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NEW YORK CENTRAL MUTUAL FIRE INS. CO. v. WHIRLPOOL CORP.

June 10, 2005.

NEW YORK CENTRAL MUTUAL FIRE INSURANCE COMPANY as subrogee of John and Faye Espersen, Plaintiff,
v.
WHIRLPOOL CORPORATION, LG ELECTRONICS, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HUGH SCOTT, Magistrate Judge

Order

Before the Court is plaintiff's motion to compel and for extension of time to submit plaintiff's expert disclosure (Docket No. 24). This case was referred for disposition of pretrial matters on February 5, 2004 (Docket No. 3).

BACKGROUND

  This action is a property damage claim arising from a fire in a microwave oven-hood unit in subrogors John and Faye Espersen's house in February 2002. The Espersens subrogated this claim to plaintiff insurer New York Central Mutual. The Amended Scheduling Order applicable to this case required plaintiff to "identify any expert witnesses through interrogatories pursuant to Fed.R. Civ. P. 26(b)(4)" by February 28, 2005 (Docket No. 7, Order of Apr. 8, 2004).

  Plaintiff posed interrogatories to defendants, seeking complaints regarding fires involving microwave ovens and hood combinations identical or similar to defendants' unit; lawsuits against defendants surrounding such equipment; and a list of investigations and recalls by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission or other state or federal agencies regarding microwave oven-hood combination fires. (Docket No. 24, Pl. Atty. Aff. Ex. E, Interrogs. Nos. 4, 5, 6.) Defendants objected to answering these interrogatories because they believed they were overbroad and not focused on the cause of the fire. They claim that the accident occurred because of a power surge at the Espersen's house, that the microwave oven had its power cord cut and was hard wired to the household wiring. They complained that plaintiff did not identify the system, feature or component in the microwave oven-hood combination that caused the fire. Such an identification would enable defendants to identify "similar" incidents. (Docket No. 26, Def. Memo. of Law at 5-7.)

  Defendants argued that plaintiff did not object to their not answering one of the interrogatories (asking about recalls and governmental agency actions) prior to making this motion. In order for plaintiff to inquire into other product liability instances or cases, plaintiff needed to show that the other cases were similar and to do this plaintiff needed to identify the cause of this fire in defendants' product. Plaintiff counters that it needs only prove a circumstantial evidence case and that it could obtain discovery about similar units (Docket No. 24, Pl. Memo. at 5). Defendants identified the product number for the microwave oven-hood combination in the Espersen's house.

  Plaintiff replies that the defendants' failure to respond to discovery constitutes good cause for extension of the time to file expert disclosure (Docket No. 31, Pl. Reply Memo. at 2-4). Defendants then filed a sur-reply, with documents filed under seal, indicating their inability to identify "similar" devices as the microwave-hood combination at issue here (Docket Nos. 35-38). Plaintiff relied upon Underwriters Laboratories' definition to identify "similar" units to plaintiff's device; defendants contend, however, that Underwriters Laboratories has a broader definition than they do regarding what is "similar" to plaintiff's device.

  The Orders scheduling briefing for this motion also stayed discovery deadlines pending argument of the motion. (Docket Nos. 28, 30.)

  DISCUSSION

  I. Motion to Compel

  "Parties may obtain discovery regarding any matter, not privileged, that is relevant to the claim or defense of any party, including the existence, description, nature, custody, condition, and location of any books, documents, or other tangible things and the identity and location of persons having knowledge of any discoverable matter." Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). Failure to produce and compelling the opponent to seek an order compelling discovery exposes the party (and/or its attorney) to sanctions. See generally id. R. 37.

  The Court grants in part plaintiff's motion, to allow production of information about the particular model number that was in the Espersens' home.

  II. Sanctions

  The relief available when a party fails to respond to a discovery demand is the Order to compel and sanctions of the reasonable costs associated with the motion to compel, Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a)(2)(B), (4)(A). Under Rule 37(a)(4)(C), if a motion to compel is granted in part and denied in part, the Court, after affording an opportunity to be heard, apportions the reasonable expense incurred in relation to the motion among the parties in a just manner. Plaintiff identified nine other model numbers that may be "similar" to the Espersens' unit (see Docket No. 31, Pl. Memo. at 7). ...


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