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Hebert v. Titan International Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division

June 4, 2018

THOMAS F. HEBERT, ET AL.
v.
TITAN INTERNATIONAL, INC., ET AL.

          HANNA MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          MEMORANDUM ORDER

          ELIZABETH ERNY FOOTE JUDGE

         Plaintiffs, Thomas and Dawn Hebert, brought this products liability suit against Defendant, Titan International, Inc. (“Titan”), arising out of an incident involving Thomas Hebert (“Hebert”) in July 2014. Hebert alleged that on that date he was asked by his employer to inflate a tire on a multi-piece wheel manufactured by Titan. While inflating the tire, the multi-piece wheel explosively separated, causing the wheel components to strike Hebert in the head and torso area. As a result, he suffered serious injuries, including a face fracture, a cervical spine injury, and a brain injury. Plaintiffs filed suit against Titan under the Louisiana Products Liability Act (“LPLA”), alleging that the multi-piece wheel was unreasonably dangerous due to defective design and an inadequate warning. Dawn Hebert also asserted a claim for loss of consortium. A jury trial was held from August 14-21, 2017, resulting in a judgment in favor of Defendant, Titan. Now pending before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (“JNOV”), or, Alternatively, For New Trial [Record Document 200].

         STANDARD

         The Fifth Circuit has held that a court exercising diversity jurisdiction must apply Louisiana law to JNOV and new trial motions. Brown v. Wal-Mart Louisiana, L.L.C., 565 Fed.Appx. 293, 295 (5th Cir. 2014) (citing Fair v. Allen, 669 F.3d 601, 604 (5th Cir. 2012)). Under Louisiana law,

[A] JNOV is warranted when the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of one party that the trial court believes that reasonable persons could not arrive at a contrary verdict. The motion should be granted only when the evidence points so strongly in favor of the moving party that reasonable persons could not reach different conclusions, not merely when there is a preponderance of evidence for the mover. The motion should be denied if there is evidence opposed to the motion which is of such quality and weight that reasonable and fair-minded persons in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different conclusions. In making this determination, the trial court should not evaluate the credibility of the witnesses, and all reasonable inferences or factual questions should be resolved in favor of the non-moving party.

Joseph v. Broussard Rice Mill, Inc., 2000-0628 (La. 10/30/00), 772 So.2d 94, 99 (internal citations omitted).

         Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 1972 provides that a new trial “shall be granted . . . [w]hen the verdict or judgment appears clearly contrary to the law and the evidence.” “Unlike the standard applicable to a JNOV, in considering whether to grant a new trial under La. C.C.P. art. 1972(1), a trial judge may evaluate the evidence without favoring either party, and draw its own inferences and conclusions.” Pitts v. Louisiana Med.

         Mut. Ins. Co., 2016-1232 (La. 3/15/17), 218 So.3d 58, 66. Additionally, under Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 1973, a court has the discretionary authority to grant a new trial “in any case if there is good ground therefor, except as otherwise provided by law.” “When the trial judge is convinced by his examination of the facts that the judgment would result in a miscarriage of justice, a new trial should be ordered pursuant to La. C.C.P. Art. 1973.” Pitts, 218 So.3d at 65. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court has also stated:

The fact that a determination on a motion for new trial involves judicial discretion, however, does not imply that the trial court can freely interfere with any verdict with which it disagrees. The discretionary power to grant a new trial must be exercised with considerable caution, for a successful litigant is entitled to the benefits of a favorable jury verdict. Fact finding is the province of the jury, and the trial court must not overstep its duty in overseeing the administration of justice and unnecessarily usurp the jury's responsibility.

Davis v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 2000-0445 (La. 11/28/00), 774 So.2d 84, 93 (quoting Gibson v. Bossier City Gen. Hosp., 594 So.2d 1332, 1336 (La. Ct. App. 1991)).

         LAW & ANALYSIS

         Plaintiffs move for JNOV on the grounds that the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Plaintiffs previously moved for judgment as a matter of law on three specific issues that it raises again here: (1) whether Plaintiffs' damages arose from a “reasonably anticipated use” of the product; (2) whether there was an alternative design for the product; and (3) whether Plaintiffs' damages were proximately caused by a characteristic of the product. Plaintiffs insist these issues should have never been submitted to the jury. Alternatively, Plaintiffs move for a new trial on the grounds that the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence and because evidence of Hebert's positive drug screen was admitted.

         A. JNOV

         Plaintiffs' claims arise under the LPLA, which sets forth the exclusive theories of liability for manufacturers for damage caused by their products. La. R.S. § 9:2800.52. The Act provides, “The manufacturer of a product shall be liable to a claimant for damage proximately caused by a characteristic of the product that renders the product unreasonably dangerous when such damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product by the claimant or another person or entity.” § 2800.54(A). As explained by the Fifth Circuit,

To maintain a successful products liability action under the LPLA, a plaintiff must establish four elements: (1) that the defendant is a manufacturer of the product; (2) that the claimant's damage was proximately caused by a characteristic of the product; (3) that this characteristic made the product “unreasonably dangerous”; and (4) that the claimant's damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product by the claimant or someone else.

Stahl v. Novartis Pharm. Corp., 283 F.3d 254, 260-61 (5th Cir. 2002). A product may be unreasonably dangerous in one of four ways: (1) construction or composition, (2) design, (3) inadequate warning, and (4) failure to conform to an express warranty. ยง 2800.54(B). Here, Plaintiffs argued that the wheel was ...


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