Category Archives: Evidence

Scott Brooksby will be a featured speaker at the 2016 International Air and Transportation Safety Bar Association Conference in Washington, DC

Scott Brooksby will be speaking at the 2016 International Air and Transportation Safety Bar Association Conference April 28 – April 30, 2016, in Washington, DC.  He will be speaking with other distinguished panelists, including James Rodriguez from the national Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) regarding “Obtaining Testimony from the NTSB”.

Scott Brooksby practices aviation and product liability defense.  He is an experienced trial lawyer who has defended businesses, manufacturers, and organizations in many personal injury and and commercial cases. He has defended and counseled product manufacturers and distributors in a variety of industries including aviation, drugs and medical devices, toys and recreational products, paints and solvents, power tools, heavy equipment and machinery, retail, food, consumer products, and automobiles. He is the former co-chair of a large West Coast law firm’s product liability practice group.

Scott has tried numerous personal injury and product liability cases in Oregon state and federal courts.

In cases that do not necessitate a trial, Scott is a skilled negotiator who has resolved hundreds of cases through arbitration and mediation. He has successfully argued many motions that resulted in the dismissal of claims, or outright dismissal of his client. He also has experience counseling product liability clients regarding the avoidance of litigation, handling product recalls, product modifications, and unwanted governmental intervention.

Scott has litigated everything from small defective product claims to catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases involving punitive damages.  He has experience with medical treatment issues that result from falls, burns and amputation injuries in manufacturing facilities.

As one of the few lawyers in Oregon with significant aviation experience, Scott has litigated helicopter and plane crash cases, as well as aviation component part product liability claims.  Scott was co-counsel on a team that defended a large aviation product manufacturer in a months-long trial.

Federal Discovery and Admissiblity of Evidence of Prior Incidents in Product Liability Cases

Plaintiffs may achieve higher verdicts in product liability trials when there is evidence of prior claims establishing that the manufacturer had notice of the alleged defect in design, manufacture, or warning.  Therefore, in product liability litigation, most plaintiffs request discovery concerning prior claims, or incidents that did not give rise to formal claims, that are in any way related to the product.  For instance, a plaintiff’s lawyer might issue a broad discovery request for anything concerning prior incidents of any kind related to the model of product at issue or any version of that model.  Even more common and problematic are so-called “product line” requests that seek evidence of prior claims related to a broad range of allegedly similar products or similar models.

Requests for production concerning prior incidents might be routine for large companies that have large, sophisticated in-house legal teams and are likely to have storage, retrieval, and document retention policies, but such requests can be a terrible disruption for small businesses that may not have systems in place to handle aggressive discovery in litigation.

But no matter what size your client is, you should be prepared for a request for production seeking evidence of prior incidents and prior claims.  You should have discussions with your product liability clients early on in the case about the product’s incident and claim history, as well as potential discovery requests.

The first part of this article will discuss whether requests concerning prior incidents are actually discoverable.  We will discuss defense tactics for responding to requests for discovery concerning prior incidents, as well as representative cases from different U.S. federal court jurisdictions concerning discovery.

The second part of this article will discuss whether, even if discoverable, the evidence concerning prior incidents is ultimately admissible.  We will discuss strategies for preventing admission of evidence concerning prior incidents, as well as representative cases from different U.S. federal court jurisdictions concerning admissibility.    

Finally, the third part of this article will discuss strategies for assisting clients with the difficult process of discovery requests for evidence of prior incidents.

I. Whether requests concerning prior incidents are actually discoverable.

A. Defense tactics for responding to requests for discovery concerning prior incidents.

There is no single method for successfully defending against discovery requests for evidence concerning prior incidents.  Unfortunately, U.S. federal courts treat each case differently and, as explained below, various jurisdictions have different standards for the discovery of evidence of prior incidents.

That said, the facts and circumstances of each case are important, and any good defense will involve distinguishing the specific facts of your case from cases where the court allowed discovery.  Consider, for example, the distinguishing facts of the products, conditions, and intended uses at issue, particularly if you have a technical case.

Consider hiring an expert as early as possible and using your expert to assist you with defending against discovery requests.  Your can submit an affidavit from your expert explaining the differences between the incident involved in your case and the prior incidents.  The more technical your case, the more likely your expert will be useful and will be able to draw distinctions that the plaintiff is not prepared for.  An example of this might be important engineering differences in the product at issue versus the products involved in the discovery that plaintiff requests.

B. Representative cases from different U.S. federal court jurisdictions concerning discovery.

1) Discovery of evidence concerning prior incidents is generally allowed in                           federal court under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1).

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) is broad and provides that discovery may be obtained as long as it is “relevant” and “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.”  The advisory committee notes to Rule 26 provide that, “A variety of types of information not directly pertinent . . . could be relevant to the claims or defenses raised in a given action.  For example, other incidents of the same type, or involving the same product, could be properly discoverable . . . .”  Fed. R. Civ. P. 26 advisory committee’s note, 2000 amend., subdiv. (b)(1).

In Kozlowski v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 73 F.R.D. 73, 75 (D. Mass. 1976), the court underscored how broad discovery can be in federal products cases when it noted that, “most courts have held that the existence and nature of other complaints in product liability cases is a proper subject for pretrial discovery.”

2) Some jurisdictions (the Eighth Circuit, the Northern District of California, Kansas,       the Southern District of Indiana, Maryland, and the Western District  of                 Pennsylvania) require a threshold showing of relevance before the discovery is                   permitted.  After a threshold showing of relevance, the burden shifts to the                           defendant to demonstrate that any relevance is outweighed by the harm that would             result from the evidence being admitted. 

The ambiguous nature of the term “relevance” illustrates the problematic nature of the discovery phase of a lot of product liability claims.  Plaintiffs will make requests for “other incidents of the same type” or “other incidents involving” the product (or products, i.e., “all washing machines manufactured by defendant”) at issue or prior incidents with “similar circumstances”.

Some jurisdictions will require a “threshold showing of relevance” before evidence of prior incidents will be discoverable.  See, e.g., Hofer v. Mack Trucks, Inc., 981 F.2d 377, 380 (8th Cir. 1992) (“Some threshold showing of relevance must be made before parties are required to open wide the doors of discovery and to produce a variety of information which does not reasonably bear upon the issues in the case.”); Barcenas v. Ford Motor Co., 2004 WL 2827249, *2 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 9, 2004) (quoting with approval Hofer’s requirement of the threshold showing of relevance); McCoy v. Whirlpool Corp., 214 F.R.D. 642, 643 (D. Kan. 2003) (requiring that the discovery appear “relevant on its face”); Chavez v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 206 F.R.D. 615, 619 (S.D. Ind. 2002) (the discovery must first appear to be relevant, and then “the party resisting the discovery has the burden to establish the lack of relevance by demonstrating that the requested discovery is of such marginal relevance that the potential harm occasioned by discovery would outweigh the ordinary presumption in favor of broad disclosure.”); Tucker v. Ohtsu Tire & Rubber Co., 191 F.R.D. 495, 497 (D. Md. 2000) (“even though it relates to a light truck tire, not a passenger tire as is at issue here, the plaintiffs have established threshold relevance, as required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1) and Fed. R. Evid. 401.”); Swain v. General Motors Corp., 81 F.R.D. 698, 700 (W.D. Pa. 1979), (where the plaintiff met the “prima facie showing” of relevance to support his discovery request for evidence “concerning prior motor mounts” that allegedly failed in his vehicle).

3) Some jurisdictions (the Western District of Michigan, the Eastern District of                     Louisiana, and the Southern District of New York) require that prior incidents be “similar” to the incident that gave rise to the underlying case before allowing the discovery of evidence of prior incidents.  Whether the prior incidents are “similar” depends on the particular court and the facts and circumstances. 

Most jurisdictions generally do not apply the “substantially similar test”—requiring that the conditions of past incidents be substantially similar to those in the underlying case—until the admissibility phase.  However, some jurisdictions do require some amount similarity between the prior incidents and the incident that gave rise to the underlying case before allowing discovery.

For example, in Lohr v. Stanley–Bostitch, Inc., 135 F.R.D. 162, 164 (W.D. Mich. 1991), the court explained that, at the discovery phase, the circumstances surrounding prior incidents must be “similar enough”.  By contrast, at the admissibility phase, “Evidence of similar accidents is admissible so long as the conditions in effect during the past incidents are ‘substantially similar’ to those at the time of the incident in question and the two events arise from the same cause.”  Id. (internal citation omitted).

In State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Black & Decker, Inc., 2003 WL 103016, *4 (E.D. La. Jan. 9, 2003), the court applied a “sufficiently similar” test and explained that, “In product liability actions it is frequently difficult to judge which of a manufacturer’s products are sufficiently similar to the allegedly defective product to be subject to discovery.”  As in Lohr, the Eastern District of Louisiana court in State Farm distinguished the less-stringent similarity standard for the discovery phase from the “substantially similar” standard applied to the admissibility phase.  State Farm, 2003 WL 103016 at *4 (quoting Lohr, 135 F.R.D. at 163).

