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Bilenky v. Ryobi Techs., Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division

June 26, 2015

STEPHEN E. BILENKY, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF FRANK S. WRIGHT, DECEASED, Plaintiff,
v.
RYOBI TECHNOLOGIES, INC., HOME DEPOT U.S.A., INC., Defendants

 Decided June 25, 2015

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Stephen E. Bilenky, Administrator of the Estate of Frank S. Wright, deceased, Plaintiff: Richard Neal Shapiro, LEAD ATTORNEY, Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton, P. C., Virginia Beach, VA; Patrick Joseph Austin, Shapiro, Lewis, Appleton & Duffan, P. C., Virginia Beach, VA; Robert Christopher Sullivan, PRO HAC VICE, Sullivan, Morgan & Chronic, LLC, Kansas City, MO.

For Ryobi Technologies, Inc., Defendant: John Ryan Owen, LEAD ATTORNEY, Dannel Charles Duddy, Julie Smith Palmer, Harman Claytor Corrigan & Wellman, Glen Allen, VA; Douglas Michael Grimsley, Dickie McCamey & Chilcote PC, Pittsburgh, PA; Frederick W Bode, III, PRO HAC VICE, Dickie McCamey & Chilcote, P. C., Pittsburgh, PA.

For Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., Defendant: David James Esposito, John Ryan Owen, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Dannel Charles Duddy, Julie Smith Palmer, Harman Claytor Corrigan & Wellman, Glen Allen, VA; Douglas Michael Grimsley, Dickie McCamey & Chilcote PC, Pittsburgh, PA; Frederick W Bode, III, PRO HAC VICE, Dickie McCamey & Chilcote, P. C., Pittsburgh, PA.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Raymond A. Jackson, United States District Judge.

Before the Court are two motions: Defendant Ryobi Technologies, Inc.'s Rule 50(b) Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law (ECF No. 187) and Defendant Ryobi Technologies, Inc.'s Rule 59(b) Alternative Motion for a New Trial (ECF No. 189). For five days between January 14, 2015, and January 22, 2015, this Court held a civil jury trial in this matter. On January 22, 2015, the jury returned a verdict against Defendant Ryobi Technologies, Inc., and awarded Plaintiff 2.5 million dollars. Defendant then timely filed the instant motions.

Defendant submitted Amended Memoranda in Support of both Motions (ECF Nos. 191 and 192). Plaintiff filed a Memorandum in Opposition to Defendant Ryobi's [sic] Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law (ECF No. 196) and a Motion to Strike and Memorandum in Opposition to Defendant Ryobi's Rule 59(b) Motion for New Trial (ECF No. 197). Defendant Ryobi Technologies, Inc. filed Rebuttal Memoranda in Support of both Motions (ECF Nos. 198 and 199). Plaintiff filed Notice of Preference for Ruling or Determination Based Upon Briefs Alone (ECF No. 200). Defendant Ryobi Technologies, Inc. filed Notice of Request for Hearing or Oral Argument on Post-Trial Motions (ECF No. 201).

Having fully considered the parties' briefs, the trial transcript, and the record, the Court has determined that a hearing would not aid in the decisional process. This matter having been fully briefed, it is now ripe for judicial determination. For the reasons stated below, Defendant's Rule 50(b) Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law is DENIED. Defendant's Rule 59(b) Alternative Motion for a New Trial is also DENIED. Plaintiff's Motion to Strike is cumulative of its many repeated filings throughout the course of this litigation and the Court finds absolutely no meritorious basis to strike Defendant's Motions or briefs. Therefore, Plaintiff's Motion to Strike is DENIED.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This case stems from Plaintiff's decedent, Frank Wright's death on December 23, 2010. Mr. Wright purchased a Ryobi-branded riding lawn tractor from Home Depot in September 2005, and he died from fire-related injuries that he suffered while riding the lawn tractor on December 23, 2010.

