Court Admits Minimally Qualified Automotive Expert Witness Testimony

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Court: United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Fox v. General Motors LLC
Citation: 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 145532

Facts

The plaintiff, Fox, sustained serious injuries in a rollover crash while driving a 2004 Cadillac SRX, a four-door sports utility vehicle.  The plaintiff turned her vehicle to the right then back to the left, causing it to rotate in a counter-clockwise direction. The vehicle then flipped and rolled over no less than four times. The plaintiff claimed that the immediate cause of her injury was the defective roof design of the vehicle. When it rolled, the entire glued-on roof came off, leaving a hole in the top of the vehicle. The resulting damage also stripped the roof system of transverse support to prevent the sides from collapsing inward. The remaining roof structure was inadequate and it buckled, crushing Fox and leaving her quadriplegic. The plaintiff filed suit against the vehicle’s manufacturer, General Motors (GM).

The Automotive Expert Witness

The defendant supplied an automotive expert witness to opine on GM’s roof design. The automotive expert witness held degrees in bioengineering and metallurgical engineering and previously worked at GM for 30 years. Her work at GM focused on providing expert evidence and other litigation support for GM. The automotive expert witness also worked on product development teams that focused on fatigue strength studies of welded and clinched automotive materials.

The plaintiff moved to exclude the automotive expert witness’s opinion for a number of reasons. Firstly, the plaintiff argued that the expert was not qualified to testify as a roof design expert because she lacked “knowledge, skill, experience, training or education” related to roof design specifically per Rule 702. Secondly, the plaintiff argued that the automotive expert had been unable to base her conclusions on sufficient facts or data. Thirdly, the plaintiff claimed the expert was incorrect in her reliance on a roof crush resistance test conducted by a private, for-profit company that performs tests for automakers in order to assist in litigation.

Discussion

The plaintiff’s primary argument against the automotive expert witness claimed she was unqualified to testify on roof design because her expertise was welding. Further, the plaintiff argued the automotive expert had never designed a roof, written industry literature on the subject, given a presentation on roof design, roof testing, or roof strength requirements.

The defendant, GM, replied the expert had expertise with vehicle body design, including how various steel sub-assemblies were put together to form a body structure, which includes a roof structure. The defendant also asserted that the automotive expert had specialized expertise in rollover vehicle crash testing and vehicle body design. Additionally, the automotive expert had conducted several roof-strength trials and assisted in drafting GM’s submission to the NHTSA roof-strength docket.

The court observed that although the expert might not have been the most qualified witness to address roof design, she was minimally qualified on the basis of her education and experience. The court also noted that “Rule 702 takes a liberal view of expert witness qualifications; thus, an expert’s training does not always need to be narrowly tailored to match the exact point of dispute in a case,” citing Haines v. Webb. Further, the court discussed that expert witnesses are explicitly permitted by Federal Rule of Evidence 703 to rely upon data they have not observed personally in order to form their opinion. The court also stated that the plaintiff’s claims regarding misuse of third-party automotive testing affected only the weight of the opinion but not its admissibility.

In response to the plaintiff’s claims that the expert’s opinion was based on a partial review of the record and failed to consult design engineers, the court noted that all these objections, though valid, could be addressed suitably during cross-examination.

Held

The plaintiff’s motion to exclude the testimony of the automotive expert witness was denied.