In Fine v. Facet Aerospace Products Co., 133 F.R.D. 439, 441, 443 (S.D.N.Y. 1990), the Southern District of New York explained that the prior incidents must be “sufficiently similar” in order to meet the “threshold showing of relevance”.  The court explained that, if the models of product in the prior incidents are different from the one at issue in the underlying case, discovery may be allowed if the models involved in the prior incidents “share with the accident-causing model those characteristics pertinent to the legal issues raised in the litigation.  For example, where a plaintiff alleged that three-wheel all-terrain vehicles are inherently unstable, he was entitled to discovery with respect to each of the manufacturer’s models.”  Id. (citing Culligan v. Yamaha Motor Corp., 110 F.R.D. 122, 124, 126 (S.D.N.Y. 1986)).

A court may require expert testimony to support the showing that the prior incidents were “sufficiently similar”, particularly when there are technical issues that require more knowledge than a lay person.  In Fine, the court explained that the plaintiff may have been allowed discovery if it had proffered “the affidavit of an expert in aviation engineering.”  Id. at 443.  Because plaintiff did not proffer any such expert testimony, the court denied the plaintiff’s motion to compel discovery concerning alternative designs for planes.  Id. at 443.

4) In the discovery phase, a few of jurisdictions (the Northern District of                               California, the Northern District of Illinois, and the District of New Mexico)                             have applied the more stringent “substantially similar” test that most courts do                     not apply until the admissibility phase. 

In a few jurisdictions, the plaintiff bears the burden of showing that prior incidents involving different products are “substantially similar” before discovery will be allowedFor example, not only has the Northern District of California required a threshold showing of relevance before allowing discovery concerning prior incidents, but it has also required plaintiffs to show “that the different products are substantially similar . . . .”  Barcenas, 2004 WL 2827249 at *3

In Piacenti v. General Motors Corp., 173 F.R.D. 221, 225-26 (N.D. Ill. 1997),  the court held that the plaintiff failed to establish that a different model of vehicle was “substantially similar” and denied the plaintiff’s motion to compel.  The court explained that, “allowing discovery of models that are not substantially similar to the model at issue is truly the equivalent of comparing apples and oranges where there are differences between the other models and the model at issue in terms of wheelbase, width, and center of gravity.”  Id. at 225.  The court further stated that discovery concerning similar models should only be allowed if “the similar models have the same component parts or defects”.  Id.

In Gonzales v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., the court noted that the “substantially similar” test applies if the plaintiff “seeks to discover or to introduce evidence of the design, testing or performance of other similar products . . . . .”  No. CIV 05–941 BB/LFG, 2006 WL 7290047, slip op., *7-9 (D.N.M., Aug. 10, 2001) (italics added).

Expert testimony may be helpful for both sides in these cases, but such testimony must be more than “conclusory.”  For example, in Piacenti, the court denied the plaintiff’s motion to compel answers to interrogatories and its supplemental request for production concerning evidence regarding other vehicle models manufactured by the defendant.  173 F.R.D. at 222.  The denial was without prejudice so that an expert opinion could be filed stating that the models “are sufficiently similar to the Suzuki Samurai [so] that tests performed on the Samurai would be relevant in determining liability with respect to the Geo Tracker [the plaintiff’s vehicle].”  Id.  Although the plaintiff submitted expert affidavits, the court found that they consisted of only “conclusory” statements as compared to the defendant’s expert affidavits, which were more detailed.  Id. at 225.  Therefore, the court ultimately disallowed discovery relating to models other than the one at issue in the lawsuit.  Id. at 225-26.

II. Whether, even if discoverable, the evidence concerning prior incidents is ultimately admissible.

A. Strategies for preventing admission of evidence concerning prior incidents.

As with requests for discovery, there is no silver bullet to fight against requests for the admissibility of evidence concerning prior incidents.  However, because the requirements for admissibility can generally be more stringent than the requirements for discovery, it is almost always worth fighting the admissibility of evidence of prior incidents.

You will be better prepared to fight against the admissibility of prior incidents if you hire your expert early in the case.  Prepare your expert to distinguish your case from evidence of any prior incidents that plaintiff might seek to admit at trial.  Expert testimony will almost always be helpful to distinguish your case from the prior incidents.  A good plaintiff’s lawyer will have an expert who will try to show that the prior incidents are similar to the case at issue.  Prepare for this early by ensuring that your expert is familiar with the product and with any evidence of prior incidents that plaintiff will seek to admit.  Make sure that your expert’s opinions are based on detail and technical knowledge and that they are not conclusory.

The value of the case may be significantly affected if the evidence of prior incidents is admitted.  It is always beneficial to know early on in the case whether the evidence will be admitted and the ways in which that can affect the case value.  Therefore, try to file your motions in limine early on in the case to prevent the admissibility of evidence of prior incidents.  Litigators generally wait too long to do motions in limine, e.g., we wait until the federal court deadline, just prior to the trial.  Consider filing motions in limine early on, especially in a technical case or if you feel that the evidence of prior incidents could really hurt you in front of the factfinder.

B. Representative cases from different U.S. federal court jurisdictions concerning admissibility.    

1) In most jurisdictions, evidence of prior incidents is generally admissible as long as the other incidents are “substantially similar” to the incident in the case at hand. 

Evidence of prior incidents is generally admissible as long as the plaintiff demonstrates that the other incidents are “substantially similar” to the incident in the case at hand.  Cooper v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 945 F.2d 1103, 1105 (9th Cir. 1991).  See also Albee v. Contl. Tire N.A., Inc., 2010 WL 1729092, *6 (E.D. Cal. Apr. 27, 2010) (internal citations and some quotation marks omitted) (“The Ninth Circuit has repeatedly held      that . . . ‘substantial similarity is required when a plaintiff attempts to introduce evidence of other accidents as direct proof of negligence, a design defect, or notice of the defect.’  Minor or immaterial dissimilarity does not prevent admissibility.” ); Steede v. General Motors, LLC, 2013 WL 142484, *9 (W.D. Tenn. Jan. 11, 2013) (“the Sixth Circuit has recognized the substantial similarity doctrine and held, for example, that evidence of prior accidents is admissible to prove a defect so long as the prior accidents involved the same model, design, and defect, and occurred under similar circumstances”).

What is “substantially similar” will be determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on your jurisdiction.

For example, in Ramos v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 615 F.2d 334, 338 (5th  Cir.), modified on other grounds, 620 F.2d 464 (5th Cir. 1980), the plaintiff sought to admit evidence of a prior incident involving the collapse of an oil rig mast.  The court ultimately found that the prior incident was substantially similar.  It explained that, “Evidence of similar accidents might be relevant to the defendant’s notice, magnitude of the danger involved, the defendant’s ability to correct a known defect, the lack of safety for intended uses, strength of a product, the standard of care, and causation.”  Id. at 338-39.  The court found that evidence of the prior collapse could be relevant to show “notice of the defect, its ability to correct the defect, the mast’s safety under foreseeable conditions, the strength of the mast, and, most especially, causation.”  Id. at 339.

The court also stated that the admissibility of evidence of prior incidents concerning a product “depends upon whether the conditions operating to produce the prior failures were substantially similar to the occurrence in question.  The requirement that the prior accident not have occurred at too remote a time is a special qualification of the rule requiring similarity of conditions.”  Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

A plaintiff may use expert testimony to assist with its burden to show that the prior incidents are “substantially similar” and a defendant may use expert testimony to show that the prior incidents are substantially dissimilar.  Id. at 339-340.  See also Haynes v. Am. Motors Corp., 691 F.2d 1268, 1271–72 (8th Cir. 1982) (the defendant’s expert testified concerning dissimilarities between two different models of Jeeps and the court ultimately excluded evidence from the operator’s manual of the non-subject model).

Evidence concerning prior incidents may also be admissible because it is relevant “to show a culpable state of mind on the part of the defendant, e.g., persevering in a refusal to provide available safety features on a product despite knowledge of other similar accidents.”  Gonzales, 2006 WL 7290047 at *6 (citing Smith v. Ingersoll–Rand Co., 214 F.3d 1235, 1250 (10th Cir. 2000)).

2) In the Fourth Circuit and the Tenth Circuit, the substantially similar rule may    be             relaxed if the evidence of prior incidents is used to prove notice or awareness                     of a dangerous condition (rather than causation). 

The Fourth Circuit and the Tenth Circuit may relax the “substantially similar” rule if the evidence of prior incidents is used to prove notice or awareness of a dangerous condition rather than causation.  For example, in Benedi v. McNeil–P.P.C., Inc., 66 F.3d 1378, 1386 (4th Cir. 1995), the court explained that, “When prior incidents are admitted to prove notice, the required similarity of the prior incidents to the case at hand is more relaxed than when prior incidents are admitted to provide negligence.  The incidents need only be sufficiently similar to make the defendant aware of the dangerous situation.”  (Internal citations omitted.)

