California Appellate Court Upholds Summary Judgment Where Expert Offers No Factual Basis for Opinion
Have you ever thought that traveling in a vehicle going above 65 miles per hour could cause cancer? One Pennsylvania resident, Ted McCracken (“McCracken”), thought so and asked the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to award him damages as a result of such alleged injury. Pro se Plaintiff McCracken filed an action against Ford Motor Company asserting that he contracted thyroid cancer as a result of the insufficient protection Ford windshields provided from ambient radiation in the air that increases to dangerous levels inside a cabin when a vehicle travels at speeds in excess of 65 miles an hour. McCracken v. Ford Motor Co., No. 09-3995, 2010 WL 3010304 (3d Cir. Aug. 3, 2010) [PDF]. McCracken asserted eight causes of action, including strict products liability and defective design.
Ford filed a motion to dismiss on a number of grounds and the District Court of Pennsylvania dismissed all McCracken’s claims, except for strict products liability and defective design, and entered a scheduling order. Pursuant to this scheduling order, McCracken’s expert report was due on April 6, 2009. After this deadline had passed, McCracken filed a motion for an extension of time to retain an expert and a motion for the appointment of an expert under Fed. R. Evid. 706. The District Court denied his motions and Ford moved for summary judgment based upon McCracken’s lack of expert testimony. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Ford and McCracken appealed.
On appeal, McCracken asserted that he submitted sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment even without the testimony of an expert. This evidence included data regarding environmental radiation, a list of books and articles on radiation, the deposition testimony of a representative of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and affidavits from him and his mother stating that they observed increased readings on a Geiger meter when the vehicle accelerated. The Third Circuit found that this “evidence” was not enough to withstand summary judgment on the cause of McCracken’s cancer or the defective design of Ford’s windshields.
McCracken’s second argument on appeal is that the District Court erred in not appointing him an expert. The Third Circuit agreed with the District Court that “the purpose of Rule 706 is not to provide ‘litigation assistance’ to a party unable to retain an expert on its own.” The Third Circuit found no error by the District Court. McCracken asserted four more arguments on appeal, all not worth discussing here, which were all rejected by the Third Circuit.
This case is another example of a Plaintiff asking our Courts to buy into his or her theory of injury based on “because I said so.” The Third Circuit correctly found that Ford was entitled to summary judgement where plaintiff either could not find an expert to support his theory or he disregarded the court’s instructions by failing to find such an expert within their deadlines.
As a side note, this is McCracken’s thirteenth lawsuit asserting this general ambient radiation theory. He has sued numerous defendants including other automobile manufacturers, manufacturers of other types of vehicles that can travel in excess of 65 miles per hour, nuclear power plants, and energy companies. See McCracken v. R.E. Ginna Nuclear Power Plan, LLC, No. 08-cv-6217L, 2010 WL 1404115, at *4 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2010).
On September 23, 1999, Jeffrey Smith, an experienced ATV rider, was attempting to back his Yamaha ATV, more specifically a 1987 Yamaha Big Bear 350, down a hill when his foot slipped and struck the right-rear fender of the ATV. The fender collapsed, and his right leg became trapped between the frame and the wheel. The ATV then rolled back over Mr. Smith, causing him to suffer severe injuries that left him disabled and disfigured. According to the website, this ATV was Yamaha’s first 4×4 ATV:
It is well-settled that a plaintiff’s misuse of a product cannot be grounds for granting summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer under a design defect theory unless it is established that the misuse solely caused the accident while the design defect did not contribute to it.
You know him well. He is the professional expert. No matter the issue, the case, or the product, there he is, opining that your client’s product is unreasonably dangerous, and unquestionably caused the plaintiff to suffer personal injuries, psychological damage, and lost income. In fact, as soon as you see this expert’s name at the top of the report, you can recite its contents, eyes closed and one hand tied behind your back.
Not so fast. In Beam v. McNeilus Truck and Manufacturing, Inc., 697 F. Supp. 2d 1267 (N.D. Ala. 2010), the Northern District of Alabama considered the defendant’s motion to exclude the testimony of Dr. L.D. Ryan, a mechanical engineer and professional expert, as to the defectiveness of the design of a garbage truck. The case involved an accident in which the plaintiff’s decedent, a garbage collector, fell or stepped off of the riding step of a garbage truck and died as a result of his injuries. The central issue of the case was whether the truck was defectively designed with regard to the riding steps.
