Forklift Expert Witness Permitted to Testify Despite Failure to Inspect the Vehicle in Question

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Court: United States District Court for the District of Connecticut
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Wasilewski v. Abel Womack, Inc.
Citation: 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26616

Facts

The plaintiff, a licensed forklift driver at a Rite Aid distribution center, suffered injuries due to an accident while driving a forklift that Rite Aid had purchased “as is” from the defendant. The forklift in question, known as a Model 21, was a stand-up, rear entry forklift. The company that made the model offered the option to install a rear operator guard to keep objects from getting into the operator chamber. This accessory was not provided in the standard configuration of the model that the plaintiff was operating, which left the chamber open from the back.

The plaintiff claimed that the defendant was responsible for the maintenance of the forklift under a maintenance contract. The plaintiff operated the forklift in a congested aisle. When the plaintiff heard a horn, she turned her head and her eyes veered away from her direction of travel. She strayed off course and hit a rack of boxes. She claimed a protruding pallet encroached into the operator chamber and crushed her foot.

The Forklift Expert Witness

The plaintiff’s forklift expert was a mechanical engineer by training with 15+ years of experience designing, producing, and testing load-bearing, electro-mechanical lifting and hydraulic pneumatic devices. The forklift expert had performed many safety analyses of material handling equipment during his career and written multiple articles on these topics, including a Safety and OSHA compliance guideline for shop establishments. Although the expert was not experienced in bioengineering, he had assessed accidents and performed safety analysis on mechanical material holding devices.

The expert stated that the forklift in question was faulty because it did not include rear operator guards or rear posts as standard installation. He also opined that the forklift was flawed because it failed to provide a smooth transition without snagging from the facade of the main body towards the outer surface of the outriggers.

The expert based his opinions on the assumption that the accident occurred when the forklift was “grabbed” by a bumper situated at the base of the rack on the upright side, which caused the reach truck to enter the rack on the left side of the aisle, and that the claimant’s injuries happened when the corner of one of the pallets entered the operator’s compartment and made contact with her left leg as the truck was entering the rack. The defendant filed a Daubert motion to preclude testimony from the plaintiff’s forklift expert.

Discussion

The defendant asserted that the plaintiff’s expert was not an expert in analyzing injuries and determining their causation from forklift design. According to the defendant, that the expert’s theory of causation was not consistent with the physical evidence that had been collected from the accident. The defendant argued that the expert’s opinion was unreliable and amounted to speculation because the expert did not inspect the subject truck, the scene, take any measurements, review photographs or review the plaintiff’s medical records.

However, the plaintiff argued that the expert had reviewed enough evidence obtained from discovery, including pictures of the accident and the forklift and deposition testimony. The court found that the forklift expert was qualified to testify in this case because it believed his training, education, and experience in mechanical engineering, accident assessment, and safety analysis would help the trier of fact.

Furthermore, the court observed his testimony would also assist the trier of fact in determining relevance of facts of the case, since the plaintiff intended to show evidence on whether protruding pallets were present at the time of the accident. The court noted that the expert’s testimony methodology was not so unreliable that it deserved preclusion, and that the defendant could address its issues during cross-examination.

Held

The defendant’s motion to preclude forklift expert witness testimony was denied.

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