In Ponder v. Warren Tool Corp., the court noted that, “When evidence of other accidents is used to prove notice or awareness of a dangerous condition, the rule requiring substantial similarity of those accidents to the one at issue should be relaxed.”  834 F.2d 1553, 1560 (10th Cir. 1987).

III. Strategies for assisting clients with the difficult process of discovery requests for evidence of prior incidents.

     Clients often feel strongly that the prior incidents are not relevant and should have no bearing upon their lawsuit.  As any experienced lawyer knows, extensive requests for production can lead many clients who are less experienced with such requests to anxiously perceive that their entire brand, company, or even their own personal judgment is being put on trial.

Client resistance to production of evidence concerning prior incidents may be mitigated with repeated early discussion of discovery practice and relative risks.  Engage in detailed discussions before the requests are actually made.  If you practice in a jurisdiction with very liberal discovery rules, and if you have a particularly unsophisticated or reluctant client, you may even want to discuss the potential for sanctions in the event that discovery is wrongly withheld.

As soon as possible, you should have a discussion with your client concerning issues such as the assigned judge, the jurisdictional tendencies, whether or not production or admissibility of the evidence would be damaging, and whether the prior incidents may show prior notice of an alleged defect.

The Restyled Federal Rules of Evidence and NTSB Fact Reports

The admissibility of NTSB fact reports depends at least in part on the judge’s interpretation of the Federal Rules of Evidence.  Many practitioners are not aware that the Federal Rules of Evidence were “restyled” and rewritten in plainer, easier-to-understand language in 2011.

Although the substance of the Rules largely did not change, the restyling meant that some subsections were deleted.  A formerly popular subsection that was deleted was FRE 803(8)(C) regarding the hearsay exception for public records that was used to admit NTSB fact reports.  Now, that exception is found under FRE 803(8)(A)(iii) and FRE 803(8)(B).

FRE 803(8)(C) used to provide, in part, that:

The following are not excluded by the hearsay rule, even though the declarant is available as a witness: 

“* * * * *

“(8) Public records and reports.—Records, reports, statements, or data compilations, in any form, of public offices or agencies, setting forth

“* * * * *

“(C) in civil actions and proceedings and against the Government in criminal cases, factual findings resulting from an investigation made pursuant to authority granted by law, unless the sources of information or other circumstances indicate lack of trustworthiness.”

The new, restyled Rule 803(8) provides, in part, that:

“(8) Public Records. A record or statement of a public office if:

“(A) it sets out:

“* * * * * 

“(iii) in a civil case or against the government in a criminal case, factual findings from a legally authorized investigation; and

“(B) neither the source of information nor other circumstances indicate a lack of trustworthiness.”

The Committee Note to the restyled Rule 803 provides that:

“The language of Rule 803 has been amended as part of the restyling of the Evidence Rules to make them more easily understood and to make style and terminology consistent throughout the rules.  These changes are intended to be stylistic only.  There is no intent to change any result in any ruling on evidence admissibility.”

Therefore, the 2011 deletion of FRE 803(8)(C) does not change important cases regarding the NTSB admission of fact reports, such as Beech Aircraft Corp. v. Rainey, 488 US 153, 170 (1988).  In that case, the Supreme Court held that an investigative report into the cause of a naval aircraft crash was admissible under FRE 803(8)(C) despite the fact that it contained conclusions drawn from the facts investigated or expressed opinions concerning those facts.  488 US at 170.  At the outset, the Court noted that the term “factual findings” in the rule should not “be read to mean simply ‘facts.’”  Id. at 163-64.  Continuing, the Court stated that, “[a] common definition of ‘finding of fact’ is, for example, ‘a conclusion by way of reasonable inference from the evidence.”  Id.  It further noted that “the Rule does not state that ‘factual findings’ are admissible, but that ‘reports … setting forth * * * factual findings’ are admissible.”  Id. at 164 (emphasis in original).  “On this reading, the language of the Rule does not create a distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’ contained in such reports.”  Id.  The Court also looked to the legislative history of Rule 803 and found that it “contain[s] no mention of any dichotomy between statements of ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’ or ‘conclusions.’”  Id. at 166.  It thus concluded that, “unless the sources of information or other circumstances indicate lack of trustworthiness,” investigative reports are admissible regardless of whether they contain facts, opinion, or both.  Id. at 167.

Therefore, although practitioners can no longer cite to FRE 803(8)(C), the substance of the Rule is still good law under the restyled FRE 803(8) and seminal holdings such as Rainey continue to be good law as well.

NTSB Factual Reports and the Hearsay Rule in Oregon Aviation Cases

Oregon books

Oregon Evidence Code Rule 803(8) Provides the Necessary Exception to the Hearsay Rule for NTSB Fact Reports

Although the statements made in the Group Chairman’s reports (“the fact reports”) are arguably hearsay, the reports fall within an exception to the hearsay rule provided under the Oregon Evidence Code (“OEC”).  First, the fact reports are admissible as hearsay exceptions under OEC 803(8)(b).  That rule provides, in part, that reports “of public offices or agencies” that set forth “[m]atters observed pursuant to duty imposed by law as to which matters there was a duty to report” are admissible as exceptions to the hearsay rule.

Second, fact reports are admissible as hearsay exceptions under OEC Rule 803(8)(c), which provides, in part, that reports in civil actions “of public offices or agencies” that contain “factual findings resulting from an investigation made pursuant to authority granted by law” are admissible as exceptions to the hearsay rule “unless the sources of information or other circumstances indicate lack of trustworthiness[.]”

A factual NTSB report falls within the exception for hearsay provided by 803(8)(b)-(c) because it contains “factual findings” resulting from an investigation made by the NTSB, a government agency, pursuant to the authority granted to the NTSB investigators by law.  The NTSB “shall investigate…each accident involving civil aircraft:”  49 USC § 1132(a)(1)(A).  Moreover, by law, the investigation is required to result in a report.  49 USC § 1131(e) (“The Board shall report on the facts and circumstances of each accident investigated by it under subsection (a) or (b) of this section.  The Board shall make each report available to the public * * *.”).  The report and its attachments thus satisfy the foundational elements of OEC 803(8)(b)-(c).

The Admissibility of NTSB Fact Reports at Trial

Businesswoman standing in airplane engine


The admissibility of NTSB fact reports at trial is a key issue for aviation lawyers.  The aviation accident defense lawyer must know how the NTSB works and what the relevant authorities are related to the admissibility of the various reports that the NTSB creates.  Aviation defense lawyers must also know what arguments plaintiffs are likely to make in a case where the factual reports prepared by the NTSB under the party system it employs, are unfavorable.  The aviation defense lawyer must be properly schooled on NTSB agency procedure, the party system, the enabling legislation, and the federal statutes that outline the NTSB mandate and system.

Finally, the aviation defense lawyer must know the local rules of evidence typically implicated in what is usually a hard fought battle to admit one or more of what may be the many NTSB group fact reports. This is extremely important for the aviation defense lawyer to understand in jurisdiction like Portland, Oregon, where state court is generally very plaintiff-friendly. Most state court judges do not have experience presiding over cases where a federal agency, let alone a federal agency as unique and specialized such as the NTSB, plays such a central role.

The NTSB Mandate

The NTSB s a unique federal agency.  It is not a federal executive branch agency, but rather is a congressionally chartered, completely independent agency.  The NTSB has a single aviation mandate: to investigate every aviation (and other forms of transportation such as rail, ferry, bus, subway) accident in the Unites States; to determine the probable cause of the accident; and to make recommendations to help protect against future accidents.  49 U.S.C. §§ 1131, 1132, 1135.  See also Chiron Corp. v. NTSB, 198 F.3d 935, 938 (D.C. Cir. 1999).   An NTSB investigation is “not conducted for the purpose of determining the rights or liabilities of any person.  Board regulations and policies are explicit in providing that parties participating in an investigation are involved in NTSB processes only to assist the safety mission and not to prepare for litigation.”  Id. (quotation marks and alterations omitted).

Under the NTSB investigative system discussed below, the operational and investigative methods of the NTSB result in the production of numerous so-called group chairman’s reports, which are intended to be factual in nature.  These are typically referred to as the NTSB “fact reports”.  At the end of the investigation, the NTSB board members may conduct a hearing during which the NTSB group chairs who lead the groups who authored the factual reports may testify.

When the investigation is complete, the Investigator In Charge (“IIC”) of the investigation issues a final report that contains conclusions and a finding of probable cause, which is then released to the public after adoption by the NTSB board members.  Although discussed in further detail below, 49 U.S.C. § 1154(b) prohibits the use of the final probable cause report prepared by the Board itself, as distinguished from it staff’s factual accident reports.

