63.

         The garage also contained a Sears Craftsman floor jack. Frederick noted that the floor jack paralleled the BMW, with its lifting arm fully depressed and lifting handle removed. Id. at 35-38. Frederick had taught Christian to position the floor jack this way after lifting a load with the floor jack and transferring that load to a jack stand. Id. at 13-15.[2]

         Frederick used the floor jack so that he could raise the car off of Christian. Id. at 30-31, 35-38, 55-58. Geoffrey Hausmann was the first emergency responder on the scene; he arrived as Frederick was attempting to engage the floor jack's lifting handle in order to elevate the floor jack's lifting arm. Doc. #302-5 at 3-6, 10, 12. Frederick then inserted the lifting handle into the socket, wheeled the floor jack under the car's passenger side, and then pumped the handle to raise the lifting arm-and with it raise the car off of Christian. Doc. #302-1 at 23-24; Doc. #302-4 at 55-56. Hausmann also observed the jack stand beneath the BMW's front passenger side. Doc. #302-5 at 5-7. Lynne then watched Frederick crawl under the BMW and upright the jack stand. Doc. #302-1 at 37; Doc. #302-4 at 31, 38-39, 61.

         The parties' expert reports about the accident

         Plaintiffs and defendants have both called on experts to reconstruct how the car fell. Plaintiffs have retained Frederick Heath as their principal expert witness. He prepared an initial report on the accident, and then prepared a rebuttal to the report of defendants' expert, James Sprague. See Doc. #295-2; Doc. #296-9; Doc. #295-4.

         Heath's initial report concluded that the most likely explanation for the accident was that the jack stand had experienced a phenomenon known as "false engagement."[3] This diagram shows the model 50163 jack stand's key features:

         (Image Omitted)

         Doc. #302-4 at 72 fig. 1. The model 50163 jack stand includes a pyramidal base frame and a retractable ratchet bar rising from the frame that can support a heavy object. See Id. at 72-73. The ratchet bar has a number of "teeth" that fit against the pawl. Ibid. Ordinarily, a ratchet bar tooth should rest firmly in place against the pawl's body. Id. 72-73.

         During false engagement, only the tooth edge contacts the pawl tip, and friction between the two rough surfaces allows the ratchet bar to rest in place so as to appear fully engaged. Doc. #295-2 at 16; Doc. #302-14 at 3-4; Doc. #302-16. When false engagement occurs, the ratchet bar and pawl are much less secure, and an outside force can cause the ratchet bar to slip out of place and collapse back into the base, allowing anything the ratchet bar has lifted to fall. See Doc. #295-2 at 16-17.

         The Sprague report opines that instead of a jack stand failure taking place, Christian lifted the car only on the floor jack, from which the car slipped and fell, leaving scrape marks along the car's side. Doc. #296-9 at 4, 6-7. The report disagrees with the Klorczyks' testimony about events on the day of the accident that the initial Heath report accepts. Id. at 6. Plaintiffs dispute the Sprague report's weight and significance, arguing that the scrape marks on the BMW probably came from frequent winter driving, and also challenging the report's assumptions about how Christian was positioned beneath the car as inconsistent with their own accident scene observations and the jack stand's height. See Doc. #302 at 6-8 (¶¶ 16-17).

         Heath's rebuttal report takes issue with various aspects of the Sprague report. The Heath rebuttal report opines that the jack stand could have elevated the car high enough for Christian to have fit underneath, and that the location of Christian's injuries was consistent with how witnesses described his location. Doc. #295-4 at 3-7. The rebuttal also opines that a floor jack collapse could not have caused the car to fall-reporting that the floor jack would need to be acted on by over 400 pounds of external force to slip out from under the car, and that no such force was available. Id. at 5-6.

         The jack stand's manufacture and sale

         Christian purchased the jack stand from the Sears department store in Waterford. Doc. #305 at 3 (¶ 10). Sears ordered the jack stand directly from defendant MVP (HK) Industries on June 1, 2010. Doc. #305 at 2-3 (¶ 7). Defendant Wei Fu manufactured the jack stand. Doc. #256 at 4 (¶ 16). MVP shipped the jack stand via UPS directly to Sears on October 21, 2010. Doc. #305 at 3 (¶ 9).

         The other Shinn Fu companies

         Plaintiffs argue that the jack stand's chain of commerce also includes Wei Fu and MVP's parent company, Shinn Fu Corporation (SFC), as well as their corporate affiliate Shinn Fu Company of America (SFA).

         Michael Hung founded SFC in Taiwan in 1971. Doc. #305-8 at 10. He died around 2014, ibid., but his wife, Vickie Huang, and children Victor, Betty, and Angela Hung have served on SFC's board of directors. Doc. #305-4 at 2; Doc. #305-8 at 13-14. The Hung family still owns SFC, and Victor, Betty, and Angela Hung have all served as either the top SFC executive or as vice presidents. Doc. #305-8 at 13-14. The Hung family owns MVP with one other shareholder, and they made up its board of directors and oversaw MVP's day-to-day operations in Hong Kong from Taiwan. Doc. #305-7 at 9-11. Vickie Huang also served as the general manager and indirect owner of Wei Fu. Doc. #305-4 at 2; Doc. #305-6 at 11, 20; Doc. #305-8 at 16. She ran Wei Fu's day-to-day operations in Guangdong Province, China from Taiwan. Doc. #305-6 at 8, 11-12.

