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In re General Motors LLC Ignition Switch Litigation

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 5, 2017

IN RE GENERAL MOTORS LLC IGNITION SWITCH LITIGATION
v.
General Motors LLC, 14-CV-8317 (JMF) This Document Relates To: Ward

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JESSE M. FURMAN, United States District Judge

         [Regarding New GM's Thirty-Fifth and Thirty-Sixth Motions in Limine]

         The next bellwether trial in this multidistrict litigation (“MDL”), familiarity with which is presumed, involves claims brought under Arizona law by Plaintiff Dennis Ward against General Motors LLC (“New GM”) stemming from a March 27, 2014 accident in Tucson, Arizona, involving Ward's 2009 Chevrolet HHR. By Opinion and Order entered on June 9, 2017, the Court resolved five disputed motions in limine. (Docket No. 4065).[1] In this Memorandum Opinion and Order, the Court addresses two additional motions in limine that became fully briefed after the Court's earlier Opinion was filed: New GM's Thirty-Fifth Motion, which seeks to exclude certain evidence and argument concerning the recall of 2009 Chevrolet HHRs, which was announced the day after Ward's accident (Docket No. 4068); and New GM's Thirty-Sixth Motion, which seeks to preclude evidence concerning data received from the City of Tucson about the condition of the road upon which Ward was driving at the time of his accident. (Docket No. 4127). For the reasons stated below, New GM's motions are both GRANTED.

         A. New GM's Thirty-Fifth Motion in Limine

         New GM's Thirty-Fifth Motion in Limine seeks to exclude “evidence or argument about the availability of recall repair parts, the availability of loaner vehicles, and the sufficiency or adequacy of the recall notice and repair.” (Docket No. 4069 (“New GM's MIL 35 Mem.”), at 2). Upon review of the parties' motion papers, the motion is GRANTED, substantially for the reasons set forth in both the Court's Opinion and Order addressing a similar motion in limine in connection with the first bellwether trial, see In re General Motors LLC Ignition Switch Litig., 14-MD-2543 (JMF), 2015 WL 8270427, at *2-3 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 7, 2015), and New GM's memoranda of law here. (See New GM's MIL 35 Mem. 4-6; Docket No. 4135 (“New GM's MIL 35 Reply”), at 1-4). Put simply, nothing relating to the recall - except for its timeliness (or lack thereof), to which New GM's motion expressly does not apply (see New GM's MIL 35 Reply 1-2; Docket No. 4106 (“Ward's MIL 35 Opp'n”), at 2 n.4, 5 n.10) - is relevant to liability, as Ward's accident took place before the recall was announced. And while the adequacy of the recall could conceivably be relevant to the question of punitive damages, “any probative value with respect to punitive damages is slight and is substantially outweighed by the dangers of unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, and wasting time.” In re General Motors, 2015 WL 8270427, at *2 (citing Fed.R.Evid. 403); see also Phillip Morris USA v. Williams, 549 U.S. 346, 355 (2007) (noting that, while juries may consider harm to people other than the plaintiff in evaluating the “reprehensibility” of a defendant's conduct for purposes of punitive damages, “the Due Process Clause requires States to provide assurance that juries are not asking the wrong question, i.e., seeking, not simply to determine reprehensibility, but also to punish for harm caused strangers”). Accordingly, New GM's Thirty- Fifth Motion in Limine is GRANTED.[2]

         B. New GM's Thirty-Sixth Motion in Limine

         New GM's Thirty-Sixth Motion seeks to preclude, pursuant to Rule 37(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “evidence, testimony, and argument relating to the pavement condition data plaintiff collected from the City of Tucson.” (Docket No. 4127). The essential facts are not really in dispute. In late March of this year - over four months after fact discovery had closed (see Docket No. 3559, ¶ 6), and just before the depositions of New GM's experts - Ward requested and received from Tucson officials data relating to the pavement conditions for streets in Tucson, which showed that the condition of the roadway upon which Ward was driving at the time of his accident was rated “poor.” (Docket No. 4129 (“New GM's MIL 36 Mem.”), at 2-3). Ward's counsel used that information to formulate questions in depositions of New GM's expert witnesses days later, but did not disclose it to New GM at the time. (See Id. at 3-5). Almost two months later, in late May, Ward requested and received from Tucson officials a related, broader set of materials as well as the names of potential witnesses who could testify about the data. (See Id. at 5-6). By letter dated May 22, 2017, Ward disclosed his preliminary witness list to New GM, which included two witnesses pertaining to the pavement condition data: Michael Graham and Daryl Cole. (See Id. at 6; Docket No. 4131-1, at 1). Prompted by that information - the first disclosure of any kind regarding the pavement condition data and Ward's communications with the Tucson officials about that data - New GM contacted an attorney for Tucson and learned about Ward's investigative efforts. (See New GM's MIL 36 Mem. 6). On June 7, 2017, as part of the parties' exchange of “branded” trial exhibits, Ward finally disclosed to New GM material he had received from the Tucson officials - although, even then, apparently only a subset of the overall material. (See Id. at 6-7).

