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Rodgers v. Beechcraft Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

February 14, 2017

JAMES RODGERS and SHERYLL RODGERS, individually and as Husband and Wife; and CHRISTOPHER EVANS and JILL EVANS, individually and as Husband and Wife, Plaintiffs,
v.
BEECHCRAFT CORPORATION, f/k/a Hawker Beechcraft Corporation, a Kansas Corporation; HAWKER BEECHCRAFT GLOBAL CUSTOMER SUPPORT, LLC, f/k/a Hawker Beechcraft Services, Inc., a Kansas limited liability company, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          CLAIRE V. LAGAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In the scheduling order (Dkt. # 18), the Court set a deadline of June 6, 2016 for the parties to file motions in limine.[1] Defendants Beechcraft Corporation (Beechcraft) and Hawker Beechcraft Global Customer Support, LLC (HBGCS) filed two motions in limine (Dkt. ## 62, 66), and plaintiffs filed seven motions in limine (Dkt. ## 43, 44, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73). The parties' motions in limine are fully briefed. The motions in limine had been referred to the magistrate judge, but the referral has been withdrawn. See Dkt. ## 76, 205.

         I.

         On March 16, 2015, plaintiffs James Rodgers and Christopher Evans filed this case alleging a manufacturer's products liability claim against Beechcraft and a negligence claim against Beechcraft and HBGCS. Their spouses, Sheryll Rodgers and Jill Evans, also allege claims of loss of consortium against defendants. James Rodgers and Christopher Evans were passengers on a Beech Premier 390 aircraft, manufactured by Beechcraft in 2008, that was flying from Tulsa, Oklahoma to South Bend, Indiana on March 17, 2013, and the pilot of the aircraft was Wesley Caves. During the flight, plaintiffs allege that both engines of the plane were inadvertently shut down and the pilot was unable to restart both of the engines due to a defective electrical bus distribution system. Dkt. # 28, at 5-6. The pilot was unable to successfully land the plane and it crashed near the South Bend Airport, and James Rodgers and Christopher Evans were injured in the crash. Plaintiffs allege that the alternate landing gear system failed to deploy properly during the attempted landing and that the alternate landing gear system was defectively designed. Id. at 12.

         In June 2016, plaintiffs filed a motion to file a second amended complaint (Dkt. # 93) adding a theory of product defect based on the aircraft flight manual (AFM), and they allege that the AFM contains faulty instructions for restarting the electrical generator following a dual engine shutdown. Id. at 4-5. Defendants opposed plaintiffs' motion to amend on the ground that plaintiffs' motion was untimely. The Court found that plaintiffs had established good cause to amend the complaint outside of the deadline established in the scheduling order for parties to file motions to amend. Dkt. # 128, at 6. However, plaintiffs' motion was filed on the same day as defendants' motion for summary judgment, and the Court considered that there was a legitimate question as to whether the motion to amend was filed in an attempt to avoid summary judgment. Id. at 7. The Court determined that evidence relating to the AFM would be offered at trial even if the motion to amend were denied, and defendants would not be prejudiced by granting the motion to amend. Plaintiffs were permitted to file a second amended complaint.

         In the second amended complaint (Dkt. # 129), plaintiffs allege claims of negligence against Beechcraft and HBGCS, a manufacturer's products liability claim against Beechcraft, and loss of consortium claims against Beechcraft and HBGCS. The second amended complaint alleges three defects with the subject aircraft: (1) HBGCS incorrectly installed a repair kit and created a defect in the electrical bus distribution system that caused intermittent electrical supply to essential systems; (2) the alternate landing gear did not operate as represented in the design specifications; and (3) the AFM included faulty instructions for restarting the electrical generators following a shutdown. Dkt. # 129, at 5-7. In addition, plaintiffs allege that defendants were negligent due to inadequate assembly and inspection practices, substandard wiring practices, and the design of the alternate landing gear. Id. at 10.

         II.

         “‘A motion in limine is a request for guidance by the court regarding an evidentiary question, '” which the court may provide at its discretion to aid the parties in formulating trial strategy.” Jones v. Stotts, 59 F.3d 143, 146 (10th Cir. 1995). Motions in limine provide a way for the district court to rule in advance of trial on possible evidentiary disputes, because this may avoid a lengthy interruption during the trial to resolve objections to evidence. Wilkins v. Kmart Corp., 487 F.Supp.2d 1216, 1218 (D. Kan. 2007). A ruling on a motion in limine “is no more than a preliminary, or advisory, opinion that falls entirely within the discretion of the district court.” Edens v. The Netherlands Ins. Co., 834 F.3d 1116, 1130 (10th Cir. 2016). Unless otherwise stated in this Opinion and Order, the Court's rulings on evidentiary issues are preliminary and non-final and the Court “may change its ruling at any time for whatever reason it deems appropriate.” T.G. v. Remington Arms Co., Inc., 2014 WL 2589443, *2 (N.D. Okla. June 10, 2014).

         The parties' motions in limine are primarily based on the admissibility of evidence under Federal Rules of Evidence 401 and 403. Under Rule 401, evidence is relevant if “(a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action.” Fed.R.Evid. 401. However, a court may exclude relevant evidence if “its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of . . . unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.” Fed.R.Evid. 403. “Evidence may be unfairly prejudicial if it would likely provoke the jury's emotional response or otherwise tend to adversely affect the jury's attitude toward a particular matter . . . [but] [e]vidence is not unfairly prejudicial merely because it damages a party's case.” Leon v. FedEx Ground Package System, Inc., 313 F.R.D. 615, 622 (D.N.M. 2016). “To be unfairly prejudicial, the evidence must have ‘an undue tendency to suggest decision on an improper basis, commonly, though not necessarily, an emotional one.” United States v. Caraway, 534 F.3d 1290, 1301 (10th Cir. 2008) (emphasis in original). For the purpose of this Opinion and Order, the Court does not know what evidence will be presented at trial and the Court will preliminarily resolve all doubts in favor of admissibility of disputed evidence.