The NTSB Party System and Factual Report Process

For major aviation accidents, the NTSB typically sends a “Go Team”, one of several that the NTSB maintains in readiness so that they can typically leave within hours to go to the site of an accident and immediately begin investigating.  Rachel G. Clingman, LITIGTING THE AVIATION CASE FROM PRE-TRIAL TO CLOSIING ARUMENT 385 (Andrew J. Harakas ed., 3rd ed. 2008).  The NTSB then designates an IIC to oversee the full investigation.  Id. The NTSB and the IIC then nominate parties to participate in the investigation, and organizes themselves and the participating parties into different investigatory groups.  Id.

Each group investigates specific factors related to the accident, including operations, survival factors, meteorology, airworthiness, and aircraft performance.  Id.  Each group is headed by a chairperson who drafts a factual accident report regarding his or her subject matter that is submitted to the IIC.  Id.  The IIC submits the various chairperson factual accident reports to the NTSB, which then uses these reports to prepare the final Board accident report  Id. at 385-86.  Typically, but not always, the Board issues its final report very shortly after the final public hearing, if one is held.

Since aviation crashes can lead to incredibly complicated investigations and require countless individuals with extremely deep experience in sometimes unusual and unique skills including sound spectrum, meteorology, survival factors, CVR and FDR data recovery, aviation operations, metallurgy, airworthiness, crashworthiness, and a host of other factors, the NTSB investigation and reporting process is essential for the aviation defense lawyer to understand.  As noted above, the depth of this investigatory process is typically something most state court judges are not very familiar with.  The parties who are nominated to participate by the NTSB sign declarations attesting that they will not use or shape the information obtained during the investigation as advocates for their employers, who are often stakeholders in the investigation.  The parties agree to use their skill and knowledge and bring what they contribute to the party system investigation only for the purpose of finding the cause of the accident and making recommendations to improve safety.

The investigations conducted by some groups are incredibly broad.  For example, often the operations group will interview pilots and witnesses; travel to the scene, however remote; obtain records; travel to pilot bases; obtain and review pilot records; interview co-workers; and obtain records associated with the maintenance and flight house of the helicopter.

Method For Determining Admissibility

A motion in limine is “any motion, whether made before or during trial, to exclude anticipated prejudicial evidence before the evidence is actually offered”.  Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 40 n.2 (1984).  The court has inherent authority to decide such motions in order to manage the course of trials. Id at 41.  The court also has broad discretion to decide preliminary questions concerning the qualifications of a witness or the admissibility of evidence.  O.E.C. 104.  In State v. Busby, 315 Or. 292, 844 P.2d 897 (1993), the Oregon Supreme Court noted that it had “expressly approved the use of a pretrial motion in limine to obtain a ruling on evidence before the evidence is sought to be introduced.”  315 Or. n.16 at 305.

Other courts have permitted motions in limine to be filed by a party seeking pretrial rulings that NTSB group chairman’s factual reports were admissible, In re Air Crash at Charlotte, N.C. on July 2, 1994, 982 F. Supp. 1071, 1075 (D. S.C. 1996), or inadmissible, Brown v. Teledyne Continental Motors, Inc., No. 1:06-CV-00026 (N.D. Ohio March 15, 2007).

It is particularly appropriate to file a motion in limine well before the start of any aviation trial.  The NTSB investigation will likely be extensive, and by statute and regulation the NTSB is the only authorized investigatior into the facts and circumstances of the subject accident.  By the time the final report is released in a major NTSB investigation, thousands of hours may have been spent to produce an extensive body of evidence, all of which would be contained on the NTSB’s own public docketing system, and which would be virtually impossible to reproduce absent significant additional time and at incredible cost.


Aviation defense counsel should begin studying the NTSB fact reports, as well as what is virtually always a massive amount of attachments (exhibits) to the reports, as soon as possible.  The reports are virtually always primarily new information since during the pendancy of the NTSB investigation, the NTSB will use its powers as the exclusive investigating agency to voluntarily obtain or subpoena documents related to the investigation which, pursuant to the regulations, are not discoverable until released by the NTSB.  In many cases this is not until after the factual group chairman’s reports are posted to the NTSB docket, or even until after the Board’s report is due, although, as noted above, the report containing the Board’s causal conclusions and safety recommendations is inadmissible pursuant to statute.  The skilled aviation defense attorney will assess the judge’s familiarity with the NTSB and the NTSB process, if any, as soon as possible and begin educating the judge appropriately so that the proper rulings are obtained.


Multi-Defendant Product Liability and Aviation Cases Under the Lasley Case

Close up of judge raising gavel in courtroom

Lasley: A road map for pleading claims related to the fault of other defendants

Olson Brooksby PC often represents one or more defendants In multi-defendant product liability actions and aviation cases.  The Oregon Supreme Court case of Lasley v Combined Transport, Inc., 351 Or 1 (2011), addressed the issue of causation in Oregon as it relates to negligence cases with multiple tortfeasors.  Lasley also contains a detailed analysis regarding allocation of fault.  It is instructive for defendants who have affirmative defenses relating to the fault of other parties, as well as cross-claims and indemnity and contribution claims against each other.

For example, in multi-party product liability and aviation cases, more often than not, there will be a two or more co-defendants who intend to present a unified, or at least not inconsistent, defense against the target defendant.

Lasley contains a road map for defendants in such cases and sets out how to properly plead claims concerning the fault of other defendants so that those claims may be appropriately considered by the jury.

 What happened in Lasley?

In the Lasley case, a truck owned by defendant Combined Transport lost part of its load of panes of glass on the I-5 freeway.  Id. at 4.  The plaintiff in the case was among those stopped in traffic on the freeway while the glass dropped by defendant Combined Transport was being cleaned up.  Id.  While the plaintiff was stopped, Clemmer, the other defendant in the case, hit plaintiff’s pickup truck.  Id.  Defendant Clemmer was allegedly driving while intoxicated.  The collision caused a gas leak from the plaintiff’s pickup which, in turn, caused a fire, killing the plaintiff.  Id.  The lawsuit against Clemmer and Combined Transport alleged “that Clemmer was negligent in driving at an excessive speed and in failing to keep a proper lookout and control of her car.”  Id. at 13.  Clemmer admitted fault.  Id.  Critically, “Plaintiff did not allege that Clemmer was negligent in driving while intoxicated.”  Id.

Based on these pleadings, the trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion in limine to exclude evidence that Clemmer was intoxicated at the time of the collision, and the jury ultimately returned a verdict against both defendants, finding Combined Transport 22% at fault and Clemmer 78% at fault for plaintiff’s damages.  Id. at 4.

On appeal, Combined Transport argued that the court should have allowed evidence of Clemmer’s negligence due to her intoxication because Combined Transport filed an answer including a general denial and filed a cross-claim against Clemmer for contribution based on negligence due to intoxication.   Id. at 13-14.  Specifically, Combined Transport alleged that Clemmer should “contribute such amount as is proportionate to her share.”  Id. at 23.  (Internal quotation marks omitted.)   However, “Combined Transport did not allege in its cross-claim that it had paid more than its proportional share of liability or seek a money judgment against Clemmer.”  Id.  (Bolding added.)    The plaintiff argued that evidence of Clemmer’s intoxication was properly excluded because the plaintiff did not allege that Clemmer was negligent in driving while intoxicated, and, therefore, Clemmer’s intoxication was not relevant to apportionment as framed by the pleadings.  Id. at 13.

The court explained that Combined Transport should have included allegations of Clemmer’s negligence due to intoxication and Clemmer’s responsibility for contribution in Combined Transport’s answer as an affirmative defense.  Id. at 23.  The court held that:

“[A] defendant that does not allege that it has paid more than its proportional share of liability and that does not seek a separate judgment against a codefendant for the amount of that excess payment, but that instead seeks to avoid paying the full damages that a plaintiff has alleged on the basis that a codefendant is more at fault in a way that was not alleged by the plaintiff, must plead the specification of negligence on which the defendant relies as an affirmative defense in its answer to the plaintiff’s complaint and not in a separate cross-claim against the codefendant.”  

Id. at 22-23.

As explained below, however, the court treated the Lasley case in a special way and allowed the cross-claim to be treated as an affirmative defense. Id. at 26. Most defendants in other multi-party cases, however, probably will not be so lucky.

Also, as explained below, the court went through a lengthy analysis of causation and negligence law in Oregon, and it also set out some critical Oregon-specific pleading rules in multi-defendant cases.

