Fire Expert Witness Fails To Establish Causal Evidence In Accident Case


Fire Expert

Court: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Smith v. Chrysler Grp., L.L.C.
Citation: 909 F.3d 744

Facts

This product liability case involves a fatal car accident. The driver of a 2013 Jeep Wrangler, designed and manufactured by the defendant, Chrysler Group, LLC, died after veering off the road and colliding with a concrete bridge pillar. Days after the crash, Chrysler sent out a recall notice explaining the transmission oil cooler tube of some of the jeeps manufactured in 2012 and 2013 had tendencies to leak. These leaks had resulted in fires in the underbodies of some vehicles. The plaintiff sued, accusing the defendant of products liability, negligence, breach of warranty, and violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The district court ruled in favor of the defendant, and the plaintiffs filed an appeal to challenge the district court’s rulings.

The Expert Report

In this supplemental report, the expert outlined five categories of evidence, on which he relied to form his opinion and this evidence were 1) the observations of a plaintiff in this litigation; 2)  the images and discovery deposition testimony of the plaintiff; 3) the fire pattern shown in photographs of the driver’s side of the deceased’s Jeep; 4) the fire pattern shown in photographs of the sill plate of the deceased’s Jeep; and 5) the testimony of various experts and the plaintiffs. The expert acknowledged the above 5 bases were “a partial restatement” of his original report and deposition testimony. The expert reviewed and analyzed previously available evidence as well as the newly disclosed documents to come to this new conclusion and opinion. The new report described that the other defects in Jeep Wranglers had resulted in underbody fire. This allowed the expert to reach a level of certainty in his conclusion that he was previously unable to attain.

Court’s Discussion

The defendant argued that the report was adding nothing relevant to the causation. The defendant further argued that the expert’s new conclusion was not based on any methodology perceptible from the new evidence submitted in his report. The plaintiffs argued that the district court abused its discretion in deciding that the supplemental expert report did not rely on the new information.

The district court noted that the expert new findings were “highly conclusory” and did not meet the standard for admissibility of expert opinion. The expert did not explain the methodology he used to arrive at his conclusion. Furthermore, it was clear that none of the instances of fires in Jeeps produced by Chrysler related to the recall defect at issue here.

Held

The court affirmed the district court’s exclusion of the expert’s supplemental report and testimony. The court found that the district court was correct in deciding that testimony from a fire expert was necessary to establish causation. The plaintiffs were required to produce evidence that a defect in the Jeep’s transmission oil cooler caused a leak that caused transmission fluid to come in contact with an ignition source that caused the fire and failing to produce such expert testimony the plaintiffs had failed to meet their burden of production under Texas law. The court agreed that had the Jeep in question been preserved, the plaintiff’s expert would have been in a better position to connect the dots to the items of evidence.

Since the expert’s supplemental report failed adequately to establish a connection between the newly disclosed information and his conclusion, it was determined that the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the report. In the absence of testimony from a fire expert, there was no evidence to prove that the alleged defect caused a fire in any other Jeep.

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