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Stratton v. Thompson/Center Arms, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Utah

December 3, 2019

ZANE STRATTON, Plaintiff,
v.
THOMPSON/CENTER ARMS, INC.; SMITH & WESSON CORP.; SMITH & WESSON HOLDING COMPANY; CABELA'S WHOLESALE, LLC; AND DOES I-X, Defendants.

          Paul Kohler Magistrate Judge

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER REVERSING DENIAL OF PLAINTIFF'S SHORT FORM MOTION TO COMPEL INTERROGATORY RESPONSES AND DOCUMENTS

          DAVID NUFFER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Zane Stratton has filed an objection[1] to Judge Kohler's June 12, 2019 order[2]denying Plaintiff's motion to compel Defendant Thompson/Center Arms (“Thompson”), [3] to provide complete responses and documents to certain discovery requests. At the court's invitation, [4] Thompson has responded, [5] asking that the Order be upheld. As explained below, the Objection is SUSTAINED and the Order is REVERSED.

         BACKGROUND

         Complaint

         Plaintiff's Amended Complaint alleges that he sustained “severe and permanent injuries” when an Omega .50 Caliber Muzzleloading Rifle (“Muzzleloader” or “Subject Rifle” or “Subject Gun”) exploded in his hands during normal use.[6] He alleges, among other things, that the Muzzleloader's barrel was (1) made from “a free machining steel containing lead (Pb) or manganese sulfide (MnS) inclusions, ”[7] which Defendants knew or should have known “would greatly reduce the fracture toughness or strength of the steel in directions perpendicular to the barrel axis, ”[8] and (2) had “several holes . . . drilled and threaded along the bottom, ”[9] the depths of which holes Defendants knew or should have known “were not manufactured in accordance with design specifications and would cause the Muzzleloader's barrel to be unreasonably dangerous and defective.”[10]

         Discovery Requests and Responses

         Three discovery requests and responses are at issue here. Interrogatory No. 4 requested that Thompson “[s]tate the model names and No. of all muzzleloader firearms manufactured by Thompson/Center which have barrels made of the same metal as the barrel of the Subject Gun and state the years during which these firearms were manufactured.”[11] In response, Thompson objected that “the demand for materials concerning all muzzleloader firearms manufactured by Thompson/Center” sought information that was “not relevant due to differences is [sic] dimensions, time frame, etc.”[12] However, Thompson did provide information regarding the Omega line of muzzleloaders (to which the Muzzleloader belongs), saying that “[p]rior to July of 2011, all Omega muzzle loading firearm barrels were manufactured from 1137 gun barrel quality steel.”[13]

         Interrogatory No. 9 requested that Thompson

[s]tate whether Thompson/Center received any notice (including, without limitation, warranty claims, complaints, returns, lawsuits, injury or death claims, or any other form of notice) from 2007 through the present concerning any explosion, fracture, breakage, cracking, or other weakness in the barrel of any muzzle loading rifle manufactured by Thompson/Center.
If the answer to the foregoing is “yes”, please provide the following:
A. The date of each incident,
B. A description of each incident and the names of the people involved in the incident,
C. The year, make and model of the Gun involved in each incident, and
D. Identify all documents related to each incident.[14]

         In response, Thompson raised three objections: (1) that the interrogatory sought “irrelevant information relating to non-similar products”;[15] (2) that the phrase “‘other weakness' in the barrel” was “vague and undefined”;[16] and (3) that “to the extent this interrogatory [sought] information relating to lawsuits not substantially similar to this case, ” the requested “information [was] not discoverable as it [was] not ‘reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.'”[17] Thompson did provide information “[r]egarding the Omega line of muzzle loaders . . . .”[18]

         Request No. 4 of Plaintiffs' Requests for Production sought documents regarding the same notice of incidents described in Interrogatory No. 9. Thompson did not object to this request and identified certain documents by Bates stamp number.[19] However, this response was “limited . . . to incidents involving Omega model rifles, i.e., the same model as the Subject Rifle.”[20]

         Judge Kohler's Order

         In the Order, Judge Kohler set forth the applicable standard as follows:

In products liability cases, when a party requests information during discovery regarding other products or incidents, it must be determined whether the request seeks information that is “substantially similar” to the incident that is the focus of the complaint.[FN21] As the Tenth Circuit has explained:
Substantial similarity depends upon the underlying theory of the case. Evidence proffered to illustrate the existence of a dangerous condition necessitates a high degree of similarity because it weighs directly on the ultimate issue to be decided by the jury. The requirement of substantial similarity is relaxed, however, when the evidence of other incidents is used to demonstrate notice or awareness of a potential defect. Any differences in the accidents not affecting a finding of substantial similarity go to the weight of the evidence.[FN22]
The “underlying theory of the case” is the key language here as other courts have understood this to mean that discovery of “substantially similar” incidents is limited to those involving the same product model that is the subject of a products liability complaint.[FN23]
[FN21] Four Corners Helicopters, Inc. v. Turbomeca, S.A., 979 F.2d 1434, 1440 (10th Cir. 1992).
[FN22] Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted).
[FN23] Wheeler v. John Deere Co., 862 F.2d 1404, 1408 (10th Cir. 1988); Thomas v. Mitsubishi Motors Corp., No. 2:12-CV-1215-DB-PMW, 2014 WL 280495, at *5 (D. Utah Jan. 24, 2014); T.G. v. Remington Arms Co., No. 13-CV-0033-CVE-PJC, 2014 WL 2589443, at *3 (N.D. Okla. June 10, 2014).[21]

         Based on this interpretation of the case law, Judge Kohler proceeded to deny the motion to compel, reasoning as follows:

Here, Plaintiff's complaint focuses on one particular model of muzzleloading rifle, the Omega 0.50 Caliber Muzzleloading Rifle. Because of this, it is appropriate to conclude that discovery should be limited to information pertaining to similar incidents regarding this model of muzzleloading rifle, not other firearms. Thompson has appropriately provided information as to similar incidents involving the Omega 0.50 Caliber Muzzleloading Rifle in response to Interrogatory No. 9 and Request No. 4. Thompson's objections as to Plaintiff's demand for information pertaining to other firearm models in Interrogatory No. 4, Interrogatory No. 9, and Request No. 4 are sustained. Thompson will not be compelled to produce information as to any other model firearm. The Motion is denied [as] to these requests.[22]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         By statute and rule, any part of Judge Kohler's order that is “clearly erroneous or contrary to law” must be set aside.[23] “Because a magistrate judge is afforded broad discretion in the resolution of nondispositive discovery disputes, the court will overrule the magistrate judge's determination only if this discretion is clearly ...


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