Qualified Naval Architecture Expert’s Testimony Excluded For Offering Legal Conclusions “Reserved For The Jury”


Architecture Expert

Court: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Dukes v. Zafiro Marine
Citation: 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 211604

In this personal injury case involving a slip and fall on the quarters vessel for an offshore platform, the plaintiff’s naval architecture expert witness offered several opinions which the court found constituted factual determinations or legal conclusions exclusively reserved for the jury. Thus, the expert’s testimony was deemed inadmissible.

Facts

This litigation arose from injuries sustained by the plaintiff when he fell down the 3-rung ladder of his upper bunk located in the living quarters of the vessel M/V Sampson.

At the time of the accident, the plaintiff was employed as instrumentation and electrical technician with MMR Contractors, Inc. (MMR). He worked on the Thunder Horse, an offshore platform in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast that was owned by BP Exploration & Production Inc. The plaintiff worked 12-hour day shifts on the Thunder Horse and spent the other 12 hours of the day on the M/V Sampson, a large quarters vessel located near the Thunder Horse. M/V Sampson was owned by CVI and time chartered by BP from Harkand Gulf Contracting, Ltd.

The plaintiff was assigned to an upper bunk on the M/V Sampson. The bunk had a 3-rung ladder attached to the frame of the top bunk by metal “L”-shaped brackets. On the day of the accident, while the plaintiff was climbing down from his upper bunk, he placed his right foot on the top rung of the ladder. The ladder slid along the upper bunk framing to which it was attached causing the plaintiff to twist his right ankle, lose his balance, and fall to the floor.

The plaintiff claimed that by the next morning, his ankle was swollen and he could not work. The M/V Sampson‘s medic treated the plaintiff. He completed two incident reports, and then was taken by helicopter for medical treatment at his request. He did not make any reference to a fall or that the ladder had moved in either report. In the incident report, the plaintiff claimed that the ladder caused him to fall and as a result of the fall, he injured his ankle, left hip, lower back, and left shoulder. The plaintiff later filed action CVI,the registered owner of the M/V Sampson.

How A Naval Architecture Expert’s Testimony Fell Short

The plaintiff retained an expert in naval architecture, marine engineering, and marine safety to opine on the case. The expert had over 25 years of experience designing, engineering, maintaining, and operating various types of vessels. He earned a bachelor’s degree in naval architecture and marine engineering from the University of New Orleans and was a member of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. Based on his education and experience, the expert had technical expertise in vessel classification, surveying, design, and management vessel rules and regulations; and assessment of vessels under international codes and flag state regulations.

In his report, the expert discussed sections of the International Safety Management Code, International Labor Organization regulations, and the American Society for Testing Materials Requirements for Marine Berths. He also expressed that his opinions were applicable to the M/V Sampson, and that he believed the defendant, CVI, failed to comply with those rules, regulations, and requirements. The plaintiff claimed that those industry standards, as well as their application to CVI and the accident in question, were not within the common knowledge of the jurors and therefore constituted admissible expert testimony. To the extent CVI questioned the content or application of these industry standards to CVI and the accident, CVI was invited to explore them through cross-examination of the expert and the presentation of CVI’s retained expert. Further, the plaintiff allegedly fell while exiting the top bunk because the ladder moved. The expert offered an opinion that the bunk bed was unsafe because it lacked lee rails, which run along the bed to prevent the occupant from falling out while sleeping.

CVI filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude the naval architecture expert’s testimony arguing that his opinions would not aid the trier of fact because the accident involved issues within a layperson’s general understanding — namely, falling off of a bunk bed ladder. CVI also argued that the expert offered impermissible legal conclusions.

The plaintiff argued that the expert’s testimony should not be excluded because his expertise in maritime safety would aid the trier of fact in understanding safety standards that were unique to the maritime industry, and generally not within a juror’s common knowledge. The plaintiff contended that laypersons were typically not familiar with maritime industry standards governing the inspection and maintenance of vessels, or the typical requirements for a bunk bed and ladder setup on a vessel like the M/V Sampson. The plaintiff argued that CVI’s concerns about the expert’s testimony could be addressed through cross-examination and the presentation of testimony from CVI’s own maritime safety expert.

Held

The court determined that the expert’s report offered several opinions that constituted legal conclusions or factual determinations that were reserved for the jury, and thus were inadmissible. Particularly, whether the bunk bed had proper lee rails was irrelevant to the facts of this case. CVI’s motion in limine to exclude the expert testimony was granted as to excluding the expert’s legal conclusions, statements regarding fault, and irrelevant opinions regarding lee rails.

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