         SFA is a wholly owned subsidiary of SFC based in Kansas City, Missouri. Doc. #305-8 at 8, 15; Doc. #305-10 at 30. Vickie Huang's brother, Steven Huang, is SFA's president and chief operating officer. Doc. #305-10 at 5, 7. Steven Huang, Vickie Huang, and Victor, Betty, and Angela Hung are all on SFA's Board of Directors. Doc. #305-4 at 2; Doc. #305-10 at 6-7. Betty Hung is the SFA's CEO, but does not keep an office in the United States. Doc. #305-10 at 8.

         In a 2011 presentation, SFC identified Wei Fu, MVP, and SFA as part of its “Affiliated Global Operations” and stated that it “supplies product development and manufacturing services to Shinn Fu affiliated companies throughout the world.” Doc. #305-1 at 4, 8. In the opinion of Roger Claypool-a former SFA employee-all corporate decision-making at the Shinn Fu companies ultimately resided with the Hung family. Doc. #305-5 at 26. Claypool testified that MVP belonged to SFC's global business operations, id. at 12; that SFA was SFC's American satellite, id. at 25; and that SFC had ultimate decision-making authority over SFA, MVP, and Wei Fu's decisions, id. at 25-26. Claypool admitted, however, that he did not know about defendants' internal financial arrangements. Doc. #297-17 at 6-7.

         MVP and SFA had a sales representative agreement between them when the jack stand sale occurred. Doc. #305 at 8 (¶ 30). Under the agreement's terms, MVP would pay SFA to provide “(a) Lab testing services; (b) Show management; (c) OIPM support, and (d) Customer phone support.” Ibid. (¶ 31). MVP and SFA first entered into the agreement in 2006. Doc. #305-14 at 2-3, 5. SFA would act as MVP's sales agent in the United States and provide information to MVP about American market conditions, while MVP would pay SFA a 1.5% sales commission. Id. at 3. That agreement involved the model 50163 jack stand, Doc. #305-7 at 21- 22, and it was executed contemporaneously with a sales agreement for jack stands between MVP and Sears. Doc. #305-9 at 20.

         MVP and SFA then amended their agreement several times. From June 1, 2008, MVP stopped paying sales commissions to SFA. Instead, MVP started paying SFA a service charge and started reimbursing SFA for two of SFA's sales employees' services. Doc. #305-14 at 6-11. The service charge initially totaled $45, 000 per year, and the employee reimbursements totaled slightly over $93, 000 per year. Id. at 6.

         Defendants SFC, SFA, MVP, and Wei Fu shared a common insurance policy when the jack stand was sold. Doc. #305 at 9 (¶ 33). The policy lists SFC and MVP as the named insureds, with their address the same as that of SFA's headquarters. Doc. #305-15 at 2. The policy lists SFA and Wei Fu as additional insureds alongside numerous other Shinn Fu entities around the world. Id. at 3. The policy designated SFA's general counsel, Arthur Chaykin, as the claims administrator. Id. at 6. SFA's corporate representative testified that the common policy was a cost-saving measure because SFA could purchase insurance at the best rate for the other corporate entities. Doc. #305 at 9-10 (¶ 36); Doc. #305-10 at 11.

         Design and manufacture of the jack stand

         The Sears model 50163 jack stand was designed in the mid-2000s and shares a history with earlier SFA jack stands. SFA was responsible for developing and designing the jack stands sold under its brands, and at the directive of Michael Hung tested ratchet bars and sent jack stand specifications to Wei Fu as early as the 1990s. Doc. #305-5 at 10-11. Wei Fu began manufacturing ratchet-and-pawl jack stands for SFA in 2003, and would continue doing so until 2012. Doc. #305-6 at 22. Among Wei Fu's products was the model T6904 SFA Pro-Lift brand four-ton jack stand. Doc. #305-6 at 23.

         In November of 2006, an email was circulated among SFA, SFC, MVP, and Wei Fu discussing the need to develop a new four-ton jack stand for Sears with a Sears model number. Doc. #305-17 at 2. Between December 2006 and March 2007, staff at SFA, Wei Fu, and MVP sent a series of emails conflating the model T6904 jack stand with the new jack stand to be manufactured for Sears. Doc. #305-6 at 39-41; Doc. #305-18 at 2-3; Doc. #305-19. Betty Hung at SFC also received a pair of these emails, Doc. #305-17 at 2. In 2011, MVP would send an email to Sears describing the model 50163 jack stand and the T6904 jack stand as the same. Doc. #305-19 at 3. An SFC manager was also listed as a recipient of the email. Ibid.

         Wei Fu began manufacturing the model 50163 jack stand around April 2007. Doc. #305-6 at 25. The model 50163 jack stand had the internal model number T37401, and had the same design, locking system, safety features, and load capacity as the model T6904 jack stand. Ibid.; Doc. #305-16 at 8-9, 18, 23. The jack stand's design complied with industry safety standards for automotive lifting devices promulgated by the Portable Automotive Lifting ...


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