Forklift Expert’s Testimony Challenged for Reliance on Personal Experience

Forklift Expert’s Testimony Challenged for Reliance on Personal Experience
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Court: United States District Court for the District of New Jersey
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Salvatore v. Viking Sport Cruisers, Inc.
Citation: 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 199493

In this negligence case, the plaintiff challenges the defendant’s forklift expert’s admissibility under Daubert and FRE 702. Particularly, the plaintiff alleges the expert’s use of practical knowledge and personal experience managing forklifts as the basis for his testimony does not meet muster as a reliable methodology.

The court, however, disagrees, finding the expert’s extensive experience and hands-on knowledge in this field to be sufficient. This case instance highlights the many forms expert credentials may take. A trade, like forklift management, may not have a certain prescribed degree requirement, however, practical knowledge and years of experience do qualify as expertise for the legal arena. This case also highlights how opposing counsel may try to target technicalities of expert admissibility as grounds for expulsion.  

Facts

This case involved the aftermath of a forklift accident. The plaintiff, a truck driver for a raw metal supplier, was loading his flat-bed truck with deliveries, including a bundle of aluminum angle iron secured with shrink wrap to deliver to the defendant. The plaintiff was familiar with the defendant’s facility, as he had been delivering materials here regularly for some time. The plaintiff went to the receiving area of the defendant’s facility and waited for the defendant’s employee, a forklift operator, to remove the shrinkwrapped bundle.

The operator brought the forklift above the truck’s side to reach the bundle situated at the center of the vehicle. To help unload the bundle, the plaintiff used a canvas strap and looped one end around the bundle and the other end around one of the forks of the forklift to lift the bundle over the other materials in the truck. The operator lifted the forklift bundle until it was high enough to clear the side gates of the truck. The plaintiff then told the operator to stop so that he could get off the truck. While the forklift operator lowered the box, the end of the package started to angle. The plaintiff touched the bundle to stabilize it, but it fell, hit his arm, and knocked him down. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging that his injuries were caused by the defendant’s negligence.  At trial, the plaintiff challenged the defendant’s forklift expert’s testimony.

The Defendant’s Forklift Expert Witness

The plaintiff filed a motion to preclude portions of the defendant’s forklift expert’s testimony. In particular, the plaintiff sought to exclude the expert’s testimony opining that the accident at issue was caused either by the fork’s taper or its deflection. The plaintiff claimed the forklift expert failed to support his theories using a reliable methodology. The plaintiff also sought to exclude the expert’s testimony stating the plaintiff had been in contact with the aluminum bundle.

Discussion

The plaintiff argued, in particular, that a substantial portion of the forklift expert’s opinion concerning fork taper and fork deflection lacked any indication of reliability and was not supported by any recognized methodology. Further, the plaintiff asserted that the expert testimony did not comply with the standards of reliability set out in Federal Rule of Evidence 702 nor Daubert. The plaintiff also claimed that the expert’s argument that the plaintiff had led to the cause of the accident by potentially handling the aluminum bundle was unnecessarily speculative and, thus, inadmissible.

In response, the defendant claimed their expert’s testimony was reliable because, as an expert, he was permitted to rely on his knowledge and expertise on forklifts while formulating his opinion. Further, the defendant asserted the expert’s methodology could not be deemed unreliable merely because a portion of it was based on his own experience.

Upon review, the court found that the plaintiff’s motion was without merit given the expert’s extensive experience operating and maintaining forklifts. The court noted the expert had adequate training, experience, and knowledge to provide testimony of opinion, and any challenge to his methods or the underlying basis for his opinions was subject to cross-examination at trial.

Ruling

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

Key Takeaways for Experts

Opposing counsel may try to scrutinize the credentials of experts outside of academic or scientific fields, however, the court’s gatekeeping responsibility will ultimately discern adequate qualifications for expert areas absent of required degrees or peer-reviewed publications.