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Sandifer v. Hoyt Archery, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

October 24, 2018

MARY SANDIFER; AMANDA SANDIFER; RYAN SANDIFER, Plaintiffs-Appellants
v.
HOYT ARCHERY, INCORPORATED; NATIONAL UNION FIRE INSURANCE COMPANY OF PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA; ST. PAUL FIRE & MARINE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendants-Appellees

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana

          Before STEWART, Chief Judge, and JOLLY and OWEN, Circuit Judges.

          E. GRADY JOLLY, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         This appeal arises from a most unfortunate, unintended, and unwitnessed death. Dr. Alan Sandifer was pierced in the head by the cable guard of his 2007 Hoyt Vulcan XT500 bow, [1] which he was examining, and possibly modifying, while at his home. Following his death, his family members-Mary, Amanda, and Ryan Sandifer ("the Sandifers")-filed suit against Hoyt Archery, Inc. and its insurers (collectively, "Hoyt"). The Sandifers brought this action under the Louisiana Products Liability Act ("LPLA") alleging that the compound bow was defectively designed.

         The determinative issue on appeal is whether the district court erred by excluding most of the testimony of the Sandifers' primary expert, Dr. Kelkar. In disallowing Dr. Kelkar's testimony, the district court held, first, that he, as a substitute expert, exceeded the scope of the expert opinion, theory, and testimony as earlier defined by the district court when allowing him to enter the case late into the litigation. Secondly, the court excluded on the grounds that Dr. Kelkar's opinion as to the causation of the accident was based on propensity evidence, relating to the character and habits of Dr. Sandifer as a hunter. Once the district court ruled on the evidentiary questions, it granted summary judgment to Hoyt on the ground that the Sandifers did not present evidence that Dr. Sandifer was engaged in a reasonably anticipated use of the bow at the time of the accident, a required showing by the LPLA.

         Because we conclude that the court acted within its discretion, we AFFIRM its grant of summary judgment, dismissing the case. But first let us get to the facts of the Sandifers' claims.

         I.

         Dr. Sandifer was an avid bow hunter. One evening, while at home, with his wife seated in a different room, he sat at his computer with his Hoyt compound bow. His wife asked what he was doing, and he told her that he was searching the internet for a new part. A few minutes later, his wife heard a loud noise and found her husband lying unconscious on the floor with the compound bow's metal cable guard in his head through his left temple. The rod went deep into Dr. Sandifer's brain. He died the next day. No one saw the accident.

         How the accident occurred is confounding and is the subject of this litigation. Hoyt, the manufacturer, contends that, when modifying the bow, Dr. Sandifer voluntarily placed his head in the bow to examine it while pulling the drawstring; then, he accidentally lost control of the string, causing the cable guard to enter his head; and that such use of the bow was not a reasonably anticipated use of the instrument. The Sandifers contend that Dr. Sandifer did not voluntarily place his head into the bow but instead that the compound bow was defective, and the defect caused the cable guard to release and enter Dr. Sandifer's brain.

         This case was initially filed in the NineteenthJudicial District Court for the State of Louisiana. Hoyt removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.

         After over three years of litigation, the Sandifers asked for a continuance of the trial date that had been set. Their primary expert, Dr. Gautam Ray, a biomechanical engineer, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and could not continue in the case. The Sandifers had employed Dr. Ray to explain how the accident occurred and to show that Dr. Sandifer's use of the compound bow was a reasonably anticipated use. See La. Rev. Stat. 9:2800.54 (stating that a manufacturer is liable only when an injury "arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product"). The district court had qualified Dr. Ray to testify at trial based upon the standards in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms. Inc.; that is to say, his methods were reliable and his opinions helpful to the jury. See 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Further, the court had denied Hoyt's motion for summary judgment, partially because Dr. Ray testified that Dr. Sandifer's head "most probably than not" ended up between the cable guard and the bow string involuntarily.

         As previously noted, because of his impaired physical condition, Dr. Ray withdrew from the case. Afterward, the Sandifers moved the district court to allow Dr. Ray to be replaced with another biomechanical engineer. The court granted that request. The court admonished, however, that the approval of "a substitute expert was not an opportunity for [the Sandifers] to re-start expert discovery or engage an expert outside the scope of expertise and methodology of Dr. Ray."

         The Sandifers hired Dr. Rajeev Kelkar-an accident reconstruction expert and biomechanics consultant-who worked for InSciTech, Inc., an engineering firm that specializes in the investigation and analysis of accidents and equipment failures. He concluded in his report that it was most likely that Dr. Sandifer's injury resulted from a twisting of the bow string that caused Dr. Sandifer's head to involuntarily end up between the bow string and the riser due to a design defect, rather than a volitional act on his part. The basis for this opinion, as expressed by Dr. Kelkar, was that Dr. Sandifer was a "meticulous" and "very safety conscious" bow hunter who would know not to flex his left elbow in a "biomechanically disadvantageous" manner and place his head in the bow.

         After Dr. Kelkar submitted his analysis and opinion, Hoyt deposed him. At that deposition, Dr. Kelkar conceded that from a biomechanical perspective, it was just as likely that Dr. Sandifer was killed by volitionally placing his head inside the bow as it was by an accidental twisting of the bowstring. But he added that he believed the second scenario was more likely because of statements from Dr. Sandifer's friends and family describing him as a careful bow hunter and the difficulty of volitionally placing one's head into a drawn bowstring. When pressed, Dr. Kelkar conceded that, ...


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