Causation in negligence cases involving multiple defendants under Lasley

The Lasley court stated that, in Oregon, “when the negligence of multiple tortfeasors combines to produce harm, each tortfeasor whose negligence was a cause of the harm may be held liable.”  Id. at 6. Oregon law focuses on factual cause.  Id. at 7.  The Oregon Supreme Court “has abolished not only the terms but also the concepts of ‘proximate’ and ‘legal’ cause.”  Id. at 6.   Factually, if the defendant’s negligence harmed the plaintiff, the defendant is liable to the plaintiff as long as the injuries that the plaintiff suffered were reasonably foreseeable as a result of the defendant’s negligence.  Id. at 7.  Therefore, causation is “a purely factual matter” and is separate from the concept of liability (which is determined by whether the harm was reasonably foreseeable–not by ‘proximate’ or ‘legal’ cause).  Id.

Under Oregon law, causation is determined based on the “substantial factor” test and is evaluated by looking at “causation in fact.”  Id. (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).  If the defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in producing the harm that befell the plaintiff, the causation element is met.  Id.  The question is “whether someone examining the event without regard to legal consequences would conclude that the allegedly faulty conduct or condition in fact played a role in its occurrence.”  Id. (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).

In Lasley, Combined Transport argued that its conduct was so minimal when compared to Clemmer’s that its conduct could not have been a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s death.  Id. at 8.  Specifically, Combined Transport argued that the trial court should have admitted evidence that Clemmer was intoxicated at the time of the accident and that, when compared to Clemmer’s egregious conduct, Combined Transport’s conduct was so minimal that it should not be held liable.

The court admitted that a case might exist where the causation element is met as to the first defendant such that the plaintiff’s injury would not have occurred absent that first defendant’s negligence.  However, that first defendant’s act was so insignificant when compared to the act of the second defendant that the first defendant should not be held liable.  Id. at 10.  But the court declined to address such a circumstance, finding that those facts were not at issue in Lasley.  Id.

Rather, the court held that, “both the conduct of Clemmer and the conduct of Combined Transport were substantial factors in contributing to decedent’s death.”  Id.  Clemmer admitted fault and the jury found that Combined Transport’s act of spilling the glass on I-5 caused the plaintiff to stop.  Id. at 11.  There was expert testimony that, had the decedent’s pickup been moving at the time of the impact, the pickup would not have ignited and the plaintiff would not have died.  Id.

The court found that, even if the trial court had admitted evidence of Clemmer’s intoxication, Combined Transport’s conduct would not have been any less significant based on the evidence at trial.  Id. at 11.  The court reasoned that, “In deciding whether a defendant’s act is a factual cause of a plaintiff’s harm, the effect of the defendant’s conduct, and not whether that conduct fell below the expected standard of care, is the relevant consideration.”  Id.  Therefore, even if Clemmer was not intoxicated and did not engage in any negligent conduct, but still hit the decedent’s pickup while it was stopped, Clemmer’s conduct would have been a factual cause of the decedent’s harm.  Id.  The court explained that Combined Transport’s argument confused “causation” and “negligence.”  Id.  In other words, even if the trial court had introduced evidence regarding Clemmer’s intoxication, that would simply show “an additional way in which Clemmer deviated from the standard of care, it could not prove an additional way in which Clemmer contributed to the chain of events that caused decedent’s death.”  Id.  The focus is on “the effect of the defendant’s conduct, and not whether that conduct fell below the expected standard of care * * *.”  Id.  The court conceded that its analysis may have been different had Combined Transport proffered “evidence that showed that, because Clemmer was intoxicated, she inevitably would have killed decedent, even if his pickup had not been stationary.”  Id. at 12.  However, that argument was not made by Combined Transport at trial.

Apportionment of fault in multi-defendant cases under Lasley

Under Oregon law, when the fact finder determines that multiple defendants were at fault, the fact finder must apportion fault, based on percentages that equal 100, between those defendants.  Id. at 13.  The fact finder “is required to compare the degree to which each defendant deviated from the standard of care and is therefore ‘blameworthy.'”  Id.

The plaintiff in Lasley argued that Clemmer’s intoxication was not relevant to the fault of the parties “as framed by the pleadings” because the plaintiff did not make such an allegation in his Complaint.  Id.

Combined Transport argued that evidence of Clemmer’s intoxication should have been allowed because Combined Transport’s Answer included a general denial and it also cross-claimed against Clemmer for contribution on the basis of Clemmer’s intoxication.  Id. at 13-14.

The court held that:

“in a comparative negligence case, a defendant that seeks to rely on a specification of negligence not alleged by the plaintiff to establish a codefendant’s proportional share of fault must affirmatively plead that specification of negligence and do so in its answer as an affirmative defense and not in a cross-claim for contribution.”

Id. at 14.

The court found that, under the unique facts of Lasley, Combined Transport’s cross-claim could be construed as an affirmative defense alleging that Clemmer was negligent by driving under the influence.  Id.  The court therefore held that the trial court erred in excluding evidence of Clemmer’s intoxication.  Id.  It is important to note that the court stressed that Lasley was a very unique case and was almost a “one-off” exception to the holding that specific facts underlying a negligence claim not pleaded by a plaintiff must be pleaded by a defendant as an affirmative defense if the defendant wants to rely on those facts at trial.  As a rule, such facts should not be pled as a cross-claim for contribution.  In other words, “a defendant that intends to rely on a specification of negligence not pleaded by a plaintiff must affirmatively plead those facts to make them admissible.”  Id. at 15.  (Bolding added.)

The court explained that Combined Transport’s general denial was not sufficient to put into issue facts that the plaintiff had not pleaded in his Complaint.  Id. at 17.  A general denial only allows for evidence that contradicts “facts necessary to be proved by plaintiff * * *.”  Id (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).  In contrast, an affirmative defense pleads “a new matter” that “does not directly controvert a fact necessary to be established by plaintiff * * *.”   Id (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

A “new matter” consists of facts “different from those averred by the plaintiff and not embraced within the judicial inquiry into their truth.”  Id (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).  In other words, “When a defendant seeks to avoid liability for the damages that a plaintiff claims by asserting that a codefendant engaged in more blameworthy negligent conduct not pleaded by the plaintiff, the defendant relies for that defensive posture on facts different from those averred by the plaintiff.”  Id.  

The court held that:

“a defendant that does not allege that it has paid more than its proportional share of liability and that does not seek a separate judgment against a codefendant for the amount of that excess payment, but that instead seeks to avoid paying the full damages that a plaintiff has alleged on the basis that a codefendant is more at fault in a way that was not alleged by the plaintiff, must plead the specification of negligence on which the defendant relies as an affirmative defense in its answer to the plaintiff’s complaint and not in a separate cross-claim against the codefendant.”  

Id. at 22-23.

Under the facts of Lasley, “Combined Transport did not allege in its cross-claim that it had paid more than its proportional share of liability or seek a money judgment against Clemmer.”  Id. at 23.  Rather, Combined Transport alleged that Clemmer was driving while intoxicated and that Clemmer should “‘contribute such amount as is proportionate to her share.'”  Id.  The court found that Combined Transport should have made those allegations as an affirmative defense.  Id.

However, the court noted that:

Combined Transport did allege, in its cross-claim, the fact of Clemmer’s intoxication and its theory that Clemmer’s intoxication should be considered in determining Clemmer’s proportional share of liability.  Combined Transport was incorrect in selecting the pleading that it was required to use, but was correct in recognizing that it must plead those allegations to make Clemmer’s intoxication relevant to the jury’s determination of comparative fault.  The trial court was correct that a cross-claim for contribution was premature, but it was incorrect that there was no role for Combined Transport’s pleading alleging negligence by Clemmer that was not pleaded by plaintiff.  A pleading was necessary to make Clemmer’s intoxication material and to allow the jury to consider that conduct in comparing the fault of Clemmer and Combined Transport.”

Id. at 26.  

Therefore, the court held that, “in the unique circumstances of this case, the cross-claim that Combined Transport proffered fulfilled the function of an affirmative defense, viz., to put the plaintiff on notice of the theory and facts comprising the defendant’s defense.”  Id. (bolding added).  The court found it significant that, at the time of trial, it was unclear (due to the trial court’s rulings) which pleading Combined Transport was required to use and Combined Transport’s cross-claim did apprise the plaintiff “of the facts on which it intended to rely and the purpose of those facts.  In that narrow circumstance, the defect in designating the pleading as a cross-claim rather than as an affirmative defense did not affect the substantial rights of plaintiff.”  Id. at 27 (bolding added).

The court added that, “However, for the reasons we have stated, the evidence of Clemmer’s intoxication was not relevant on the issues of causation, liability, or damages.  Therefore, we remand the case for a new trial limited to the degree of fault of each defendant ‘expressed as a percentage of the total fault’ attributable to each defendant.”  Id. at 27.

Pleading requirements and rules for defendants who want to ensure that fault is allocated to another party

The court also spelled out additional pleading requirements under Oregon law when a defendant wants to ensure that fault is allocated to another party:

– “When a defendant seeks to avoid liability to the plaintiff by asserting that the plaintiff or another tortfeasor should be held responsible for the plaintiff’s damages, Oregon law also anticipates that the defendant will alternatively plead the facts on which it relies.”  Id. at 16.

