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Quilez-Velar v. Ox Bodies, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

May 9, 2016

BERARDO A. QUILEZ-VELAR; MARTA BONELLI-CABAN; BERARDO A. QUILEZ-BONELLI; CARLOS A. QUILEZ-BONELLI, Plaintiffs, Appellants/Cross-Appellees,
v.
OX BODIES, INC., Defendant, Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

APPEALS FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO Hon. Silvia L. Carreño-Coll, U.S. Magistrate Judge

José Luis Ubarri, with whom David W. Román and Ubarri & Roman Law Office were on brief, for appellants.

John M. Roche, with whom Kevin S. Taylor, Arron Nesbitt, Taylor Anderson, LLP, Francisco J. Colon-Pagan, Francisco E. Colon-Ramirez, and Colón & Colón, P.S.C. were on brief, for appellee.

Before Lynch, Selya, and Lipez, Circuit Judges.

LYNCH, Circuit Judge.

This diversity case arose from the death of Maribel Quilez-Bonelli following an automobile accident involving Maribel's Jeep Liberty and a truck in use by Municipality of San Juan employees that had fitted onto its trash body an underride guard designed by Ox Bodies, Inc. ("Ox Bodies"). Maribel's family members brought suit in federal court against Ox Bodies, seeking damages for, inter alia, defective design of the underride guard. A jury found Ox Bodies strictly liable for defective design and awarded the plaintiffs damages totaling $6, 000, 000. By special verdict form, the jury assigned 20% of responsibility for the damages to Ox Bodies, 80% to the Municipality of San Juan, which was not a party in the suit, and 0% to Maribel. The presiding magistrate judge ruled that judgment should enter on the strict liability claim in favor of the plaintiffs and that under Puerto Rico law, Ox Bodies should be held responsible only for 20% of the damages award, which equaled $1, 200, 000. This appeal and cross-appeal followed.

Ox Bodies appeals the verdict, contending that the court should not have allowed the plaintiffs' expert to testify on an alternative underride guard design, and that absent such testimony, no reasonable jury could have found for the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs appeal the order limiting their recovery, arguing that under Puerto Rico law Ox Bodies should be held "jointly and severally liable to the plaintiff[s] for the totality of the damages" -- the entire $6, 000, 000 award -- such that "the risk of loss of having to pay the entire judgment without obtaining contribution is borne by the defendant joint tortfeasor, not by the plaintiffs."

We affirm the court's decision to admit the plaintiffs' expert's testimony and so reject Ox Bodies' appeal. On the plaintiffs' appeal, in the absence of clear Puerto Rico law, we certify to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court the question of the extent of Ox Bodies' liability for the damages award.

I.

On October 1, 2010, Maribel Quilez-Bonelli, a then 28-year-old married woman and mother, was driving on a highway overpass near the city of San Juan in a 2004 Jeep Liberty with her toddler son when her Jeep collided with a stopped or slowly moving truck in use by Municipality of San Juan employees. The truck bore an underride guard near its rear that had been designed by Ox Bodies. The front of Maribel's Jeep hit the truck from behind and underrode the truck's trash body such that the truck penetrated the Jeep's passenger compartment and struck Maribel, lacerating her head and face. Maribel died from resulting injuries on October 6, 2010.

Maribel's family members, Berardo A. Quilez-Velar, Marta Bonelli-Caban, Berardo A. Quilez-Bonelli, and Carlos A. Quilez-Bonelli[1] (collectively "Quilez"), brought suit in a Puerto Rico court and in federal court.[2] In a Puerto Rico trial court, Quilez filed an amended complaint on November 1, 2011, alleging negligence and seeking damages from, inter alia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority, Integrand Assurance Company ("Integrand"), and the Municipality of San Juan. The Municipality of San Juan and Integrand brought a third-party complaint for indemnification or contribution against, inter alia, Ox Bodies and its parent company, Truck Bodies & Equipment International, Inc. On May 16, 2014, the Municipality of San Juan, through its insurer, deposited with the Puerto Rico court its maximum policy limit, $500, 000, for potential distribution if found liable. The Puerto Rico court ordered that the funds be distributed to the plaintiffs and dismissed the Municipality of San Juan from suit. Quilez expressly represented to this court that "[n]o settlement agreement was ever executed and [Quilez] granted no release [to] or assumed any liability" from the Municipality of San Juan or its insurer. Ox Bodies conceded this point at oral argument, no document in the record establishes otherwise, and so we accept Quilez's representation.

On March 20, 2013, Quilez filed an amended complaint in its diversity action in federal district court against Ox Bodies, its parent company, and other defendants, for defective design and negligence under Puerto Rico law. Ox Bodies and its parent company brought a third-party claim for contribution and/or indemnification against, inter alia, the Municipality of San Juan. On May 16, 2014, the Municipality of San Juan notified the federal court that it had deposited $500, 000 that day with the Puerto Rico court. On September 4, 2014, the federal court dismissed the Municipality of San Juan from the suit, without objection from Ox Bodies. Quilez-Velar v. Ox Bodies, Inc., No. CIV. 12-1780, 2014 WL 4385418, at *2, *3 (D.P.R. Sept. 4, 2014), reconsideration denied, No. CIV. 12-1780, 2014 WL 4656649 (D.P.R. Sept. 17, 2014). At the time of this appeal, the only remaining defendant is Ox Bodies.

On January 26, 2015, Ox Bodies filed a pre-trial motion in limine to exclude the testimony of Quilez's expert, Perry Ponder, arguing that "Mr. Ponder's report is devoid of any scientific analysis or calculations that would support" his conclusion that his proposed alternative underride guard design "would have been [a] safer design in the instant accident, " and that his opinions should be excluded under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).[3] Ox Bodies supported its motion with excerpts from Ponder's deposition and expert report, but it did not request that Ponder testify at a Daubert hearing.[4] Quilez opposed the motion.

After reviewing both parties' submissions and relevant discovery materials, the magistrate judge, presiding pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636, denied the motion to exclude Ponder's testimony. Quilez-Velarv.Ox Bodies, Inc., No. CIV. 12-1780, 2015 WL 418151, at *7 (D.P.R. Feb. 1, 2015). The magistrate judge acknowledged Ox Bodies' argument that Ponder "did not perform specific tests or calculations in the course of his analysis, " but found, first, that Ox Bodies failed to "show that these specific tests must have been carried out to provide a foundation for Ponder's opinions, " ...


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