6th Circuit Reverses Exclusion of Mechanical Engineering Expert in Gun Misfire Case


revolverCase:

Mark D. Lee v. Smith & Wesson Corp., No. 13–3597, Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals; July 29, 2014 

Background:

Mark D. Lee was injured in 2006 when a revolver he was using for target practice discharged improperly, seriously injuring his right eye, face and nose. Lee had already successfully fired the weapon twice before the incident. The injury caused a loss of vision and significant eye pain.

Lee and his wife filed a products liability action against the 460XVR revolver’s manufacturer, Smith & Wesson Corp., to recover for the injuries. According to Lee, the gun cylinder swung open and caused the blast from the shot to knock off his safety glasses. He claimed that the revolver was defectively designed and manufactured and lacked sufficient warnings.  It also did not conform to representations made by Smith & Wesson.

Smith & Wesson asserted that Lee’s injuries were caused by recoil.

Mechanical Engineering Expert:

In support of his claims, Lee sought to introduce the expert testimony of mechanical engineering expert Roy Ruel. Ruel concluded that Lee’s accident was the result of the revolver’s firing without its cylinder fully closed and locked, a condition that caused hot high pressure gas to be expelled from the revolver when fired. Thus striking Lee in the face and causing his injuries. He determined that the revolver was defective because it could be cocked and fired with a pull of the trigger without its cylinder closed and locked. In addition, its ejector rod could become loose. This would prevent its cylinder from closing and locking due to mechanical interference. Ruel also concluded that Smith & Wesson failed to provide adequate warnings about this condition.

Smith & Wesson moved to exclude Ruel’s expert testimony under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (509 U.S. 579, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 [1993]),

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio found inconsistencies between Lee’s deposition testimony and Ruel’s expert opinion. Specifically, Lee testified that he had no difficulty firing the gun the third time. Whereas Ruel stated that the gun did not immediately fire because the cylinder failed to close fully. Lee testified that the cylinder was closed when he fired the gun. However, Ruel stated that it was open but appeared to be closed. Lee’s demonstration of his grip on the gun showed that he did not touch the thumb latch. Whereas Ruel stated that Lee pushed on the thumb latch.

Following the grant of the motion in limine, Lee agreed to a stipulated dismissal, preserving his right to appeal.

Admissibility of Mechanical Engineering Expert:

A panel of the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found that Ruel’s mechanical engineering expert testimony should have been admitted. He had the appropriate qualifications, he used reliable methods, and his opinion was based on physical evidence from the accident, the panel said. Ruel’s theory was based on the facts conveyed by the physical evidence, and his engineering skills provided a reliable scientific method.

Although Ruel’s expert theory contradicted Lee’s testimony, Ohio and federal practice does not preclude a party from proving his case by any relevant evidence. Even though that evidence may contradict the testimony of a witness previously called by him, the panel said.

The appeals court also found the testimony would be highly relevant to determining whether the gun was defective.

“In light of this possibility, a jury presented with no believable alternative explanation could believe that Lee’s testimony was wrong,” the panel said. “Lee testified that he closed the chamber and fired the gun, without incident. However, a reasonable fact finder could conclude that Lee thought he had closed the chamber but in fact did not, and instead overlooked the opening, which Ruel suggests was the case in Lee’s accident.”

The panel said Lee’s memory and Ruel’s deductions both clearly reject Smith & Wesson’s argument that the injury was caused by heavy recoil. Therefore, the central factual issue—the cause of Lee’s injury—was still in dispute and the diverging accounts of the incident should not have precluded the admissibility of Ruel’s expert opinion.

“Even under the deferential abuse-of-discretion standard, the district court’s exclusion of Ruel’s testimony as inadmissible under Rule 702 was not proper,” the panel said.

In a dissent, Judge Damon J. Keith said the District Court judge properly exercised his discretion in excluding Ruel’s testimony.

 

About The Author

Kristin Casler is a legal writer and journalist who served as the editor for LexisNexis Mealey’s litigation news monitor for 17 years.