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Heinrich v. Master Craft Engineering, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Colorado

December 28, 2016

ERIC A. HEINRICH, Plaintiff,
MASTER CRAFT ENGINEERING, INC., a Michigan corporation, Defendant.


          PHILIP A. BRIMMER United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on the Motion for New Trial [Docket No. 323] filed by plaintiff Eric A. Heinrich. Plaintiff's sole basis for the motion is that defendant's closing argument was improper.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff brought this products liability case against defendant Master Craft Engineering, Inc. (“Master Craft”) and former defendants Auto Center Manufacturing Co. (“Auto Center”), Autocraft Manufacturing Co., Inc. (“Autocraft”), and Jeg's Automotive, Inc. (“Jeg's”). Mr. Heinrich was severely injured while attending an amateur drag race in Mesa County, Colorado.[1] When one of the race cars was spinning its tires in the so-called “burnout” area of the racetrack, a balance weight attached to the vehicle's flexplate[2] flew off and struck plaintiff in the leg. See Docket No. 128 at 2. Master Craft manufactured the flexplate in question. Id. at 7. Participants in the drag races were required to use a flexplate that complied with Specification 29.1 of the SFI Foundation, Inc. (“SFI Foundation”). Id. at 3. The SFI Foundation is a testing body for the performance automobile industry that establishes quality standards and conducts tests on flexplates and other motor vehicle parts that are used in racing. Id. at 2. Defendant marked the flexplate in question “NON SFI” to indicate that it was not SFI Foundation approved. Id. at 4-5. Master Craft sold the flexplate to Autocraft, who in turn sold it to Jeg's. Id. at 7.

         After Jeg's sent a comparable model of flexplate, but one that did not have a balance weight, to the SFI Foundation and received SFI certification, Jeg's affixed SFI certification stickers over the words NON SFI on the Master Craft flexplate. Docket No. 128 at 8. The effect of doing so was to conceal the words NON SFI. The person who purchased the flexplate that caused plaintiff's injury testified that he most likely would not have purchased the flexplate if he knew about the NON SFI stamp on it. Before trial, plaintiff reached settlements with Auto Center, Autocraft, and Jeg's. See Docket Nos. 200, 275.

         In his amended complaint, plaintiff alleged claims against Master Craft for strict products liability, Docket No. 64 at 18, negligence, id. at 19, breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, id. at 26, and breach of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. Id. at 27. After a seven-day trial in Grand Junction, Colorado, the jury returned a verdict for Master Craft on all claims. See Docket No. 311. On September 8, 2016, plaintiff filed his motion for a new trial. Docket No. 323.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) provides that “[t]he Court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues - and to any party . . . after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). A motion for a new trial may be granted on any error, so long as “the district court concludes the ‘claimed error substantially and adversely' affected the party's rights.” Henning v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 530 F.3d 1206, 1217 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Sanjuan v. IBP, Inc., 160 F.3d 1291, 1297 (10th Cir. 1998)).

         Closing arguments “may be forceful, colorful, or dramatic, without constituting reversible error, ” Whittenburg v. Werner Enterprises Inc., 561 F.3d 1122, 1133 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting Chicago & N.W. Ry. Co. v. Kelly, 84 F.2d 569, 576 (8th Cir. 1936)); however, “[i]t is not the function of closing argument to debase, degrade or impugn the veracity of a litigant or opposing counsel.” Id. at 1130 (internal quotation marks omitted). Instead, counsel's remarks during closing arguments are “required to be confined to the evidence admitted in the case and reasonable inferences drawn therefrom.” Lambert v. Midwest City Mem'l Hosp. Auth., 671 F.2d 372, 375 (10th Cir. 1982). Only when counsel “truly overemphasizes an improper argument” during closing is there “the requisite prejudice [to] order a new trial.” King v. PA Consulting Grp., Inc., 485 F.3d 577, 591 (10th Cir. 2007).

         Plaintiff did not make a contemporaneous objection during defendant's closing argument and acknowledges that the Court therefore applies a “plain error” standard of review. Docket No. 323 at 1; see also Angelo v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 11 F.3d 957, 962 (10th Cir. 1993) (“[A] party may not wait and see whether the verdict is favorable before deciding to object.” (quoting Computer Sys. Eng'g, Inc. v. Qantel Corp., 740 F.2d 59, 69 (1st Cir.1984))). “The ‘plain error' exception in civil cases has been limited to errors which seriously affect ‘the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.'” Glenn v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 32 F.3d 1462, 1464 (10th Cir. 1994) (quoting McEwen v. City of Norman, 926 F.2d 1539, 1545 (10th Cir. 1991)). Such a substantial adverse impact can result from the cumulative effect of multiple errors that would not individually warrant a new trial. Whittenburg, 561 F.3d at 1131.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff argues that defense counsel made multiple statements during closing arguments that constitute plain error. Docket No. 323 at 2. Specif ically, plaintiff contends that defense counsel (1) “made numerous statements about SFI Foundation, Inc. (SFI), for which there is no evidence in the record, ” id. at 2-4; (2) “attempted to wrongfully prejudice the jury against Mr. Heinrich and his claims by making fictional statements about Jegs, for which there is no evidence in the record, ” id. at 5-6; (3) made “wrongful comments about opposing counsel and Mr. Heinrich, ” id. at 7-8; (4) “misstated the legal doctrine of foreseeability, ” id. at 8-9; and (5) “wrongfully implied that the jury could assess damages against Jegs and Auto Craft.” Id. at 9. The Court will examine these statements individually and then determine whether those comments found to be improper constitute plain error in the context of the argument as a whole and warrant a new trial. See, e.g., Whittenburg, 561 F.3d at 1133 (“In so concluding, however, we underscore that our decision is not based on any one of these factors singly, but rather their combination after considering the argument as a whole.”); Draper v. Airco, Inc., 580 F.2d 91, 97 (3d Cir. 1978) (“In reaching this decision, we do not rely on any of the individual instances or types of impropriety. Rather, we have assessed the argument as a whole.”).

         A. Statements Regarding SFI

         Plaintiff argues that it was improper for defense counsel to apply the “SFI” acronym as an adjective in describing various things. Specifically, plaintiff argues, “[t]here is no such thing, and there was no evidence of, an ‘SFI certified race, ' an ‘SFI certified vehicle, ' an ‘SFI approved and sanctioned race, ' an ‘SFI race, ' an ‘SFI track, ' an ‘SFI environment, ' an ‘SFI certified race, ' or an ‘SFI certified event.'” Docket No. 323 at 4. Plaintiff claims these statements “would lead the jury to wrongly believe that Master Craft is not liable because someone else, such as Jegs, violated SFI rules, regulations or standards pertaining to an SFI vehicle, an SFI certified race, an SFI certified vehicle, an SFI approved and sanctioned race, an SFI track and the like.” Id. Plaintiff also argues that it was ...

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