– “When a defendant contends that the plaintiff was at fault, the defendant must affirmatively plead ‘comparative or contributory negligence’ in its answer as an affirmative defense.  ORCP 19 B.”  Lasley, 351 Or at 16.

– “When a defendant contends that a tortfeasor who has not been joined in the action or with whom the plaintiff has settled was at fault, the defendant must file a third-party complaint against the tortfeasor or otherwise affirmatively allege the fault of that tortfeasor. ORS 31.600(3).”  Lasley, 351 Or at 16.

– “When a defendant contends that a codefendant was at fault, the defendant also must affirmatively allege the unpleaded fault of the codefendant.  * * *  ORCP 19 B requires that a party set forth affirmatively allegations of ‘comparative negligence.’  That requirement is not limited to allegations of the comparative negligence of a plaintiff.  Lasley, 351 Or at 16-17.

– “ORCP 19 B requires a defendant to set forth affirmatively ‘any other matter constituting an avoidance or affirmative defense.'”  Lasley, 351 Or at 17.

– “A general denial is required to ‘fairly meet the substance of the allegations denied.’  ORCP 19 A.  Therefore, a general denial does not put at issue facts that a plaintiff has not pleaded.”  Lasley, 351 Or at 17.

– Under ORS 31.600(3) and ORCP 19 B, “a defendant must, in some way, affirmatively plead a specification of negligence on which it intends to rely, and that has not been pleaded by the plaintiff, to establish the fault of a codefendant.  A general denial wil not permit a defendant to adduce evidence of a codefendant’s unpleaded negligence to avoid liability to the plaintiff.”  Lasley, 351 Or at 17.

– “[T]he proportional share of fault of each tortfeasor will be determined in the negligence action brought by the plaintiff.”  Id. at 18.

– Oregon no longer has joint and several liability.  “Now, under ORS 31.610, liability is several only; a tortfeasor is responsible only for its percentage of fault as determined in the action brought by the plaintiff.”   Lasley, 351 Or at 19.

– Under Oregon’s comparative negligence law, “no tortfeasor is liable for more than its percentage of fault, and that percentage of fault is determined in the original negligence action brought by the plaintiff.  ORS 31.610(2); ORS 31.805.”  Lasley, 351 Or at 21.

– “A defendant cannot bring a contribution action to seek a different determination of its percentage of fault.  A contribution action serves only to permit a defendant who has ‘paid more’ than its ‘proportional share of the common liability’ to obtain contribution from another person who is also liable for the same injury or death.  ORS 31.800(2).”  Lasley, 351 Or at 21.

– Although Oregon law allows for contribution claims under ORS 31.800(2), “Because a defendant’s liability is several only and the defendant is not obligated to pay more than its proportional share of liability, it seems that the circumstances in which a defendant will pay more than its proportional share and, therefore, have a reason to seek contribution from a codefendant will be quite limited.”   Lasley, 351 Or at 21.

– If a defendant does pay more than its proportional share and has a reason to seek contribution from a codefendant, that defendant “could use a cross-claim to assert a claim for contribution against a codefendant.  ORCP 22 B defines a cross-claim as a claim ‘existing in favor of the defendant asserting the cross-claim and against another defendant, between whom a separate judgment might be had in the action [.]’  A defendant who ‘has paid’ its proportional share could seek a separate judgment against a codefendant for the excess amount of its payment and do so by means of a cross-claim.”   Lasley, 351 Or at 21.

– A cross-clam for contribution should not be used “by a defendant to allege that a co-defendant is at fault for the plaintiff’s damages and should be held liable, not to the defendant, but to the plaintiff.  In that instance, the defendant does not seek a separate judgment against the codefendant as required by ORCP 22 B.  Even so, the comparative negligence statutes indicate that such a pleading may be permitted.”  Lasley, 351 Or at 21.

– “[W]hen a plaintiff does not join a tortfeasor as a defendant, the comparative negligence statutes permit the named defendant to file a third-party complaint against the tortfeasor.  ORS 31.600(3).  In that instance, the third-party defendant will not be liable to the defendant but, potentially, will be liable to the plaintiff.”  Lasley, 351 Or at 22.

– “ORCP 22 C(1) restricts third-party claims to circumstances in which a third party ‘is or may be liable to the third party plaintiff.'”  Lasley, 351 Or at 22.

– Even though ORCP 22 C(1) “indicates that a third-party claim is designed for the circumstance in which the third-party defendant is or may be liable to the third-party plaintiff, ORS 31.600(3) permits a defendant to file a third-party complaint to allege that a third-party defendant is at fault and potentially liable to the plaintiff.”  Lasley, 351 Or at 22.

– “ORS 31.600(2) specifically provides that the fact that a plaintiff is not a party to the third-party claim does not pervent the trier of fact from comparing the fault of the third-party defendant in the action brought by the plaintiff.”  Lasley, 351 Or at 22.

– “[T]he legislature anticipated that a defendant could file a third-party complaint against a tortfeasor who would not be liable to the defendant but who could, instead, be liable to the plaintiff.  Whether the legislature intended to permit a defendant to make a cross-claim against a codefendant who would not be liable to the defendant but, instead, would be liable to the plaintiff, is unclear.”  Id.  

– “Neither an affirmative defense nor a cross-claim for contribution is ideally designed as a mechanism for a defendant to plead the negligence of a codefendant that is not pleaded by the plaintiff and thereby to avoid or reduce the defendant’s liability to the plaintiff.  An affirmative defense is directed at a plaintiff, not at a codefendant.”  That said, “an affirmative defense is the pleading mechanism that a defendant should use.  The use of an affirmative defense is consistent with the terms of ORCP 19 B, whereas the use of a cross-claim for contribution would require modification of the terms of ORCP 22 B(1) and ORS 31.800.”  Lasley, 351 Or at 22.

– “We hold that a defendant that does not allege that it has paid more than its proportional share of liability and that does not seek a separate judgment against a codefendant for the amount of that excess payment, but that instead seek to avoid paying the full damages that a plaintiff has alleged on the basis that a codefendant is more at fault in a way that was not alleged by the plaintiff, must plead the specification of negligence on which the defendant relies as an affirmative defense in its answer to the plaintiff’s complaint and not in a separate cross-claim against the codefendant.”  Id. at 22-23.

– A cross-claim for contribution is directed at a codefendant and is not designed to avoid liability to a plaintiff.  Id. at 22.

– “[A] defendant who wishes to have the jury consider the unpleaded negligence of a codefendant in making” the comparison of fault of the parties “is required to plead the facts establishing that negligence.  The fact that the codefendant has accepted liability based on the facts alleged by the plaintiff does not eliminate that requirement.  Thus, in this case, to have the jury consider evidence of Clemmer’s intoxication in comparing the fault of the parties, either plaintiff or Combined Transport had to allege those facts.  Plaintiff did not do so, and the pleading burden fell on Combined Transport.”  Id. at 26.


Effective Cross-Examination of Plaintiff’s Psychological Expert Can Reduce or Eliminate Damages for Misdiagnosed Claims of PTSD

Jurors in the jury box

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) is a mental disorder within the trauma and stressor-related disorders included in The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5.  It was previously categorized in the anxiety classification of disorders in the “DSM-IV”.

Personal injury, product liability, and aviation defense lawyers should be well prepared to cross-examine forensic psychologists who testify on behalf of plaintiffs that they suffer from PTSD.  Reasons for thorough preparation include the frequent lack of critical information regarding a plaintiff’s background, inadequate psychological testing, improper reading of validity scales, or an absence of reliance on any other data or criteria by the forensic psychologist testifying on behalf of plaintiff.  If defense counsel is thoroughly familiar with the DSM-5 (and its criteria and commentary on PTSD) and is prepared for an effective cross-examination of plaintiff’s treating or forensic psychologist, damages for emotional distress in PTSD claims can be significantly reduced or eliminated.

Olson Brooksby primarily defends product liability, higher exposure personal injury, and aviation cases.  Over the past few years, we have seen a trend developing whereby almost every plaintiff filing a personal injury lawsuit in such cases claims they suffer from PTSD as a consequence of the alleged injury, without regard for any other potential causes or their own overall life experience.  As a result, most plaintiffs seek emotional distress damages for PTSD as an element of damages in their personal injury lawsuits.

This being the case, there is no substitute for thorough preparation, in-depth knowledge of the material, and the ability to translate “psycho-speak” into plain language in order to mount an effective cross examination.  This preparation should start with a rigorous study of the DSM-5.

