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Speaks v. Mazda Motor Corporation

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

April 30, 2018

INCARNACION L. SPEAKS, Plaintiff,
v.
MAZDA MOTOR CORPORATION, and MAZDA MOTOR OF AMERICA, INC., d/b/a MAZDA NORTH AMERICA OPERATIONS, Defendants.

          ORDER

          Donald W. Molloy, District Judge.

         Four motions are pending in this matter: (1) Plaintiff Incamacion Speaks' ("Speaks") renewed motions in limine, (Doc. 232); (2) Defendant Mazda Motor Corporation and its related entities' ("Mazda") second motion for summary judgment, (Doc. 235); (3) Mazda's motion to exclude the testimony of Stephen R. Syson, (Doc. 240); and (4) Mazda's motion in limine regarding evidence of a seatbelt warning, (Doc. 242). They are addressed in turn.

         I. Speaks' Renewed Motions in Limine (Doc. 232)

         Speaks renews two motions in limine that were raised prior to the first trial:

4. 1Mazda should be precluded fi-om introducing any evidence, testimony, argument or improper reference that any damages to [Speaks] resulted fi'om and were caused by [Speaks'] acts, fault, conduct and negligence.
7. Mazda should be precluded from introducing any evidence, testimony, argument or improper reference that had [Speaks] worn her shoulder belt properly and been properly positioned at the time of the crash she would have received minor injuries in the crash.

(Doc. 232 at 2; see Doc. 113.) Motion No. 4 is granted and Motion No. 7 is granted in part and modified as outlined below.

         Prior to the first trial. Judge Christensen denied Speaks' motions, holding that "Mazda is entitled to assert a causation defense based on under-the-shoulder belt routing to the extent that [Speaks'] design defect claim is based on the defective 'fit' of the seatbelt even when properly worn." (Doc. 126 at 2-3.)

         Speaks argues that those denials cannot stand in light of the Ninth Circuit memorandum disposition in this case. See Speaks v. Mazda Motor Corp., 701 Fed.Appx. 663 (9th Cir. July 26, 2017). Mazda, on the other hand, insists that it has the right to introduce the facts of the crash to show causation. (Doc. 248 at 2.) The Ninth Circuit held that the district court erred by allowing Mazda to introduce considerable evidence of Speaks' misuse but failing to instruct that jury that reasonable misuse is not a defense and not allowing Speaks to present foreseeability-related evidence. Speaks, 701 Fed.Appx. at 665-66. But, the Circuit clarified: "because Mazda was entitled to introduce evidence to try to defeat the causation element of Speaks' case, we do not hold that the district court improperly admitted Mazda's misuse evidence." Id. at 665 n.l.

         Speaks can argue that the "fit" of the seatbelt was defective when worn over the shoulder. Accordingly, Mazda, as recognized by Speaks, can argue that the shoulder belt was routed under Speaks' arm during the accident to undercut the causation part of this "fit" argument. (See Doc. 252 at 5; Doc. 125 at 23.) But, Speaks can also argue that if the seatbelt was routed under the arm, because that misuse was foreseeable, (see Doc. 125 at 21-22), Mazda had a duty to design out or guard against defects related to such use. Lutz v. Nat'l Crane Corp., 884 P.2d 455, 460 (Mont. 1994). Mazda cannot argue, as it did at the first trial, that it is not liable simply because the seat belt was routed under the arm.

         Accordingly, Motion No. 4 is GRANTED and Mazda is precluded from introducing any evidence, testimony, argument or improper reference that any damages to Speaks resulted from and were caused by Speaks' acts, fault, conduct or negligence. Motion No. 7 is also GRANTED in PART and MODIFIED as follows: while Mazda may not characterize Speaks' use as "proper" or "improper, " the parties may present evidence and argue as to the factual question of the location of the seat belt and the injuries caused by such placement. Mazda may not use language- such as "correct, " "incorrect, " "right, " "wrong"-that injects fault into this strict liability action.

         II. Mazda's Second Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 235)

         Mazda seeks summary judgment on two grounds:

1. [Speaks] cannot prove the causation element of her strict products liability seatbelt "fit" theory because the testimony of her biomechanical expert, Michelle Hoffman, is inadmissible on this issue based on ...

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