Aerospace Engineering Expert Challenged for Suggesting Safety Design Features Without Hands-On Evaluation

    Aerospace Engineering Expert Challenged for Suggesting Safety Design Features Without Hands-On Evaluation
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    Court: United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division
    Jurisdiction: Federal
    Case Name: Hasan v. Cottrell, Inc.
    Citation: 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 116748

    In this case, the plaintiff retains an aerospace engineering expert witness to opine on the alleged design defects that caused his fall from a car carrier. The expert’s report contains several safety design features he believes were missing from the carrier in question. The defendant, however, objects to these suggestions. Specifically, the defendant challenges the expert for not having hands-on experience with these designs.

    But the court explains the expert is highly qualified to offer these opinions, even without direct experience. It points out that the expert relied on industry research and resources in coming to his conclusions. Any purported shortcomings are a topic to address through cross examination and are not a reflection on the expert’s qualifications.

    Facts

    While securing an SUV onto a car carrier, the plaintiff fell and injured himself. He alleged his fall was the direct result of the car carrier’s faulty design. As part of his case against the carrier manufacturer, the plaintiff retained an aerospace engineering expert. In response, the defendant protested the expert’s admissibility via a Daubert challenge.

    The Plaintiff’s Aerospace Engineering Expert Witness

    The plaintiff’s aerospace engineering expert witness had extensive experience in the fields of aerospace and mechanical engineering. He intended to testify on the car carrier’s alleged defects. First, the expert held that car carriers are unreasonably dangerous unless they have appropriate fall prevention measures such as handholds, catwalks, structural traction, and/or adjustable safety netting. He also said the car carrier in question did not have such features.

    Second, the aerospace engineering expert said it’s well known that car carriers have significant injury risks for workers. As such, injuries like the plaintiff’s are inevitable in the absence of fall safety measures. The expert also argued that the lack of these safety features actually caused the plaintiff’s fall. And third, the expert said that practical alternate designs exist and have existed for some time, but were not present here.

    The defendant argued that the expert’s opinions were irrelevant and unreliable because he did not evaluate the alternative designs he described in his report. Further, the expert had not seen two of his suggested alternative safety options. The defendants called out that the expert did not know if they were commercially viable or what they cost. Additionally, the expert did not review the plaintiff’s deposition or examine the car carrier at issue. The defendant argued these shortcomings made the expert’s opinions unreliable and inadmissible.

    Discussion

    The court noted the expert was qualified to provide the opinions outlined in his report. Further, the court did not question the expert’s aerospace engineering experience. Also, nothing in the record indicated that the fall safety architecture expertise required for this case was outside this expert’s realm of knowledge. Overall, the expert’s general engineering experience qualified him to give testimony on the purported design defects.

    The court also noted the defendant’s claims that the expert’s alternative design suggestions were unreliable should be addressed through cross examination. In this case, neither the challenged concept nor the suggested solutions for implementing different safety measures were complex. Thus, even without research to prove whether different solutions may have avoided the plaintiff’s injury, the expert’s knowledge of how those solutions were used in practice provided a minimally sufficient basis for his opinions.

    Similarly, the fact that the expert didn’t actually see the design alternatives didn’t automatically make his opinion unreliable. Rather, the expert had based his alternative designs opinion on patents and photographs describing and depicting these designs, along with his interaction with individuals who had experience installing these designs. Any insufficiency in the expert’s knowledge of these designs went to his testimony’s weight, not his admissibility.

    Ruling

    The defendant’s Daubert motion to exclude the plaintiff’s aerospace engineering expert was denied.

    Key Takeaways for Experts

    Here, the defendant argues that since the expert has not personally interacted with the design alternatives he references in his report, these opinions are unreliable. The court, however, points out the expert backed up his decisions with thorough research. This demonstrates that adequate evidence does not always mean direct experience. Experts can illustrate their full understanding, like the expert here, through patents, photographs, and general industry knowledge.