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Broken crate handhold prompts death claim.

Byline: Virginia Lawyers Weekly

Where the deceased fell off a ladder when a piece of a crate he was attempting to pull up suddenly broke off, the administrator of the deceased's estate could sue the company that designed and manufactured the crate for wrongful death.


Defendant Overhead Door Corp. designs and manufactures garage doors. Its commercial doors roll around a shaft at the top of the door behind a metal hood. The hoods are manufactured in separate sections, and they are shipped to distributors in cardboard crates that are also designed and manufactured by Overhead Door.

In December 2014, Overhead Door changed its crate design to a triple-wall cardboard body with wooden endcaps. The endcaps have one horizontal and two vertical boards that form a "U" shape. Five smaller horizontal boards, or slats, connect the two vertical boards. The endcaps have a gap between the first and second slat which creates a handhold.

Evangelos Sardis worked for Washington Overhead Door, one of defendant's distributors. In June 2016, while Sardis was working at a jobsite with his supervisor, Keith Lawrence, two coworkers arrived with a hood in their flatbed truck and instructed Sardis and Lawrence to transfer the hood to another site for installation.

At the new installation site, they were unable to remove the hood from Lawrence's truck and called for a forklift. Lawrence and another employee struggled to operate the forklift and the crate tipped toward the truck cab each time they tried to move it. Sardis climbed onto an extension ladder on top of the truck and pulled the handhold of the crate. A slat came off the wooden endcap and Sardis fell off the truck and hit the asphalt with the back of his head. He died 14 days later.

Plaintiff Andrea Sardis, the administrator of Sardis's estate, sued Overhead door alleging negligence, design defect, breach of implied warranty and failure to warn. Both parties move to exclude certain expert testimony and other specific evidence. Overhead Door also moves for summary judgment.


Daubert motions

Plaintiff's expert, Michael S. Wogalter, Ph.D., may testify that Overhead Door should have provided warnings and instructions on how to use the handhold and Overhead Door failed to conduct appropriate testing or analysis to identify defects in the crate. Concerns about Wogalter's opinions are properly reserved for cross-examination and do not justify the wholesale exclusion of his testimony.

Plaintiff will also not be allowed to call a grief expert as the matters on which he would testify do not require special expertise and can be left to turn mainly on the good sense and deliberate judgment of the jury.

Plaintiff's packaging design expert, Sher Paul Singh, Ph.D., may testify that the crate was unreasonably dangerous because it did not comply with the industry standard. The fact that Singh did not test the crate before his analysis affects the weight of his testimony, not its admissibility, and defendant can attack Singh's conclusions on cross-examination.

Overhead Door's expert, Marshall S. White, Ph.D., may testify regarding the cause of the handhold's failure. While White's opinions involve some level of estimation, this goes, at best, to the weight of his testimony, not its admissibility.

Overhead Door's expert, James W. Stanley, may testify that Sardis failed to follow safe material handling practices. Although he incorrectly cited certain regulations, he knows industry standards and has extensive experience. However, he cannot testify that Sardis should have used fall protection, as there is no evidence it was required. He also cannot testify that Sardis should have worn a hard hat because it would be unduly prejudicial. Finally, he cannot testify that Sardis placed himself in open and obvious danger because that is a matter the jury can discern on its own.

Motions to exclude

Any evidence regarding whether Sardis wore a hard hat is unduly prejudicial and will be excluded. Notably, there is no evidence the hard hat would have prevented the injury in this case.

Defendant may not introduce evidence of the Mid-Atlantic Door Group safety manual as Virginia law prohibits a party from introducing internal company polices to establish the standard of care.

Evidence of other incidents involving Overhead Door products will be excluded as they are not substantially similar to the incident in question.

Motion for summary judgment

Overhead Door is not entitled to judgment on plaintiff's design defect claim as there are issues of fact regarding whether the crate was unreasonably dangerous. Plaintiff has identified an industry standard and introduced expert testimony that Overhead Door failed to comply with that standard.

Virginia law does not support Overhead Door's proposition that plaintiff's products liability claims cannot go forward merely because the crate that caused the injury is not available.

Reasonable minds could differ as to Sardis's own negligence and, as such, Overhead Door is not entitled to summary judgment based on contributory negligence. Overhead Door is likewise not entitled to summary judgment based on assumption of the risk because reasonable minds could differ as to whether Sardis understood the nature and extent of the danger.

Motions granted in part and denied in part.

Sardis v. Overhead Door Corp., Case No. 3:17-cv-818, Feb. 12, 2019. EDVA at Richmond (Gibney). VLW 019-3-071. 19 pp.

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Title Annotation:Sardis v. Overhead Door Corp., U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia
Publication:Virginia Lawyers Weekly
Date:Mar 17, 2019
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