The court carefully considered Dr. Ryan’s qualifications, noting that “Plaintiff’s expert . . . has little or no experience in the world of refuse collection, road-vehicle design generally, or garbage truck design specifically.” Furthermore, although Dr. Ryan had watched “three hours of videos on ‘YouTube,’ he has no training or experience in designing waste-hauling routes” and has no knowledge “about the history or evolution of rear-loading garbage-truck designs.” In fact, the court stated, the “mere fact that Dr. Ryan is a licensed engineer is, in and of itself, insufficeint to qualitgy him as an expert in this case.”
The court’s harshest criticism of Dr. Ryan’s so-called qualifications, however, was reserved for his status as the professional expert. The court made several references to the fact that Dr. Ryan had acted as an expert in hundreds of cases. In fact, the court devoted an entire footnote to Dr. Ryan’s career expertise, opining that “Dr. Ryan has been involved in hundreds of cases invovling a variety of products, and his testimony has been at issue in a number of those cases,” and providing a list of some of those cases.
With no actual expertise on the subject of garbage truck design, the court excluded Dr. Ryan and his reports. Without expert testimony as to the defective design, the plaintiff could not make her case, and therefore the defendant’s motion for summary judgment was also granted.
Bravo, Northern District of Alabama. Abnormal Use salutes you. Next time, plaintiffs, make sure your expert does more than watch YouTube.
We here at Abnormal Use adore concise, get-to-the point jurisprudence, which is why we pause today to reflect upon the Ninth Circuit’s recent eight paragraph memorandum opinion in Shalaby v. Newell Rubbermaind, Inc., No. 09-56331 (9th Cir. May 17, 2010) (unpublished) [PDF]. To reduce the disposition of a products liability action to eight paragraphs is sublime.
In that case, the Plaintiffs, apparently from California, filed a products liability action after Mr. Shalabay was allegedly injured “when a handheld, gas-powered torch that he had purchased from a Home Depot store exploded.” Ever so briefly and succinctly, the Ninth Circuit observed that expert testimony is required in products liability matters to establish causation when the theory is “beyond common experience,” and because the Plaintiffs’ two proffered experts had been properly excluded by the trial court, the Plaintiff had no case. Thus, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the ruling of the district court, which had initially excluded both experts.
The money paragraphs were:
The court excluded the testimony of one of those witnesses, Dr. Anderson, a metallurgy expert, as unreliable and irrelevant. To support his theory that a design defect in the torch caused the explosion, Dr. Anderson conducted two tests on exemplar torches to demonstrate the flaw. The district court concluded that because Dr. Anderson had performed only two non-standardized tests, on torches that may have been different from the one here at issue, and did not adequately explain the results of or discuss the possible rate of error for such tests, his testimony would be unreliable. It would also be unreliable because he did not address certain contradictory evidence. Finally, he did not present adequate evidence that the design flaw caused Shalaby’s injuries, rendering his testimony irrelevant.
The district court excluded the testimony of the other witness, Dr. Vredenburgh, because she was not a qualified expert and, even if she were, her testimony was unreliable and irrelevant. Dr. Vredenburgh’s field of expertise was not torches; she had some experience in the formulation of warning instructions for various devices. When asked whether a different or larger warning would have helped in Shalaby’s case, Dr. Vredenbugh testified that “I don’t know why [the torch] failed, so I don’t know that a warning would have helped.” She stated that she had never operated a handheld torch and had not seen one operated in seventeen years. She had not spoken to any users of handheld torches in many years, and she had incorrectly testified about how such a torch is used. Dr. Vredenburgh admitted that she did not collect any empirical data, did not conduct any testing, did not conduct any surveys, did not seek data from manufacturers, did not review any peer-reviewed literature, did not conduct any other kind of research prior to forming her opinion, and did not follow her own typical process for developing product warnings.
Sure, maybe the conclusion was so easily reached that it only merited an eight paragraph opinion. But it’s nice to see such a case given short shrift.
In fact, in the past two weeks, on April 6, 2010 and April 13, 2010, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and Third Circuit, respectively, upheld the decisions by the settlement trust to deny benefits. In re Diet Drugs Products Liability Litigation, No. 99-20593, 2010 WL 1404624 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 6, 2010); In re Diet Drugs Products Liability Litigation, No. 09-2424, 2010 WL 1473752 (3d Cir. Apr. 14, 2010).
The Court found that Brown-Riddle merely disagreed with the reviewing physician’s determination that she lacked a medical basis for her claim. She failed to identify or substantiate any specific errors and rested on her physician’s “check-the-box diagnoses.” The Court affirmed the decision of the trust denying benefits.
These decisions by the the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the Third Circuit show that even when a mass class action is settled, litigation continues and our courts are continually asked to evaluate expert evidence as it would in a case of traditional posture. Plaintiffs in these types of cases are not off the hook of providing expert testimony. It will be interesting to note when litigation surrounding this class settlement ends — 10 more years, maybe 20.