         Given these facts, Ward wisely concedes that he committed a discovery violation. (See Docket No. 4149 (“Ward's MIL 36 Opp'n”), at 1, 8). At a minimum, the data that he sought and obtained in March was plainly within the scope of New GM's earlier discovery requests (see New GM's MIL 36 Mem. 1-2), and was subject to prompt disclosure under Rule 26. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(a)(1)(A)(ii) (requiring disclosure of documents and data “that the disclosing party has in its possession, custody, or control and may use to support its claims”); Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(e)(1)(A) (requiring that a party supplement its disclosures in a timely manner should it discover that they were incorrect or incomplete). In the case of such a violation, Rule 37 provides that the offending party “is not allowed to use” the material or witness at issue at trial, “unless the failure was substantially justified or is harmless.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(c)(1). Despite the seemingly mandatory language of the Rule, however, preclusion is not mandatory. See, e.g., Design Strategy, Inc. v. Davis, 469 F.3d 284, 297-98 (2d Cir. 2006). Instead, a district court has “wide discretion” in deciding whether to impose sanctions and, if it does, what sanctions to impose. Id. at 294-98. In determining whether preclusion is warranted, a court must consider four factors: “(1) the party's explanation for the failure to comply with the disclosure requirement; (2) the importance of the [new evidence]; (3) the prejudice suffered by the opposing party as a result of having to prepare to meet the new [evidence]; and (4) the possibility of a continuance.” Patterson v. Balsamico, 440 F.3d 104, 117 (2d Cir. 2006); accord Design Strategy, 469 F.3d at 296.

         Applying and weighing the Patterson factors here, the Court concludes that preclusion of all evidence and testimony relating to the pavement condition data Ward collected from Tucson is indeed the appropriate sanction. The first factor - the offending party's explanation for the failure to comply with the disclosure requirement - “cuts heavily against [Ward], as he does not even attempt to proffer a legitimate explanation for his eleventh hour disclosure of” the material he received beginning in March. Simon v. City of N.Y., No. 14-CV-8391 (JMF), 2017 WL 57860, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 5, 2017). Ward tries to obscure his lack of justification by focusing on his comparatively swifter disclosure of the information he obtained in late May (see Ward's MIL 36 Opp'n 7-8), but that information was merely an extrapolation of the information he had obtained in March. Additionally, Rule 26 expressly provides that “[a] party is not excused from making its disclosures because it has not fully investigated the case.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(a)(1)(E). And given that trial was imminent, Ward's disclosure of the materials and information he received near the end of May was itself arguably untimely. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(e)(1)(A) (providing that a party must supplement its disclosures “in a timely manner”). He received the data or documents as early as May 22, 2017, but he did not begin disclosing them until June 7, 2017 (and even then, appears to have disclosed only a subset of the data and documents), when the parties were required to exchange “branded exhibits.” (See New GM's MIL 36 Mem. 5-7).[3] Granted, the delay in the disclosure of those materials was little more than two weeks, but every day counts in the final lead up to a trial, and Ward provides no explanation whatsoever for his failure to immediately disclose the information when he received it.

         Compounding matters, Ward provides no explanation for why he waited until months after fact discovery had closed in December 2016 to seek the evidence at issue. Ward knew (and certainly should have known) well before that deadline that the condition of the roadway was a potentially significant issue - given that he himself was involved in the accident and given evidence that some defective GM ignition switches had been prone to inadvertent rotation in rough road conditions. Yet, inexplicably, he waited until well after fact discovery closed, and the bulk of expert discovery was completed no less, to pursue it. Had Ward done so by way of subpoena, there is no question that New GM would have been on firm ground moving to quash - as an earlier decision by the Court in this very MDL (on a motion by Lead Counsel, no less) makes clear. See In re General Motors LLC, No. 14-MC-2543 (JMF), 2016 WL 2766654, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. May 12, 2016) (quashing a subpoena served by New GM after the close of discovery because it “did absolutely nothing to pursue the matter” for almost a year after it was on notice about the information sought). The fact that he obtained the material without having to serve a subpoena does not materially change the situation. “Put simply, deadlines matter - and they matter especially strongly in litigation of this size and complexity.” Id.; see also, e.g., In re World Trade Ctr. Disaster Site Litig., 722 F.3d 483, 487 (2d Cir. 2013) (noting that district courts' “responsibility to manage their dockets so as to achieve the orderly and expeditious disposition of cases . . . is particularly acute where the litigation is complex and continuing” (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted)). To allow Ward to use evidence that he did not even begin to seek until four months after fact discovery closed - and did not disclose for more than two months thereafter - “would suggest to the parties in this litigation that the Court's deadlines are merely hortatory or aspirational and not real deadlines. . . . [T]he Court is not willing to risk that possibility.” In re General Motors LLC, 2016 WL 2766654, at *2.

