OSHA Expert Challenged for Legal Conclusions in Labor Trafficking Case

    Court: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Beaumont Division
    Jurisdiction: Federal
    Case Name: Meganathan v. Signal Int’l L.L.C.
    Citation: 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 180274

    Facts 

    This case involves alleged labor trafficking by offshore oil rig repair company, Signal International. The four plaintiffs argued they were recruited in India to provide labor to Signal, believing they would receive fair wages and permanent residence in the U.S. In reality, they claimed that they were forced to live in unhygienic, disease-ridden, and overcrowded work camps resembling prisons. The plaintiffs further claimed they were forced to continue working for Signal because of significant debts back home and due to fears of deportation after learning that their temporary visas had expired. 

    A putative class action was brought on behalf of all workers allegedly trafficked to the U.S. to work at Signal’s facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, however, the case was denied class certification. As a result, individual class members filed suits in the states where their alleged injuries occurred. In this case, the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit in Texas, alleging Signal violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003, Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, the Declaratory Judgment Act, and claims of fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and breach of contract. The plaintiffs retained an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) expert witness to support their case. 

    OSHA Expert Witness 

    The OSHA expert witness was the Area Director of the Jackson, Mississippi division of OSHA with over 22 years of experience. The expert held a graduate degree in Environmental Sciences and was certified as an industrial hygienist. The plaintiffs retained the expert to opine on the defendant’s compliance or noncompliance with official OSHA standards and regulations within their temporary labor camps. In response, the defendant sought to exclude the OSHA expert, claiming two reasons for exclusion. First, the defendant claimed the expert’s views on OSHA were irrelevant and, second, his views were composed of impermissible legal conclusions. 

    Discussion 

    The defendant argued that the plaintiffs had not claimed an OSHA breach of their original complaint and, as such, their OSHA expert witness’s opinions were irrelevant to the matter at hand. The plaintiffs replied and argued that their OSHA expert’s opinions were relevant because they supported their allegations of fraud and discrimination. The court, however, observed that no cause of action relied on the defendant’s failure to comply with OSHA, and the plaintiffs failed to explain how the alleged violations of OSHA justified their allegations of fraud. The court noted that it was the duty of the plaintiffs to prove that their expert’s opinion was admissible. The court believed that testimony on whether specific OSHA laws had been broken would not assist the jurors in understanding the evidence. The court asserted that the plaintiffs’ testimonies about their working and living conditions were enough to prove their claims. 

    On the defendant’s claims of the OSHA expert’s testimony containing impermissible legal conclusions, the court also agreed. In fact, the court found that the OSHA expert had given two levels of legal conclusions. First, the expert had concluded that the OSHA regulations on temporary labor camps extended to the labor camps. Secondly, the expert stated that specific regulations had been breached. The plaintiffs argued that the expert’s use of OSHA regulations was not meant to convince the jury that the defendant violated OSHA, but rather, to inform the jury that the defendant’s provided accommodations were below par. The court responded that the expert had suggested that the defendant’s conduct was a violation of the law, and that amounted to a legal conclusion. 

    Held 

    The motion to exclude the testimony of the plaintiffs’ OSHA expert witness was granted.