Product Liability Advisory - December 2012: 10th Circuit Reaffirms the Importance of Similarity in Testing Methodology for Withstanding a Daubert Challenge

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In a decision released on August 16, 2012, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the trial court’s Daubert ruling on an expert who was allowed to testify about an alleged seat belt defect in a rollover crash. The 10th Circuit concluded that his laboratory testing was not related or shown to be similar to the conditions present in the actual crash.  See Hoffman v. Ford Motor Co., 2012 WL 3518997 (10th Cir. 2012). The court also held that because the plaintiff presented no other evidence to support her defective seat belt theory, the defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Id. This case is important because it will provide leverage for manufacturers seeking to exclude expert testimony where laboratory testing not related or shown to be similar to the actual circumstances of the accident is utilized to attempt to establish defect.

 

In its opinion, the 10th Circuit noted the trial court’s role as a gatekeeper to ensure that expert testimony is relevant and reliable prior to admitting it. Id. at *8.  The court pointed to Ford’s Daubert motion and noted that faced with the objections raised by Ford as to the lack of relation between the plaintiff’s expert’s testing and the real world facts of the case, the trial judge was required to make specific findings on the record in order to demonstrate that it had fulfilled its gatekeeper role.  The 10th Circuit determined that the trial court erroneously focused on Ford failing to demonstrate how the plaintiff’s testing compared to actual rollover event was deficient.  The 10th Circuit reiterated that it was the plaintiff’s burden to show reliability. Id. at *8. The 10th Circuit determined that the plaintiff failed to meet her burden and the methodology used by the plaintiff’s expert was unreliable and dissimilar to the actual facts of the case.  Because the 10th Circuit found that the only evidence of defect presented at trial was the plaintiff’s expert testimony, it then determined that the plaintiff had a full and fair opportunity to present her case and had not demonstrated any reason to afford a new trial. Id. at *15.  The 10th Circuit reversed, and remanded to the district court with instructions to enter a judgment in favor of the defendant.  Id.

 

This case provides persuasive analysis for any manufacturer presented with an expert opinion that pits laboratory results against the real world facts of the case.  It provides the automobile industry with a solid decision supporting a requirement of similarity between the testing and data and the actual accident conditions.  While the court was sympathetic to the fact that rollover test data is difficult to acquire due to the cost of conducting rollover testing, it was unwilling to allow non-similar testing as the basis for opining defect. This case will be instrumental in ensuring the right results are reached by trial courts in future Daubert challenges where the expert’s comparison of laboratory testing and real world conditions collide.