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Claims in products case should go to jury

Three workers injured in a 2010 explosion while cleaning up aluminum dust in a Blacksburg auto-parts plant will get a chance to take their claims to a jury after a federal appeals court reversed summary judgment for the defendants.

A Roanoke trial judge erred in finding that one of the workers was not credible when he described seeing a bright “flash” and a “fireball” at the time of the incident. That testimony was a key piece of evidence in support of the plaintiffs’ theory that the fire originated outside of the facility.

Jeffrey S. Hodges, Tommy Lee Bonds and John Paul Spangler sued for $11 million, targeting the plant owner, Federal-Mogul Corp., and companies that designed and equipped a plant system designed to collect the highly combustible aluminum dust.

Roanoke U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski decided that the plaintiffs’ experts fell short in their efforts to explain an external origin of the blaze. He granted a defense motion to exclude plaintiffs’ experts under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharma, Inc. and awarded summary judgment to the defendants. On July 8, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision.

Urbanski rejected the origin opinions’ heavy reliance on deposition testimony by Hodges, who testified that he recalled a damper door in the plant’s system being hinged in the middle, allowing him to observe a fireball coming toward him. It was undisputed, however, that the damper door actually hinged at the top, casting doubt on whether Hodges could have seen over the top of the door. The expert’s reliance on Hodges’ testimony indicated the origin opinions were premised on “advocacy” rather than “on scientific methodology,” the district judge said.

The 4th Circuit disagreed, saying it was “satisfied that Hodges’ evidence regarding the fire’s origin was not physically impossible and thus should have been credited for summary judgment purposes.”

Hodges “wavered and qualified” his description of the damper door’s configuration, the panel said, and in fact his testimony about the door hinge was “inconsistent.”

“Hodges was most assuredly unsure about the damper door’s configuration, and his testimony could not be rejected as a matter of law,” the panel wrote in its unpublished per curiam opinion in Hodges v. Federal-Mogul Corp.

And even if he was mistaken about the door’s configuration, the door was propped open by several inches of dust and Hodges could have seen the “flash” and “fireball” through openings around the door, the panel said.

Hodges’ testimony was enough to create a factual issue on whether the fire started outside the facility, and the district court “erred by assessing Hodges’ credibility and rejecting his evidence at the summary judgment stage,” the 4th Circuit said.

Urbanski’s opinion did not assess whether the sum of the plaintiffs’ evidence, including Hodges’ testimony, could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that any defendant proximately caused the plaintiffs’ injuries, and the panel said the district court should address proximate cause on remand, in addition to taking a fresh look at its exclusion of the experts’ origin opinions.

Attorneys for the three injured workers said the 4th Circuit signaled the importance of allowing a jury to determine witness credibility.

“The 4th Circuit seems to be saying that decision should be made by a jury,” said P. Brent Brown of Salem.

“Summary judgment is not an invitation to cut short litigation that otherwise ought to go to a jury,” added E. Kyle McNew of Charlottesville, who argued the case on appeal. Besides Brown and McNew, Neal S. Johnson of Roanoke represented the plaintiffs.

“The defendants are considering their options for further appellate review,” said Monica T. Monday of Roanoke, counsel for defendant Federal-Mogul Inc.

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