Effectively Challenging Plaintiff’s Allegation of PTSD Can Significantly Reduce or Eliminate Plaintiff’s Claim For Emotional Distress Damages

Most plaintiff and defense attorneys would likely admit that handling PTSD claims on behalf of their respective clients, and in particular, dealing effectively with forensic psychological experts, is difficult.  In defending a personal injury action where PTSD is claimed, it is essential that defense counsel have a thorough understanding of the interaction between the DSM-5, standardized testing, how the testing was scored, whether the tests administered had validity scales, and what other personal historical factors and information the plaintiff’s examining physician had available to him or her.

It is also important to determine whether the plaintiff’s experts considered any other mental disease or defect, and, if so, how they reached their differential diagnosis of PTSD.  All of this is necessary for thoroughly cross-examining plaintiff’s experts and challenging misdiagnosed claims of PTSD.

There is no single test that will clinically establish the presence of PTSD.  Typically, tests such as the MMPI, the TSI, or other standardized tests are administered.  Defense counsel should know whether there are validity scales and what they show, and they should be prepared to cross-examine plaintiff’s expert on these issues.  Defense counsel should cross-examine plaintiff’s expert on his or her knowledge of recent longitudinal studies done on PTSD, many of which are authored or co-authored by members of the DSM-IV or DSM-IV-TR PTSD Work Group or other Task Force or advisors.

Other fertile strategies for cross-examination include probing the extent of the expert’s clinical experience, how they applied clinical judgment to reach the diagnosis, how they accounted for malingering, and extensive questioning regarding key diagnostic criteria such as “life-threatening” and “persistence.”

Essential Diagnostic Features of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) 

“The essential feature of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to one or more traumatic events.  Emotional reactions to the traumatic event (e.g., fear, helplessness, horror) are no longer a part of Criterion A.  The clinical presentation of PTSD varies.  In some individuals, fear-based re-experiencing, emotional, and behavioral symptoms may predominate.  In others, anhedonic or dysphoric mood states and negative cognitions may be most distressing.  In other individuals, arousal and reactive-externalizing symptoms are prominent, while in others, dissociative symptoms predominate.  Finally, some individuals exhibit combinations of these symptom patterns.”  DSM-5 at p. 274.

The directly experienced traumatic events in Criterion A include, but are not limited to, exposure to war as a combatant or civilian, threatened or actual physical assault (e.g., physical attack, robbery, mugging, childhood physical abuse), threatened or actual sexual violence (e.g., forced sexual penetration, alcohol/drug-facilitated sexual penetration, abusive sexual contact, noncontact sexual abuse, sexual trafficking), being kidnapped, taken hostage, terrorist attack, torture, incarceration as a prisoner of war, natural or human-made disasters, and severe motor vehicle accidents.

For children, sexually violent events may include developmentally inappropriate sexual experiences without violence or injury.  A life-threatening illness or debilitating medical condition is not necessarily considered a traumatic event.  Medical incidents that qualify as traumatic events involve sudden, catastrophic events (e.g., waking during surgery, anaphylactic shock).  Witnessed events include, but are not limited to, observing threatened or serious injury, unnatural death, physical or sexual abuse of another person due to violent assault, domestic violence, accident, war or disaster, or a medical catastrophe in one’s child (e.g., a life-threatening hemorrhage).  Indirect exposure through learning about an event is limited to experiences affecting close relatives or friends and experiences that are violent or accidental (e.g., death due to natural causes does not qualify).  Such events include violent personal assault, suicide, serious accident, and serious injury.  The disorder may be especially severe or long-lasting when the stressor is interpersonal and intentional (e.g., torture, sexual violence).

The response to the event must involve intense fear, helplessness, or horror.  In children, the response must involve disorganized or agitated behavior.  Characteristic symptoms include persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic event, persistence of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness and persistent symptoms of increased arousal.  The full symptom picture must be present for more than one month and the disturbance must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

An individual will have persistent symptoms of anxiety or increased arousal not present before the trauma.  These symptoms can include difficulty falling or staying asleep that may be due to recurrent nightmares during which the traumatic event is relived.  Other symptoms can include hyper-vigilance and exaggerated startle response.  Some individuals report irritability, outbursts of anger, or difficulty concentrating or completing tasks.

Associated Descriptive Features and Mental Disorders 

Developmental regression, such as loss of language in young children, may occur.  Auditory pseudo-hallucinations, such as having the sensory experience of hearing one’s thoughts spoken in one or more different voices, as well as paranoid ideation, can be present.  Following prolonged repeated and severe traumatic events (e.g., childhood abuse or torture), the individual may additionally experience dissociative symptoms, difficulties in regulating emotions, and/or difficulties maintaining stable relationships.

When the traumatic event produces violent death, symptoms of both problematic bereavement and PTSD may be present.  Part of the difficulty in accurately diagnosing PTSD is that it is associated with many other anxiety and mental disorders.  For example, PTSD is also associated with increased rates of Major Depressive Disorder, Substance-Related Disorders, Panic disorder, Agoraphobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Phobia, Specific Phobia, and Bipolar Disorder.  These disorders can precede, follow, or emerge concurrently with the onset of PTSD.

PTSD Prevalence Rates

In the United States, projected lifetime risk for PTSD using DSM-IV criteria at age 75 years is 8.7%.  Twelve-month prevalence among U.S. adults is about 3.5%.  Lower estimates of 0.5%-1.0% are seen in Europe, Africa, and Latin America.  The DSM-IV discusses community-based studies that reveal a lifetime prevalence for PTSD of approximately 8% of the adult population in the United States.  Information about general prevalence rates in other countries is not available.   Studies of at-risk individuals yield variable findings, with the highest rates (ranging between one-third and more than half of those exposed) found among survivors of rape, military combat and captivity, and ethnically or politically motivated internment and genocide.

Differential Diagnosis

PTSD can occur at any age, beginning after the first year of life.  Symptoms usually begin within the first three months following the trauma, although there may be a delay of months, or even years, before criteria for the diagnosis are met.  There is abundant evidence for what DSM-IV called “delayed onset” but is now called “delayed expression,” with the recognition that some symptoms typically appear immediately and that the delay is in meeting the full criteria.

The DSM-5 emphasizes that with PTSD, the stressor must be of an extreme, (i.e., “life-threatening) nature.  In contrast, other mental disorders often mistakenly diagnosed as PTSD include Adjustment Disorder, where the stressor can be of any severity.  The test also points out that not all psychopathology that occurs in individuals exposed to an extreme stressor should necessarily be attributed to PTSD and may be the result of many other mental disorders.  Mentioned are Acute Stress Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Schizophrenia, and other psychotic disorders or mood disorders with psychotic features.  Although a discussion of all diagnostic criteria is beyond the scope of this article, virtually each of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD emphasize that persistence of the symptoms, the re-experiencing of the event, and the avoidance of associated stimuli is essential.


Scott Brooksby recently cross examined a plaintiff’s forensic psychologist in a high-exposure personal injury case he was defending.  Plaintiff’s expert typically diagnosed more than half of those he evaluated with PTSD.  On cross-examination, this expert was not familiar with the prevalence rates, the specific criteria, or the comorbidity issues associated with PTSD and published in the DSM.  Most significantly, he could not describe the single most important feature for a diagnosis of PTSD: a “characteristic set of symptoms following exposure to one or more traumatic events.”  Instead, the expert merely opined that, in so many words, plaintiff was unhappy, withdrawn, and appeared to be troubled by a series of events.  The expert could not describe the relative significance of the plaintiff’s life events or link them to the specific criteria needed to achieve an accurate PTSD diagnosis.

It is important that the cross-examination specifically pin down the basis for the expert’s diagnosis, especially now with the much more detailed DSM-5, and the breaking up of many of the negative cognition clusters and a much more specific list of negative experience categories.

Even a comprehensive summary of the methodology for most effectively questioning or challenging a plaintiff’s claim of PTSD is beyond the scope of this blog post.  However, when cross-examining plaintiff’s expert witness regarding a PTSD diagnosis, defense counsel should always keep in mind that the plain text of the DSM-5, and examples of the trauma and criteria typically associated with PTSD, can often be easily contrasted with the data to disprove or cast doubt on the PTSD diagnosis.

Key Changes to the DSM-5 for the Product Liability, Personal Injury, and Aviation Defense Lawyer

DSM-5 book

The creation of the fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was a massive undertaking that involved hundreds of psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians, and other medical professionals working together over a 12-year period.  The DSM-5, which replaced the 2000 DSM-IV (TR), is the foundation for reliable diagnosis and treatment of psychological and mental disorders.  As with prior DSM publications, which now date back decades, it is not intended to be a substitute for sound, objective clinical judgment, training, and skill.

Reflecting and prompted by the many new longitudinal studies, research papers, and experimental treatment modalities that have appeared since 2000, this new DSM edition contains significant changes in the classification of some disorders, and the removal or addition of other disorders.  This discussion will provide a brief overview of some of the key changes to the DSM-V and will touch on issues of interest to legal professionals working in the areas of product liability, personal injury, and aviation defense.

