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Fassett v. Sears Holdings Corp. - 319 F.R.D. 143

Rule:

To determine the scope of discoverable information under Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1), the court looks initially to the pleadings. In ascertaining which materials are discoverable and which are not, a district court must further distinguish between requests that appear reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, and demands that are overly broad and unduly burdensome. The discovery rules are meant to be construed quite liberally so as to permit the discovery of any information which is relevant and is reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. As an initial matter, therefore, all relevant material is discoverable unless an applicable evidentiary privilege is asserted. The presumption that such matter is discoverable, however, is defeasible.

Facts:

Fassett had been operating a Sears Craftsman "Zero Turn" riding lawnmower in May 2013 for about one hour when he heard what he described as "spitting" or "sputtering" in the gas tank. The noise reminded him of the sound of water having seeped into the gas. After moving the lawnmower into his garage and turning it off, Fassett lifted the seat so that he could reach the fuel tank. Upon seeing the tank, he observed that the hissing was coming from underneath the gas cap, and he saw that the gas tank had visibly expanded. In an effort to release what he believed was built-up pressure in the tank, he began to turn the gas cap. While the cap rotated, gasoline sprayed from the tank and "doused" his clothes and body. As he turned away from the machine to run, the gas cap burst off the tank, and more gasoline sprayed from within. Almost immediately, Fassett heard the gas ignite and knew he was on fire.

Two years later, he filed the instant lawsuit. Averments central to their complaint identified "gas geysering from the mower" and "pressurized gas exploding from the gas tank" as alleged defects. The litigation has progressed in a timely fashion since its inception in May 2015, but the parties have recently reached a technical impasse. That quandary involved the extent to which material about alternative fuel cap designs and distinct lawnmower layouts may be discoverable. The parties have struggled to define the outer bounds of discovery in this case: what, if anything, can be discovered about parts or mowers not involved in the subject fire?

Fassett’s motion sought the following information from Defendant Bemis: All previously demanded documents, including claims, litigation, warranty, testing data, or any other materials evidencing overpressurization and/or geysering, spewing, fountaining or other hazardous or catastrophic release of gasoline from a tank that has become overpressurized due to inadequate venting. Fassett therefore demand that Kelch/Bemis produce previously demanded documents for any of its free venting caps.

Issue:

  1. Were materials evidencing over-pressurization or geysering corresponding to free venting caps designs (open, screw, covered, and duckbill) considered discoverable?
  2. Were prior claims or litigation involving screw, cover, or duckbill caps discoverable?

Answer:

1. Yes. 2. No.

Conclusion:

In a products liability suit, faithful adherence to amended Rule 26(b)(1)'s renewed proportionality mandate is furthered considerably by implementation of a sliding scale analysis: material corresponding to alternative designs or components that exhibit significant similarities to the design or component at issue should be discoverable in the greatest quantities and for the most varied purposes; however, material corresponding to alternative designs or components that share less in common with the contested design or component should be incrementally less discoverable—and for more limited purposes—as those similarities diminish.

In products liability cases, evidence of prior accidents involving the same product under similar circumstances is admissible to show notice to the defendant of the danger, to show existence of the danger, and to show the cause of the accident. The almost universal requirement, however, is that the prior occurrence must involve facts and circumstances which are substantially similar to those involved in the case under consideration or they will be excluded. The notion that information relating to all prior free venting claims is discoverable because all of those accidents involved failed venting is much too high a level of abstraction. Fassett has not met his burden of showing substantial similarity as to the accidents involving other designs.

Because warranty information, testing data, and any other materials evidencing over-pressurization or geysering corresponding to each of the enumerated free venting caps designs (open, screw, covered, and duckbill) were relevant to a number of plaintiffs' theories, those materials were discoverable so long as they were not work product; however, although material unprotected by the work product doctrine in prior claims involving the open gas cap design is discoverable, the same is not true of prior claims or litigation involving screw, cover, or duckbill caps.

This outcome was considered to be an amenable compromise between the two overbroad and underinclusive proposals that have been presented by the parties. So often, discovery is not properly construed as an all-or-nothing game. Rather, it is a means for uncovering truth—the strengths and weaknesses of one's case—rationally bounded by efficiency and cost concerns.

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