In American Honda Motor Co. v. Allen, No. 09-8051, 2010 WL 1332781 (7th Cir. Apr. 7, 2010) the Seventh Circuit considered the application of Daubert prior to an order certifying a class. Honda sought leave to appeal the district court’s grant of class certification. Plaintiffs, unhappy purchasers of Gold Wings, asserted that the bike had a design defect: Namely, the motorcycle does not properly compensate for “wobble.” Imagine the front wheel of your bike shaking from right to left to the point where you would lose control. (Note: A Google search will reveal multiple videos on motorcycle wobble not appropriate to link here.). Plaintiffs’ claims were based entirely on the expert report of Mark Ezra, who has testified against Honda since the mid-1980s. Ezra developed a wobble decay standard, which set forth that a motorcycle, by its design, should dissipate a certain amount of wobble so that the rider does not react to the wobble.
The District Court, for multiple reasons, was critical of Mr. Ezra’s science, but declined to exclude him at such an early stage of the proceedings. The Seventh Circuit ruled that this failure to exclude was an abuse of discretion and “exclusion is the inescapable result” in this matter. Going forward, the Seventh Circuit noted that some substantive decisions may have to be made prior to deciding the motion for class certification.
We hold that when an expert’s report or testimony is critical to class certification, . . . a district court must conclusively rule on any challenge to the expert’s qualifications or submissions prior to ruling on a class certification motion.
Id. No longer can a Plaintiff bootstrap his way to class certification by hiring an expert. As we noted earlier here, the Seventh Circuit seems earnestly concerned in making sure Defendants are treated fairly in federal class actions, or, in this case purported class actions. While Plaintiffs’ complaint may pass muster under Iqbal/Twombley, the Seventh Circuit sends yet another message to Plaintiffs: Consider Daubert before filing your class action. Moreover, the Seventh Circuit has set forth another method for a court to consider the substance of a lawsuit early in the litigation. Defendants, begin working on your Daubert motions right away.
On April 13, 2006, ReNu with MoistureLoc contact lens solution, manufactured by Bausch & Lomb in its Greenville, South Carolina facility, was voluntarily withdrawn from the market in the United States when an increased number of consumers who used MoistureLoc began to develop Fusarium keratitis. On May 11, 2006, Bausch & Lomb met with the Federal Drug Administration and announced that they decided to remove the product from the market worldwide.
In May 2009, Baush & Lomb moved to exclude the testimony of Plaintiffs’ expert, Dr. Elisabeth Cohen, with respect to non-Fusarium infections. As reported by the Drug and Device Law blog on August 27, 2009, Judge Norton, along with Judge Shirley Werner Kornreich of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, granted Baush & Lomb’s motion to exclude “Dr. Cohen’s general causation opinions relating to non-Fasarium infections.”
The Court concluded that since Plaintiffs’ general causation expert, Dr. Cohen, was excluded, Plaintiffs could not prove general causation, and thus, could not prove the essential causation element of any products liability action. Further, the Court disagreed with Plaintiffs’ assertion that they could prove causation through Physicians’ differential diagnoses. This is a “technique of identifying the cause of a medical problem by eliminating the likely causes until the most probable one is isolated.” Judge Norton stated that Plaintiffs could not rely on this technique to “end-run” the general causation requirement.
Since Judge Norton’s ruling on February 17, 2010, two individual non-Fusarium Plaintiffs have filed motions to alter or amend the judgment pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Baush & Lomb has filed a response to one Plaintiff’s motion, and Baush & Lomb has filed a motion for summary judgement as to all other non-Fusarium Plaintiffs that were inadvertently not included in the February 2010 order. Therefore, be on the lookout for further rulings on the non-Fusarium Plaintiffs in addition to resolution of those claims by Fusarium
The South Carolina Supreme Court recently weighed in again on two issues near and dear to the hearts of those who have an active products liability practice: (1) the admissibility of expert witness testimony and (2) punitive damages. In Austin v. Stokes-Craven Holding Corp., — S.E.2d —-, No. 26784, 2010 WL 760410, (S.C. March 8, 2010), the Supreme Court considered the admissibility of two experts offered by the Plaintiff and whether the punitive damages awarded to that Plaintiff were excessive. In Austin, the Plaintiff filed suit against Stokes-Craven Holding Corporation, d/b/a Stokes Craven Ford, an automobile dealership, after he experienced problems with a vehicle that he purchased used from the dealership. As it turned out, the vehicle had sustained extensive damage in an accident prior to the sale of the vehicle to the Plaintiff, requiring repairs to the tune of over $20,000. Problems ensued even following repairs when the vehicle developed an oil leak, finally prompting the first owner to trade in the vehicle.
