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Case Bulletin – Fourth Circuit Rules that Expert’s Testimony is Unreliable and Inadmissible

In  Nease v. Ford Motor Company (4th Cir., February 1, 2017) 2017 WL 437665, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that Plaintiff’s expert’s testimony was unreliable and inadmissible.

 

Plaintiff, Howard Nease, commenced a product liability action against Ford Motor Company alleging that Mr. Nease suffered injuries in an accident caused by a design defect in the speed control system of his 2001 Ford Ranger pickup truck.  Plaintiff’s expert, Samuel Sero, opined that the speed control cable in the 2001 Ranger was susceptible to getting stuck or “bound” while the throttle to which it is linked is in the open position, thus preventing the driver from slowing down the vehicle.  Plaintiff claimed that this is precisely what happened to Mr. Nease while he was driving the 2001 Ranger.

 

Prior to trial, Ford moved to exclude the opinions of Mr. Sero, pursuant to Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., on the basis that Mr. Sero’s opinions were not based on any reliable methodology, and that Mr. Sero had not established through testing or other means, such as scientific literature, that the binding of the speed control cable could actually occur.  The district court denied Ford’s motion to exclude Mr. Sero’s testimony, concluding that Mr. Sero was sufficiently qualified by means of his experience in drafting and designing mechanical systems.  The court further determined that in arriving at his opinions, Mr. Sero employed “standard engineering methodology to conduct his physical inspection and reach his opinions”, which included “physically inspecting the vehicle’s parts, understanding how they are designed to operate, observing evidence of whether some material interfered with the operation of the cable, and opining how that could and did occur here.”

 

The case proceeded to trial and Mr. Sero offered his opinions.  On cross-examination, Mr. Sero acknowledged that when he performed his inspection of the speed control cable in Plaintiff’s Ranger, he did not find any materials actually wedged in the mechanism and that the cable moved freely.  Mr. Sero further admitted that he never actually found a bound speed cable assembly in any vehicle he had inspected.  Mr. Sero also testified that while several alternative speed control designs were available at the time and could have been incorporated into the 2001 Ranger, he had never tested any of these alternative designs to determine whether any of them would have prevented the accident.

 

The district court instructed the jury that on Plaintiff’s strict liability claim, Plaintiff had to prove that the design of the 2001 Ranger was “not reasonably safe for its intended use”.  A West Virginia jury awarded over $3 million in damages to Plaintiff.

 

Ford made several post-trial motions, including a motion for judgement as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  In its motion, Ford renewed its pre-trial argument that Mr. Sero’s testimony was inadmissible under Daubert and should have been excluded.  In the alternative, Ford sought a new trial on the basis that the district court erroneously instructed the jury on strict liability under West Virginia law and erroneously admitted evidence of prior accidents involving Ford vehicles.  The district court denied Ford’s motions, and Ford appealed.

 

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit held that Daubert makes clear that if scientific, technical or otherwise specialized knowledge will assist the trier-of-fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education may testify thereto.  The Fourth Circuit observed, however, that the district court must act as the “gatekeeper…to ensure that an expert’s testimony both rests on a reliable foundation and is relevant to the task at hand.”  Plaintiff contended that the court should affirm because the district court was not obligated to perform its Daubert gatekeeping function because, Plaintiff asserted, Daubert is applicable only to novel scientific testimony.  The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

 

The Fourth Circuit opined that Daubert’s application is not limited to “newfangled scientific theory”, but rather, applies to testimony based on scientific or specialized knowledge.  The court thus applied Daubert to Mr. Sero’s testimony to consider whether the district court properly admitted his testimony.

 

The Fourth Circuit found that the district court erred by failing to use Daubert to assess the reliability of Mr. Sero’s testimony, and that the district court did not make any reliability findings.  The Fourth Circuit thus concluded that the district court did not perform its gatekeeping responsibilities with respect to Mr. Sero’s testimony.

 

Applying Daubert, the Fourth Circuit found that Mr. Sero’s testimony should have been excluded because it was not reliable.  The Fourth Circuit observed that Mr. Sero admitted that he had never seen any vehicle with post-crash binding, and conducted no testing to support his opinion.  The court found, therefore, that Mr. Sero’s failure to test his hypothesis rendered his opinions on the cause of Plaintiff’s accident unreliable.  The court further observed that without Mr. Sero’s testimony, Plaintiff could not prove that the design of the speed control assembly in the 2001 Ranger rendered the vehicle “not reasonably safe for its intended use”.  The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of Ford’s post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law, and remanded the case for entry of judgment in Ford’s favor.