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A. Tractor Incident

On December 23, 2010, Frank Wright was operating his Ryobi-branded lawn tractor in his backyard in Chesapeake, Virginia. At some point during Mr. Wright's operation of the lawn tractor, a fire started. The cause of the fire was hotly debated throughout trial and was a critical factual question for the jury. As discussed below, the jury was presented with sufficient evidence to conclude that a defect in the lawn tractor caused the fire, and ultimately led to Mr. Wright's death. Plaintiff's wife, Audrey, testified via video deposition that she heard a very loud noise and looked outside to see her husband and his lawn tractor consumed in flames. Mr. Wright later passed away from the injuries he suffered in the fire.

B. Plaintiff's Lawsuit

On June 19, 2013, Defendant Home Depot USA, Inc. removed this case from Norfolk Circuit Court. The Complaint initially named eight defendants: 1) Ryobi LTD; 2) Ryobi North America, Inc.; 3) Techtronic Industries Co., LTD; 4) Techtronic Industries North America, Inc.; 5) Ryobi Technologies, Inc.; 6) One World Technologies, Inc.; 7) Home Depot U.S.A., Inc.; and 8) The Home Depot, Inc. ECF No. 1. The Court received a copy of the Answer Home Depot U.S.A., Inc. filed in state court, ECF No. 3, as well as Answers filed by Defendants Ryobi Technologies, Inc., (ECF No. 9), One World Technologies, Inc. (ECF No. 11), and Techtronic Industries North America, Inc. (ECF No. 13).

The parties conducted more than a year of discovery, and argued numerous pretrial motions before the United States Magistrate Judge. On August 27, 2014, Defendants Home Depot U.S.A., Inc. and One World Technologies, Inc. filed Motions for Summary Judgment and related Memoranda in Support. ECF Nos. 68, 69, 70, and 71. On September 12, 2015, Plaintiff filed Memoranda in Opposition to both Motions for Summary Judgment. ECF Nos. 94 and 95. On September 22, 2015, Defendants One World Technologies, Ryobi Technologies, Inc., Techtronic Industries, Inc. and Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., filed Replies to Plaintiff's Opposition to Summary Judgment.

On October 22, 2014, the United States Magistrate Judge issued two Orders that would play an integral part of the trial proceedings. First, the Magistrate Judge issued an Omnibus Order on Motions in Limine. ECF No. 106. Second, the Magistrate Judge filed an Order on Admissibility of Evidence of Recalls. ECF No. 107.

On November 11, 2014, Plaintiff filed Objections to Magistrate Judge's Ruling or Recommendation on Order on Motions in Limine, ECF No. 111, and Defendants Replied, ECF Nos. 114 and 115. On December 16, 2014, this Court Denied a Motion for a Hearing on Plaintiff's objections, overruled the objections and affirmed the Magistrate Judge. ECF No. 123.

On December 19, 2014, Defendants Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., One World Technologies, Inc., Ryobi Technologies, Inc., and Techtronic Industries North America, Inc., filed Objections to the Magistrate Judge's Order on Motions in Limine, ECF No. 124. Defendants also requested a hearing on the objections. ECF No. 125. On January 9, 2015, the Court denied Defendants' request for a hearing, overruled Defendants' objections and affirmed the Magistrate Judge. ECF No. 134.

On January 9, 2015, Plaintiff filed an Emergency Motion for Hearing, ECF No. 133, alleging that Defendants had, for the first time, disclosed the existence of another tractor fire involving a Ryobi-branded lawn tractor. Id. Understanding that the issue of whether any other similar incidents had occurred with Ryobi-branded

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lawn tractors had been a sticking point throughout the discovery process, and appreciating that trial was fast approaching, the Court granted the motion and held a telephone conference call on the afternoon of January 9, 2015. Id. Counsel for Plaintiff informed the Court that Defendants had very recently provided Plaintiff with new discovery material regarding another tractor incident involving a Ryobi lawn tractor. Defendants argued that the information was new to Defendants and that it had been turned over almost immediately upon its discovery. The Court found that such a late discovery, regardless of its cause, disadvantaged Plaintiff. The Court also notified the parties that after reviewing the summary judgment briefs and hearing argument of the parties during the conference call, Defendants Techtronic Industries North America, Inc. and One World Technologies, Inc. would be dismissed from the action. The parties were further directed to submit a proposed factual statement regarding the newly-disclosed previous Ryobi-branded lawn tractor fire that the Court would read to the jury during trial. Id.

