Fourth Circuit Reverses and Remands Case After District Court Fails to Apply Daubert Test to Engineer Expert Witness Testimony

Zach Barreto

Written by
— Updated on September 3, 2019

Engineer Expert Witness

Court – United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
Jurisdiction – Federal
Case NameNease v. Ford Motor Co.
Citation – 848 F.3d 219

Facts

While driving a 2001 Ford Ranger pickup truck, the plaintiff discovered his vehicle would not slow down when he released the accelerator pedal. As the plaintiff applied the brakes, the vehicle crashed into a brick building. The plaintiff filed a product liability action against Ford Motor Company alleging that there was a design defect in the speed control system of his vehicle. The plaintiff sued for strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty.

The Expert

The plaintiff offered the expert testimony of an electric engineer who examined the engine and the throttle assembly in the plaintiff’s 2001 Ford Ranger. The electrical engineering expert inspected the vehicles speed control assembly using a borescope — a fiber-optic tube equipped with a light that can be inserted into the engine and view a given component without disassembling it.

The expert also pointed to a Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) document, which Ford had prepared in 1987, identifying potential risks Ford engineers should consider addressing in the design of future vehicles. Based on his borescope exam and the 1987 FMEA, the expert opined that the 2001 Ford Ranger’s design was not reasonably safe. He further concluded that there were several alternative designs that Ford could have utilized in engineering the speed control assembly which would have made the vehicle safer and prevented this accident.

Ford moved to exclude the electrical engineering expert’s testimony on the grounds that his opinions were not based on reliable methodology. Ford argued that the expert had not sufficiently established, through testing or other means, that binding of the speed control assembly could actually occur. The defendant also argued that the expert was not qualified to opine on matters of automotive designs because his primary expertise was in electrical engineering.

Discussion

The district court denied the motion to exclude the expert’s testimony and held that the expert was sufficiently qualified to opine based on his experience.

During trial, Ford questioned the expert’s opinions on cross-examination and offered its own expert testimony. The expert acknowledged that when he performed his inspection of the speed control cable, he did not find any materials wedged between the guide tube and cap. He also noted that the speed control cable moved freely. The expert further admitted that he had never actually found a bound speed cable assembly in any vehicle that he had inspected. Ford’s expert, a mechanical engineer, performed tests on the vehicle and was able to quantify the size of the contaminants found on the guide tube.

Eventually, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff on the strict liability count and awarded damages of $3,012,828.35. Ford appealed and argued that the district court erroneously denied its motion to exclude the electrical engineering expert’s opinion.

Reversal

The plaintiffs countered that the district court was not obliged to perform its Daubert gatekeeping function in the first place because the Daubert test for assessing the validity of scientific evidence applied only to novel scientific testimony and did not apply in the expert field of engineering.

The appellate court noted that the Supreme Court in Kumho Tire held that Daubert was not limited to the testimony of scientists but also applied to the testimony based on ‘technical’ and ‘other specialized’ knowledge. The Kumho Court concluded that Rule 702 “applies to all expert testimony” as its “language makes no relevant distinction between ‘scientific’ knowledge and ‘technical’ or ‘other specialized’ knowledge”. Furthermore, the Kumho Court also affirmed the district court’s application of Daubert and its decision to exclude the engineering expert’s testimony as unreliable. The fourth circuit also sanctioned the application of Daubert to assess the reliability of expert engineering testimony. The court concluded that Daubert did apply to the plaintiff expert’s testimony and moved forward to assess whether the testimony passed its test.

With respect to whether the expert’s testimony should have been excluded under Daubert, the appellate Court noted that his testimony ‒ which indicated that the speed control assembly was not reasonably safe because it was susceptible to binding ‒ was based on the FMEA. It concluded  that the FMEA relied upon by could not establish that the binding of the speed control cable was a recurring design problem in the 2001 vehicle and could not be used as a proxy for the testing that the expert failed to conduct. It was held that Ford’s FMEA process merely identified conceivable design failures; it did not produce them via testing.

The court found that the plaintiff expert’s testimony indicating that Ford could have used safer alternative designs in constructing the 2001 vehicle was unsupported by any test data or relevant literature in the field.

Held

It was held that without the electrical engineering expert’s testimony, the plaintiff could not prove that the design of the speed control assembly in the 2001 Ford Ranger rendered the vehicle not reasonably safe for its intended use. Accordingly, the district court’s denial of Ford’s post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law was reversed and the case was remanded to the district court for entry of judgment in Ford’s favor.

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