Mechanical Engineering Expert Challenged for Extrapolation on Hydrochloric Acid Damages

    Court: United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Eastern Division
    Jurisdiction: Federal
    Case Name: Burroughs Diesel, Inc. v. Baker Petrolite, LLC
    Citation: 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 182235

    Facts

    This case involves a hydrochloric acid (HCl) leak from the defendant’s polyethylene tank which was placed adjacent to the plaintiff’s property. The plaintiff alleged that the leak released a cloud of HCl vapor which reached their property and caused significant damage to buildings, inventory, tools, vehicles, equipment, and machines. The plaintiff argued that the spill had two sources. First, the storage tank had a manufacturing defect in which an air bubble in the polyethylene caused a weak point at the bottom of the tank. Second, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s company was negligent in their maintenance of the tank by refusing to test it as instructed by the manufacturer. Further, the plaintiff claimed the defendant regularly overfilled the tank, causing excess pressure that caused a crack to form on weak the spot. This was further compromised by the manufacturing defect that increased over time and ultimately ruptured. The plaintiff filed numerous tortious and product liability claims, retaining a mechanical engineering expert witness to support their case. The defendant filed a Daubert motion to exclude the testimony of the mechanical engineering expert regarding the damages to the plaintiff’s property.

    The Mechanical Engineering Expert Witness

    The mechanical engineering expert witness was a metallurgist and held a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering. He had previously worked with insurance companies providing damage estimates to commercial property owners. The mechanical engineering expert offered testimony on the plaintiff’s material damage and valuation caused by the HCl vapor. In their Daubert challenge, the defendant argued that the expert was not eligible to opine on the damage to the plaintiff’s property because he had no experience, education, or training with respect to HCl. The defendant also argued that the expert’s conclusions on the damages were unreliable as his opinion included a variety of factual errors—to which the expert accepted and corrected the mistakes in his deposition testimony.

    The defendant also argued that the court should exclude the expert’s conclusions on the loss of useful life to the roofs on the plaintiff’s metal buildings. The mechanical engineering expert reported that the HCl vapors had damaged the zinc coating on the roofing panels, decreasing their useful life. The defendant claimed this opinion was unreliable because the expert had not personally performed any inspection or tests of the roofs. Instead, he relied on limited third party data and extrapolated this for all roofs. The defendant further argued the expert’s opinion on the loss of useful life in the side panels of the buildings was similarly based on a single unreliable source. The defendant also sought to exclude the expert’s opinion on the repair and replacement costs of the roofing and side panels as irrelevant because the expert testified that the side panels could be repainted and the roofs re-galvanized, thus, failing to show that replacement was necessary.

    The defendant also argued that the court should exclude the expert’s opinion that nearly 70% of the plaintiff’s tools and equipment would need repair as a result of the HCl leak. The defendant claimed the expert did not personally witness any HCl exposure to any pieces of equipment and, rather, focused on photos of tools taken by other experts demonstrating corrosion.

    Discussion

    The court found the expert’s opinions on the remaining useful life of metal roofing panels were unreliable due to the combination of their unreliable basis in fact and the expert’s unsubstantiated inferences and extrapolations from the already minimal evidence. The court further excluded the mechanical engineering expert’s conclusion on the lack of useful life of the side panels because he failed to prove that the single source of his opinion was the kind usually relied on by experts in his profession. Additionally, the expert was unable to formulate a theory or justification in support of his opinions on the amount of paint corrosion and loss of useful life. The court also excluded the expert’s opinions on the causation of his prescribed equipment repairs. However, they determined his opinion on replacement costs to be relevant because the court felt that replacement could be considered as an option despite repairs being possible.

    Held

    The motion to exclude was granted in part and denied in part.