On January 11, 2015, Plaintiff Filed a Memorandum in Further Support of Emergency Motion for Hearing, ECF No. 138, which alleged that one of the Defendants' expert witnesses had investigated the previous Ryobi lawn tractor incident. Further, Plaintiff submitted an email that was inadvertently sent to Plaintiff's counsel wherein Defendants' counsel notes that the defense expert had in fact investigated the previous fire, and that Plaintiff's attorneys were unaware of that fact. Id. The Court held a telephone conference with the parties on January 12, 2015, and heard further argument on this issue on January 13, 2015. ECF No. 141. At the conclusion of the hearing the Court ruled that Defendants' expert Dan Nielsen would be excluded from testifying as a result of his involvement in the investigation of the previous Ryobi-branded lawn tractor fire, and his failure to disclose that involvement until after Defense counsel inadvertently did so. Further, the Court issued a detailed Order addressing Defendants' late disclosure and Mr. Neilsen's exclusion from trial. ECF No. 172.

On January 14, 2015, the Court and counsel conducted voir dire. Nine jurors were empaneled. Trial continued until the jury issued its verdict on January 22, 2015.

II. TRIAL

A. Plaintiff's Case-in-Chief

Trial began on January 14, 2015, with opening statements from both parties. The jury first heard from Chesapeake firefighter paramedic Shawn McCoy, who testified about the scene at the Wright home shortly after the fire. ECF No. 179. The jury next heard from Captain Brian Fancher of the Chesapeake Fire Department, who also testified about the scene at the Wright home. Id. The jury also heard from Plaintiff's expert witness Richard Dyer, Mr. Wright's wife Audrey Wright, William Brown, Timothy Seymour, another expert witness Steve Christoffersen, Eldridge Boone, Betty Bilenky, Linda Ethridge, and Stephen Bilenky.

B. Defense Motions

At the conclusion of Plaintiff's case-in-chief, Defendants motioned for judgment as a matter of law on all counts pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court granted the motion in part and denied the motion in part. The motion was granted on Plaintiff's gross negligence claim, as the Court found that Plaintiff had not submitted legally sufficient evidence such that a reasonable jury could find in favor of plaintiff on the gross negligence claim. The Court denied the motion on the remaining claims, but

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noted on the record that Defendants could renew their motion if appropriate later in the proceedings.

C. Defense's Case-in-Chief

Defendants called three witnesses: Steve Brinkman, Dr. Paul Pontier--Mr. Wright's treating physician, and expert witness Dr. Neil Wu.

D. Post-Trial Motions

Following the conclusion of closing arguments, and outside the presence of the jury, Defendants motioned for a mistrial based on certain statements Plaintiff's counsel made during closing argument. The Court denied the motion and the jury was instructed on the appropriate law and began its deliberations. On January 22, 2015, the jury returned with a verdict in favor of Plaintiff and against Ryobi Technologies, Inc. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc. was found not liable. The jury awarded damages in the amount of 2.5 million dollars. Upon request from Defendants, the Court polled the jury and confirmed that each juror agreed with the verdict. Outside the presence of the jury Defendants motioned for a new trial based on inconsistencies in the verdict, the motion was argued, and the Court instructed the jury to further deliberate. The jury returned once again with the same verdict, and the verdict was read into the record. Defendants then renewed their motion for a new trial based upon inconsistences in the verdict and motioned for a directed verdict. The Court directed counsel to file post-trial motions in accordance with the rules.

On February 19, 2015, Defendant filed a Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law. ECF No. 187. A Memorandum in Support, ECF No. 188, was filed that same day, and in accordance with a Notice of Correction issued by the Clerk, an Amended ...


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