Plaintiff’s expert testimony regarding alternative truck designs was challenged by defendant. The motion to exclude was denied.
Facts: This case (Torrez Cruz et al v. Kumho Industrial Co’, Ltd, et al – United States District Court – Northern District of New York – May 11, 2015) concerns the following: On June 15th, 2009, an accident occurred in which a Mack dump truck, driven by Plaintiff Raynaldo Torrez Cruz, veered off into an off-road wooded area on Route I-87 in Plattsburgh, NY. After the engine and passenger compartment caught aflame, Mr. Cruz attempted to open the driver’s side drawer, but it was pinned with saplings. The passenger side door was jammed. In a last ditch effort, he rolled down his passenger side window and threw himself to the ground, sustaining various injuries.
In December 2009, Mr. Cruz filed a complaint against the tire defendants in New York State Supreme Court in Franklin County claiming that a tire on the truck was defectively manufactured and designed. The claims include strict product liability, negligence, loss of consortium, and various other assertions. After the case was removed to New York Federal Court, the plaintiff’s filed a complaint in this court against Mack Trucks, stating that the truck was defective and they were liable for negligence, failure to warn, loss of consortium, and many other claims.
Both parties hired expert witness to help prove their cases, and both filed Daubert motions to exclude their opposing testimony. One witness is Ms. Erin Shipp, a truck design expert hired by the plaintiff. She presented three alternative designs that she says would have stopped a breach in the fuel tank and thus, preventing the fire. The first design entails the straightening of the front axle assembly. The second involves the replacement of the battery box, and the third is to use a stronger material than aluminum for the various tanks in the trucks. The defendants are not challenging her qualifications to testify as an expert, but do object to her alternative designs under the reliability and speculative factors, as her designs have not been used in the trucking industry.
Discussion: The court cited many cases which concluded that a proposed design to an existing piece of equipment is allowable if the expert has enough experience and expertise and has reviewed the relevant materials in the case to form a sufficiently reliable conclusion. These opinions state that any alternative designs to a product do not have to necessarily be tested to be admissible in accordance with Daubert, if other proofs can come into play. The court notes that her Ms. Shipp’s proposed alternatives are supported by various studies within the academic and government communities. For example, each of the proposed designs is supported a 1989 U.S. Department of Transportation report entitled, “Heavy Truck Fuel System Fire Safety Study”. Ms. Shipp also shows, in detail, how her proposed designs are based on various relevant engineering calculations.
The court concluded that Ms. Shipps proposed alternative designs draw enough support from her experience, engineering methodologies accepted by the engineering community, and the relevant literature. Any criticisms that the defendants may have can be addressed to the jury at trial.
Held: The motion to exclude Ms. Shipps expert testimony on alternative designs of the Mack trucks is denied.