Engineering Expert’s Methodology Questioned for Lacking Testing and Reconstruction

    Engineering Expert’s Methodology Questioned for Lacking Testing and Reconstruction
    Author:

    Court: United States District Court for the Western District of New York
    Jurisdiction: Federal
    Case Name: Hernandez v. Pitco Frialator, Inc.
    Citation: 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 187690

    In this product liability case, the plaintiff calls on an engineering expert. Specifically, the engineering expert opines on whether a fryer’s design defects caused the plaintiff’s burns. But the defendant alleges the expert has not demonstrated appropriate methodology. The defendant alleges this requires relevant drawings, testing, and reconstruction.

    However, the court finds no legal precedent or requirement under FRE 702 mandating this. Rather, the court explains the expert has sufficiently demonstrated his reasoning in other permissible ways. 

    Facts

    The plaintiff filed a product liability suit after suffering burns while using a commercial fryer. The defendant was the manufacturer of the fryer. The plaintiff claimed the fryer tipped due to jammed front wheels. The plaintiff retained an engineering expert witness to testify on the purported design defects and how this result in the injury. The defendant challenged the expert’s testimony.

    The Plaintiff’s Engineering Expert Witness

    The plaintiff’s engineering expert witness held a B.S. in mathematics, an M.S. in electrical engineering, and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. The expert was a member of the Society of Electrical Engineers and the American Physical Society. He had almost 30 years of experience in technical product design. Additionally, the expert taught engineering design classes at the university level for nearly 20 years. Also, he had previously appeared as an expert witness in suits regarding design issues and product liability.

    In his testimony, the engineering expert described the fryer’s relatively high center of gravity. This, the expert explained, made it vulnerable to tipping. He based his report on document review and evaluation of the fryer’s design. Further, he suggested reasonable alternative designs which could have prevented the incident.

    Discussion

    In a motion for summary judgment, the defendant argued the expert’s opinion was inadmissible. In fact, the defendant claimed the expert was not qualified to provide an opinion on the fryer’s design. They explained the expert had not previously worked with fryer models. In response, the court explained the expert’s knowledge of mechanical engineering qualified him to opine on the fryer’s design.

    Also, the defendant asserted the expert did not demonstrate that his methodology was reliable. The defendant claimed the expert had not performed any testing or created any engineering drawings or reconstruction. Further, the defendant argued the expert failed to establish evidentiary support for the plaintiff’s design defect claim.

    In response, the plaintiff argued there was no requirement under Rule 702 or relevant case law to perform tests or reconstruction. The court concurred, citing Gussack Realty Co. v. Xerox Corp. The court further noted that the engineering expert’s alternate design suggestions were helpful for the trier of fact to determine causation and prevention. The court believed the expert’s report would help the jury determine whether design defects were responsible for the incident. Additionally, it would help the jury decide what changes could have prevented it. Thus, the court found the expert’s testimony to be relevant.

    Ruling

    The court denied the defendant’s motion to exclude the engineering expert witness’s testimony.

    Key Takeaways for Experts

    Here, the defendant challenges the expert’s methodology. However, the court points out there is no case law or FRE requiring a certain type of methodology. But experts should ensure they’ve offered sound methodology, in whatever form they’ve deemed appropriate.