         The second Patterson factor - the importance of the evidence at issue - is a closer call. On the one hand, for the reason noted above - namely, that there is evidence that some defective GM ignition switches had been prone to inadvertent rotation in rough road conditions - the condition of the roadway at the time of Ward's accident is arguably significant. On the other hand, to quote from Lead Counsel's earlier motion to quash New GM's tardy subpoena, “if the records were so important, ” surely Ward “would have made sure that [he] had them during the discovery period.” (Docket No. 2819, at 3). Additionally, Ward can indisputably introduce other evidence - including his own testimony and the testimony of other percipient witnesses - concerning the condition of the roadway on the date of his accident. Indeed, Ward himself concedes throughout his memorandum of law that the evidence at issue is cumulative - if not unnecessary. (See Ward's MIL 36 Opp'n 1 (stating that the documents obtained in March merely “confirmed what several fact witnesses and New GM's own experts already knew - the roadway was in poor condition at the time of the accident”); id. at 8 (conceding that the documents “did not contain any information that was not known to the parties” as “fact witnesses testified that the road had been repaved since the accident” and “the investigation of New GM's experts independently revealed that the road conditions were poor at or near the time of the accident”); id. at 9 (noting that “fact witnesses remember Kolb Road was rough or bumpy on the date of the Ward accident” and that “New GM's own experts concluded, without the [Tucson] documents, that the road was in poor condition at or around the time of the accident”)). As a matter of fact, it is not even clear that the issue is in real dispute, as one of New GM's own experts agreed that the condition of the roadway at the time of Ward's accident was “fair to poor.” (New GM MIL 36 Mem. 4).[4] Thus, the second factor is a draw and may even cut against Ward; at best, it leans only slightly in his favor.

         The third Patterson factor - the prejudice suffered by New GM as a result of having to prepare to meet the new evidence - also supports preclusion. Among other things, Ward's belated disclosure deprived New GM of the opportunities to conduct an investigation into how the data was collected; to depose the person or persons responsible for the data to determine the bases for their arguably subjective judgments; to cross-examine percipient witnesses (including Ward) and Ward's experts using the material; to incorporate the material into New GM's own experts' analyses and trial preparation; and to consider retaining an additional expert on pavement condition analyses. Making matters worse, Ward used the material that he had secretly obtained in his cross-examination of New GM's experts (see New GM's MIL 36 Mem. 3-5), locking them in to testimony that, if he were allowed to use the Tucson data at trial, he could seek to impeach on the ground that they failed to consider (or did not contest) that data. Ward counters that, under the Court's scheduling orders, New GM was entitled to depose Graham and Cole as late as June 22, 2017. (Ward's MIL 36 Opp'n 5). That is true (see Docket No. 3651, ¶ 3(g)), but it does not suffice. For one thing, Cole and Graham were apparently not the people who collected the relevant data. (New GM's MIL 36 Reply 3-4 & n.5). For another, it does not address the other ways in which New GM would be prejudiced by allowing the belatedly disclosed evidence to be used at trial.

         The fourth and final Patterson factor requires little discussion, as Ward himself concedes that a continuance is inappropriate at this late date. (See Ward's MIL 36 Opp'n 10). But if that was true on June 27, 2017, when Ward filed his memorandum of law in opposition to New GM's motion, it is all the more true now: Trial is only five days away; both sides (and the Court) have invested enormous resources in preparing for trial and have arranged their schedules (and presumably witnesses' schedules) in light of the trial date; and prospective jurors have completed written questionnaires as part of the jury selection process. (See Docket No. 3651 ¶ 4). On top of that, this trial is no an ordinary trial; it is a “bellwether” trial in a large and complex MDL with many moving parts and participants. Putting aside the Court's commitments in connection with other cases, granting a continuance here would disrupt the carefully calibrated schedule in the MDL and have large secondary effects beyond this one member case.

         In short, all of the Patterson factors, save perhaps the second, favor preclusion of the evidence and testimony relating to the pavement condition data that Ward obtained from Tucson and belatedly produced. Weighing the factors together, preclusion is plainly the appropriate remedy for Ward's conceded discovery violation. In fact, even if the second factor leaned heavily in Ward's direction - and it does not - preclusion would be appropriate. For one thing, all three other factors favor exclusion. See, e.g., Design Strategy, 469 F.3d at 296-97 (holding that preclusion was appropriate - even though the evidence at issue “was essential” to the plaintiff's ability to prove lost profits - because the first, third, and fourth Patterson factors “all . . . weigh[ed] heavily in favor of exclusion”); Simon, 2017 WL 57860, at *6 (“[T]he mere fact that the evidence may be important is not sufficient to avoid preclusion where no explanation has been given for the delay.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). For another, the second and third factors are inversely correlated. Thus, the more critical the evidence at issue is to Ward's case, the more prejudice that New GM would suffer if the Court were to allow Ward to use it and, by extension, the more the third factor would favor preclusion. See ...


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