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In Product Liability Case, Trial Court Abused Discretion by Admitting Opinion of Plaintiff’s Expert
Hyundai Motor Company, Ltd. v. Duncan
In Hyundai Motor Co., Ltd. v. Duncan, No. 140216, 2015 WL 110597 (Va. Jan. 8, 2015), a product liability case involving an automobile crash, the Supreme Court of Virginia held that Plaintiff’s expert’s opinion that the automobile was unreasonably dangerous based on the location of the side airbag sensor was inadmissible because it was premised on an unfounded assumption. Therefore, the appellate court reversed the judgment of the trial court which had permitted the expert’s testimony after which the jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff.
Factually, Plaintiff alleged injury after he lost control of his vehicle and struck a tree on the driver's side of the vehicle. Although the vehicle was equipped with a side airbag system, the airbag did not deploy. The Plaintiff brought an action against the automobile manufacturer Defendant and initially asserted claims for negligence, failure to warn, breach of implied warranty of merchantability, breach of implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, and breach of express warranties. At trial, Plaintiff pursued only the claim for breach of implied warranty of merchantability in which Plaintiff asserted that the vehicle was “defective, unreasonably dangerous, was not fit for the ordinary purpose for which it was intended, and did not pass without objection in the industry in which it was sold.” Specifically, Plaintiff contended that if the sensor for the side airbag system had been placed in a different location, the airbag would have deployed and prevented Plaintiff’s injury.
Plaintiff designated Geoffrey Mahon (“Mahon”), a mechanical engineer, as an expert in airbag design to testify that the vehicle was defectively designed. Mahon expressed the opinion that if Defendant had located the sensor for the side airbag system on the B-pillar of the vehicle (the pillar where the front door closes), approximately 4 to 6 inches from the floor, instead of on the cross-member underneath the driver's seat, the side airbag would have deployed. Therefore, according to Mahon, the location of the side airbag sensor on the cross-member rendered the vehicle unreasonably dangerous.
Prior to trial, Defendant moved to exclude Mahon's opinions as having an insufficient foundation because Mahon did not conduct any analysis to determine whether the side airbag would have deployed if the sensor had been located where Mahon proposed. The circuit court denied Defendant’s Motion to Exclude Mahon's testimony, and permitted him to express his opinions at trial, over Defendant's objections. The jury returned a verdict against Defendant and Defendant appealed.
The appellate court examined the trial court’s decision to admit the expert opinion for an abuse of discretion. The Court noted that the expert failed to perform any analysis or calculations to support his assumption about the supposedly proper location for the airbag sensor. Further, the expert admitted that a crash sensing system depends upon a combination of the structure of the vehicle, the sensors themselves, and any algorithm, but the expert did not perform any tests to determine whether a different sensor location, structure, or algorithm would have caused the side airbag to deploy in Plaintiff’s crash. In short, Mahon's opinion that the vehicle was unreasonably dangerous was without sufficient evidentiary support because it was premised upon his assumption that the side airbag would have deployed if the sensor was at his proposed location—an assumption that clearly lacked a sufficient factual basis and disregarded the variables he acknowledged as bearing upon the sensor location determination. Therefore, the expert’s opinion was “connected to existing data only by the ipse dixit of the expert” and the “analytical gap” between the data Mahon relied upon and the opinion he proffered was “simply too great.” Therefore, Mahon's opinion was inadmissible, and the circuit court abused its discretion in admitting it.
Plaintiff relied on the expert’s opinion that the vehicle was unreasonably dangerous to satisfy their burden of proving that Defendant breached its implied warranty of merchantability, and the expert’s opinion was the only support for this claim. The inadmissibility of the expert’s opinion as a matter of law was fatal to the Plaintiff’s claim and entitled Defendant to judgment as a matter of law. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the judgment of the trial court and entered final judgment for Defendant.
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