When the Plaintiff went to purchase the vehicle, he asked a series of questions related to the extent of the warranty, whether the vehicle had been wrecked, and questions regarding the previous owner. In response, the Plaintiff was informed that the warranty was a “5-year, 100,000 miles powertrain warranty,” that the truck had not been wrecked, and that the previous owner may have been someone with whom the Plaintiff was familiar and considered to be very responsible with regard to vehicle maintenance. A couple of months after purchase, the Plaintiff discovered an oil leak, which he then sought to have repaired. It was then that the Plaintiff was told by the Defendant that the vehicle was not covered by a 5-year, 100,000 mile power train warranty. The Plaintiff further discovered that the vehicle had a 5-year, 100,000 mile warranty limited to the engine, that the truck had been registered to a person different from the person whom the Plaintiff believed first owned the vehicle, and that the vehicle had sustained extensive damage prior to Plaintiff’s purchase. The dealership further provided the Plaintiff with a “Buyer’s Guide” document purportedly containing the Plaintiff’s signature that confirmed that the warranty was only up to 100,000 miles on the diesel engine. The Plaintiff adamantly denied that he signed or ever received the document. After the Plaintiff’s repeated requests to receive a return of the purchase price in exchange for the vehicle were rejected, he filed suit under multiple causes of action.
At the conclusion of trial, the Plaintiff was awarded actual and punitive damages on his causes of action for negligence, fraud, constructive fraud, and violation of the Dealer’s Act, with actual damages being awarded in the amount of $26,371.10 on each cause of action and punitive damages in the amount of $216,600 as to the Plaintiff’s cause of action for fraud. Among the multiple issues on appeal were the admissibility of experts and excessiveness of punitive damages.
The Defendant argued that the trial judge erred in qualifying two of the Plaintiff’s witnesses as experts in the areas of auto-body repair and in appraisal and valuation of Plaintiff’s truck, respectively. As was not unexpected, in both instances, the South Carolina Supreme Court found that the Defendant was not prejudiced by the admission of the expert’s testimony. Key to the Court’s ruling appeared to be its conclusion that the Defendant was able to extensively cross-examine the experts on their qualifications and their ultimate conclusions.
On the issue of punitive damages, the Court applied the guideposts set forth in the recent decision in Mitchell v. Fortis Ins. Co., 385 S.C. 570, 686 S.E.2d 176 (2009), to be applied in conducting a post-judgment review of punitive damages awards, those being: (1) the degree of reprehensibility of defendant’s misconduct; (2) the disparity between the actual and potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and amount of the award; and (3) the difference between the punitive damages awarded and civil penalties authorized or imposed on comparable cases.
As to reprehensibility, multiple additional factors are considered, including whether (1) the harm is physical versus economic; (2) the conduct evinced an indifference to or a reckless disregard for the health or safety of others; (3) the target of the conduct had financial vulnerability; (4) the conduct involved repeated actions or was an isolated incident; and (5) the harm was the result of intentional malice, trickery, or deceit, rather than mere accident. Here, the Court found that, even though the harm was economic, that fact did not minimize the reprehensibility of the dealership’s conduct. The dealership’s employees failed to disclose that the truck had been wrecked and did not have a power train warranty and potentially forged the Plaintiff’s signature to a document in an effort to legitimize the lack of the power train warranty. The Court found that those acts evinced an indifference to or a reckless disregard the health and safety of the Plaintiff and the general public that would share the road with the potentially unsafe vehicle, that the Plaintiff was financially vulnerable, and that the incidence was not isolated in that the dealership’s employee testified that he had never shown a title to a customer.
Turning to the ratio, the Court admitted that an 8.21 ratio was high, particularly given the type of injury. However, the Court noted that it was a single-digit ratio; there was evidence of the Defendant’s ability to pay; that given the extent of wreck damage and resultant safety issues, there was potential for the Plaintiff and his passengers to be subjected to serious injury; and the amount of the award would serve as a deterrent to future misconduct.
Finally, the Court endeavored to review factually-similar cases to assess the reasonability of the award. In doing so, it cited cases from Missouri and Oregon in which plaintiffs had purchased used vehicles that had a past and in which significant punitive damage awards had been affirmed. Accordingly, in light of the above, the Court affirmed the punitive damages award rendered by the jury. Whereas Justice Pleicones dissented in part from the majority opinion, he nonetheless found that punitive damages were warranted, although he would have reduced such damages to $100,000.