         III.

         Plaintiffs' Motion to Exclude Evidence of Caves' Pilot Training (Dkt. # 43)

         Plaintiffs ask the Court to exclude evidence of Caves' training in an Eclipse 500 aircraft, because this is not the type of aircraft involved in the accident and evidence of Caves' pilot training is inadmissible under Rules 404 and 406. Dkt. # 43. Defendants respond that plaintiffs have placed Caves' training, specifically his ability to follow checklists, directly at issue by alleging that the checklists in the AFM were defective and by offering expert testimony that Caves was a skilled pilot who acted reasonably up to the time of the crash. Dkt. # 83.

         Caves owned an Eclipse 500 aircraft and he received training from Keith Jones in the Eclipse 500. Dkt. # 83-6, at 4 The training occurred in February and March 2012, or about 13 months before the crash giving rise to this lawsuit. Jones noted on one training flight that Caves failed to follow checklist procedures, and Jones' notes contained a number of comments “that the checklist procedure was not either done or verbalized.” Id. at 5, 9. Jones acknowledged that the Eclipse 500 was a different aircraft than the Premier 390, and Jones could not comment on Caves's training for the Premier 390. Dkt. # 43-2, at 8-9. Jones recommended that Caves needed more training before he could become certified to fly the Eclipse 500, but he believed that Caves would likely obtain the required certification if he continued to train. Id. at 10. Instead of continuing to train in the Eclipse 500, Caves immediately put the Eclipse 500 up for sale and purchased another aircraft. Id. at 16. In the second amended complaint, plaintiffs acknowledge that both engines were shut down during flight before the accident on March 17, 2013, but they claim that Caves could not have restarted the electrical generators due to an incorrect Air Start checklist in the AFM. Dkt. # 129, at 6-7.

         Plaintiffs' motion in limine to exclude evidence of Caves' training in the Eclipse 500 aircraft should be denied. One of plaintiffs' theories of product defect is that the checklist in the AFM for restarting the electrical generators is defective. Id. Defendants respond that the pilot either followed the wrong checklist or incorrectly followed the required steps to restart the engines and/or generators. Dkt. # 149, at 5-7. This places the pilot's ability to follow a checklist directly at issue, and evidence of Caves' inability to correctly follow a checklist is relevant. In addition, plaintiffs intend to offer expert testimony that Caves was a qualified and skilled pilot who was acting reasonably under the circumstances. If plaintiffs proceed with this argument, this opens the door to evidence that Caves had difficulty following checklists in his training. It is not necessary for the Court to reach plaintiffs' arguments concerning the application of Rules 404 and 406, because the disputed evidence is relevant and admissible without treating the evidence as a prior bad act or evidence of habit.

         Plaintiffs' Motion to Exclude Evidence of Improper Aircraft Operation (Dkt. # 44)

         Plaintiffs ask the Court to exclude Caves' statement that he regularly flew the subject aircraft over the recommended weight limit and evidence that the overspeed warning horn was heard twice before the aircraft's engines were shut off by a passenger on March 17, 2013. Dkt. # 44. Defendants respond that evidence that the overspeed warning horn went off is directly relevant to the cause of the crash, and they argue that evidence that the pilot disregarded weight limits is relevant to plaintiffs' claims that the pilot was a skilled pilot who would have followed instructions in the AFM. Dkt. # 80.

         The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) prepared a transcript after reviewing the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) following the crash. Caves informs his passengers that the landing gear of the aircraft has a weight limit of 13, 000 pounds, Caves states that he does not “have any problem with [13, 500 pounds].” Dkt. # 80-1, at 12. Caves goes on to say that “so even though the book is that I don't . . . pay a whole lot of attention to it.” Id. The transcript also shows that overspeed warnings were heard two times before the engines were shut off. Id. at 15, 25.

         Plaintiffs argue that the Caves's statements concerning flying the aircraft over the recommended weight limit and the two overspeed warnings noted in the transcript of the CVR are irrelevant, because neither the aircraft's weight nor speed were the cause of the crash. Dkt. # 44, at 5. Plaintiffs cite Fed.R.Evid. 404 and 406 and argue that evidence that Caves claimed to regularly fly the aircraft over the recommended weight limit is inadmissible. Id. at 7-11. Defendants respond that they are not seeking to introduce the Caves' statement as a prior bad act or as evidence of habit, but as rebuttal to plaintiffs' assertions that Caves was a qualified pilot who would have followed instructions in the AFM. This would be a permissible use of evidence that Caves claimed to disregard the manufacturer's recommended weight limit. Defendants would not be prohibited under Rules 404 or 406 from rebutting plaintiffs' claims concerning the Caves' piloting skills and willingness to follow the manufacturer's recommendations concerning operation of the aircraft. Likewise, evidence that Caves set off two overspeed warnings and operated the aircraft in excess of the speed recommended by the manufacturer is relevant as to Caves' piloting skills and his disregard for the manufacturer's safety recommendations. Admission of this evidence will not ...


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