In a trial setting, familiarity with the DSM-5 and the underlying literature will be critical to an effective cross-examination of plaintiff’s expert.  Often, with forensic psychologists, the defense can make significant inroads on the basis that plaintiff’s expert is not sufficiently familiar with the DSM or associated literature.  For example, a significant new body of literature related to “resiliency and benefit realization” after a traumatic experience is largely unknown to most plaintiffs’ forensic psychologists.

A substantial percentage of high exposure cases in those categories involve a diagnosis of PTSD by plaintiff’s expert and a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score based on the five-level multiaxial system, with Axis 5 providing the GAF score.  This brief post will focus on the changes to ­– or more accurately, the elimination of – the multiaxial system, as well as the changes to the criteria, symptoms, and diagnosis of PTSD.

A subsequent post will deal specifically with the criteria for PTSD and will include suggestions for cross-examination of plaintiff’s diagnosing mental health professional.

Changes to the Multiaxial System in DSM-5

Despite its widespread use, particularly among some insurance agencies and the government, the multiaxial system in DSM-IV was not required to make a mental disorder diagnosis.  DSM-5 has moved to a nonaxial diagnostic model (formerly AXES I, II, and III), with separate notations for important psychosocial and contextual factors (formerly Axis IV) and disability (formerly Axis V).  The approach of distinguishing diagnosis from psychosocial and contextual factors is also consistent with established WHO and ICD guidelines, which consider the individual’s functional status separately from his or her diagnosis or symptom status.

DSM-IV Axis V consisted of the Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) scale, representing the clinician’s judgment of the individual’s overall level of “functioning on a hypothetical continuum of mental health-illness.”  It was recommended that the GAF be dropped from DSM-5 for a number of reasons, including its conceptual lack of clarity (e.g., including symptoms, suicide risk, and disabilities in the descriptors) and questionable psychometrics in routine practice.  In order to provide a global measure of disability, the WHO Disability Assessment Schedule (WHODAS) is included in DSM-5 for further study.

Changes to PTSD in DSM-5

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) is a Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorder.  DSM-5 criteria for PTSD differ significantly from the DSM-IV.  The stressor criterion (Criterion A) is more explicit with regard to events that qualify as “traumatic” experiences.  Also, DSM-IV Criterion A2 (subjective reaction) has been eliminated.

Whereas there were three major symptom clusters in DSM-IV – re-experiencing, avoidance/numbing, and arousal – there are now four symptom clusters in DSM-5 because the avoidance/numbing cluster is divided into two distinct clusters: avoidance and persistent negative alterations in cognitions and mood.  The latter category, which retains most of the DSM-IV numbing symptoms, also includes new or re-conceptualized symptoms such as persistent negative emotional states.  The final cluster – alterations in arousal and reactivity – retains most of the DSM-IV arousal symptoms.  It also includes angry outbursts and reckless or self-destructive behavior.

PTSD is now developmentally sensitive in that diagnostic thresholds have been lowered for children and adolescents.  Furthermore, separate criteria have been added for children age 6 years or younger with this disorder.

The DSM-IV childhood diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder had two subtypes: emotionally withdrawn/inhibited and indiscriminately social/disinhibited.  In DSM-5, these subtypes are defined as distinct disorders: “reactive attachment disorder” and “disinhibited social engagement disorder.”

Olson Brooksby is a product liability, personal injury, and aviation defense firm.

Discovery and Admissiblity of Evidence of Prior Claims in Oregon Product Liability Cases

Olson Brooksby handles a wide variety of product liability cases involving products such as helicopter engines, heavy equipment, steel, toys, tools, household appliances and chemicals, paints, and solvents.  We frequently work with clients who have had prior claims involving allegedly defective products.  In product liability litigation, plaintiffs’ lawyers almost always ask for documentation involving prior claims.  Usually, plaintiffs issue a broad request for documents regarding all prior incidents of any kind related to the model of product at issue or any version of that model.

The Standard for Discovery of Prior Claims

In Oregon, evidence regarding prior claims is generally discoverable.  ORCP 36 B(1).  In order for an opposing or other party to obtain discovery, the evidence should simply be relevant and reasonably likely to lead the discovery of admissible evidence.  Therefore, on a motion to compel, product liability defense counsel should expect that documentation concerning prior claims will be discoverable, particularly in cases concerning home appliances and other mechanical products.

An objection to a discovery request on the basis that the evidence may not be admissible at trial is not proper.  Oregon trial courts will allow discovery of evidence of prior claims if the products, conditions, or uses are merely “similar” as opposed to “identical.”

By way of a hypothetical example, suppose Large Bike Manufacturing Company manufactured a number of bikes during the past few months or years and the front rim of the tire was bending when bumps were hit that similar bikes were able to withstand.  Also suppose that a bicyclist was injured when the front rim on one of the bike models struck a speed bump even though the bicyclist was riding cautiously and reasonably.  On a motion to compel, most Oregon state court trial judges would order the production of all prior incidents of injury regarding other bike models with the same wheel, not just the model of bike that the bicyclist was riding.  The court would also likely order production of other claims of injury on all bikes, even if such injuries were caused by other mechanical failures.

The Standard for Admissibility of Prior Claims

The admissibility of evidence of other claims is governed by Oregon Evidence Code (“OEC”) 401, which defines relevant evidence; OEC 402, which provides that relevant evidence is generally admissible; and OEC 403, which provides for the exclusion of relevant evidence in the event prejudice, confusion, or undue delay associated with the admission of the disputed evidence, in this case of prior claims, outweighs the probative value or helpfulness to the trier of fact.  Whether evidence of prior claims is discoverable and whether such evidence is admissible are two distinct issues.

With respect to the admissibility of evidence of prior claims, as opposed to the mere discovery of prior claims, OEC 401 generally provides that evidence of similar prior conduct, events, accidents, or even negligence, is generally held to be inadmissible to prove negligence or lack of negligence in the case being litigated.

However, evidence of prior similar acts, conduct, or events, which Oregon courts universally have ruled includes prior claims, is often held admissible to prove causation, danger, knowledge, intent, or the existence of a particular defect.  One of the seminal cases on this issue is Benjamin v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 185 Or App 444 (2002), rev den, 335 Or 479 (2003).  Admissibility of the allegedly similar act will depend on whether prior conduct or events occurred under “similar conditions and circumstances,” although identical circumstances are not required.  Lakin v. Senco Products, Inc., 144 Or App 52, (1996), aff’d, 325 Or 438 (1997).

Whether the conditions and circumstances are substantially similar enough to allow admission of the evidence of prior claims is a decision for the court and will be reviewed on appeal under an abuse of discretion standard, which is a high standard.  As noted above, identical circumstances or an identical product is not necessary for admission of such evidence. Generally, unless there is clear prejudice, evidence of prior claims will be admissible.  The judge will usually comment that defense counsel is free to engage in cross-examination on the differences in the claims and argue that they go to the weight of the evidence.

In a product liability case, regardless of what the product may be, defense counsel should be prepared for a ruling that evidence of prior claims is discoverable.  Counsel should also be prepared for a ruling that evidence of prior claims is admissible.  Therefore, it may be advantageous to file a motion in limine to exclude evidence of prior claims on the grounds that they are either dissimilar, or that there is insufficient information to even determine whether they are dissimilar.  The motion in limine should be filed before trial, so that even if the court admits evidence of prior claims, experts and witnesses can be prepared to address the prior claims in a way that minimizes any perceived wrongdoing.  Counsel should also consider the possibility that any product design changes may be considered “subsequent remedial measures” and should plan any motions in limine accordingly.


NTSB Releases Statistics on Aviation Fatalities in 2011

The National Transportation Safety Board is a unique federal agency.  It is not a federal executive branch agency.  Rather, it is congressionally chartered with a single aviation mandate: to investigate every aviation accident in the Unites States, determine the probable cause of the accident, and make recommendations to help protect against future accidents.  See 49 U.S.C. §§ 1131, 1132, 1135 (Lexis Nexis 2006 and Supp. 2011).  Although the full extent of the operational and investigative methods of the NTSB are beyond the scope of this article, 49 U.S.C. § 1154(b) prohibits litigants from using the final probable cause report prepared by the Board in any manner.  However, the NTSB has a team of investigators in different specialty areas who prepare factual reports that do not involve conclusions regarding the cause of the crash.  Use of these reports depends on the particular judge’s rulings on the rules of evidence, particularly Rule 803(8).

The NTSB recently released aviation data and statistics for transportation fatalities in 2011, including aviation.  According to the NTSB, there were 494 aviation fatalities in 2011.  Those fatalities are broken down by area as follows:  General Aviation (444); Air Taxi (41); Foreign/Unregistered (9); Airlines (0); and Commuter (0).

Olson Brooksby PC maintains an active aviation accident and aviation component part product liability defense practice.  For further information, please contact our office.