Fourth Circuit Reverses and Remands Case After District Court Fails to Apply Daubert Test to Engineer Expert Witness Testimony


Engineer Expert Witness

Court – United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
Jurisdiction – Federal
Case Name – Nease v. Ford Motor Co.
Citation – 848 F.3d 219

On November 20, 2012, Howard Nease was driving his recently purchased, used 2001 Ford Ranger pickup truck on U.S. Route 60 in St. Albans, West Virginia. While driving, he discovered his vehicle would not slow down when he released the accelerator pedal. Although he tried to slow the pickup truck by applying the brakes, his vehicle crashed into a brick building. Howard and his wife, Nancy Nease, commenced a product liability action against Ford Motor Company alleging that the serious injuries Howard suffered in the accident were caused by a design defect in the speed control system of his 2001 Ford Ranger pickup truck. Nease sued for strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty.

Over Ford’s objection, the Neases offered the expert testimony of Samuel Sero, an electric engineer hired to examine the engine and the throttle assembly in Howard’s 2001 Ford Ranger.

Sero used a borescope to inspect the speed control assembly. A borescope is a fiber-optic tube equipped with a light that a mechanic or an engineer can insert into an inaccessible area of the engine and view a given component without disassembling the engine. Sero also pointed to a Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) document, which Ford had prepared in 1987, identifying potential risks Ford engineers should consider addressing in the design of future vehicles. Based on his borescope exam and the 1987 FMEA, Sero opined that the 2001 Ford Ranger’s design was not reasonably safe. He further concluded that there were several alternative designs that Ford could have utilized in engineering the speed control assembly which would have made the vehicle safer and prevented this accident.

Ford moved to exclude Sero’s testimony on the grounds that Sero’s opinions were not based on reliable methodology. For argued that Sero had not sufficiently established, through testing or other means, that binding of the speed control assembly could actually occur. The defendant also argued that Sero was not qualified to opine on matters of automotive designs because his primary expertise was in electrical engineering.

The District Court denied the motion to exclude Sero’s testimony and held that Sero was sufficiently qualified to opine based on his experience. The objections went to the weight and not the admissibility of his opinions.

During trial, Ford questioned Sero’s opinions on cross-examination and offered its own expert testimony. Sero acknowledged that when he performed his inspection of the speed control cable in the Neases’ Ranger, he did not find any materials wedged between the guide tube and cap. He also noted that the speed control cable moved freely. Sero further admitted that he had never actually found a bound speed cable assembly in any vehicle that he had inspected. Ford’s expert, Dr. Steven MacLean, an expert in the field of mechanical engineering, performed tests on the Nease’s vehicle and was able to quantify the size of the contaminants found on the Ranger’s guide tube.

Eventually, the jury returned a verdict for the Neases on the strict liability count and awarded damages of $3,012,828.35. Ford appealed and argued that the district court erroneously denied its motion to exclude Sero’s opinion.

The plaintiffs countered that the district court was not obliged to perform its Daubert gatekeeping function in the first place because the Daubert test for assessing the validity of scientific evidence applied only to novel scientific testimony and did not apply in the expert field of engineering.

The Appellate Court noted that the Supreme Court, in Kumho Tire, had held that Daubert was not limited to the testimony of scientists but also applied to the testimony based on ‘technical’ and ‘other specialized’ knowledge. The Kumho Court had concluded that Rule 702 “applies to all expert testimony” as its “language makes no relevant distinction between ‘scientific’ knowledge and ‘technical’ or ‘other specialized’ knowledge”. Furthermore, the Kumho Court had also affirmed the district court’s application of Daubert and its decision to exclude the engineering expert’s testimony as unreliable. The Fourth Circuit had also sanctioned the application of Daubert to assess the reliability of expert engineering testimony. The Court concluded that Daubert did apply to Sero’s testimony and moved forward to assess whether the testimony passed its test.

With respect to whether Sero’s testimony should have been excluded under Daubert, the appellate Court noted that his testimony ‒ which indicated that the speed control assembly was not reasonably safe because it was susceptible to binding ‒ was based on the FMEA. It concluded that the FMEA relied upon by Sero could not establish that the binding of the speed control cable was a recurring design problem in the 2001 Ranger and could not be used as a proxy for the testing that Sero failed to conduct. It was held that Ford’s FMEA process merely identified conceivable design failures; it did not produce them via testing.

The Court found that Sero’s testimony indicating that Ford could have used safer alternative designs in constructing the 2001 Ranger was unsupported by any evidence, such as test data or relevant literature in the field.

It was held that without Sero’s testimony, the Neases could not have proved that the design of the speed control assembly in the 2001 Ford Ranger rendered the vehicle not reasonably safe for its intended use. Accordingly, the District Court’s denial of Ford’s post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law was reversed and the case was remanded to the District Court for entry of judgment in Ford’s favor.

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