Court of Appeals Affirms Exclusion of Accident Reconstruction and Forensic Engineering Expert Witnesses

Plaintiff appeals a decision of the the district court excluding the expert opinions related to a vehicle crash and subsequent fire.  The court affirmed the opinion of the district court.

Facts: This case (Sims v. Kia Motors of Am., Inc – United States Court of Appeals – Fifth Circuit – October 5th, 2016) involves a products liability lawsuit filed again Defendants (Kia) after Henry Sims Sr. died in a tragic car accident.  Mr. Sims was a passenger in a Kia Soul when it was involved in a car crash, which caused it to spin and strike various objects.  After hitting the immovable base of a yield sign, the car continued forward, became stuck, then caught fire after the base of the yield sign tore a hole in the fuel tank.  Mr. Sims was stuck in the car and died in the fire.  The decedents of Sims filed suit against Kia, arguing that they should have utilized a fuel tank shield or fastening straps in the 2010 Kia Soul.  The plaintiffs hired Michael McCort (Accident Reconstruction Expert Witness) and Jerry Wallingford (Forensic Engineering Expert Witness) to help prove their case.

The case was moved from the Central District of California to the Northern District of Texas.  Kia sought partial summary judgment and to the exclude some or all of of the plaintiffs’ expert witness testimony.  The district court granted the motions and the plaintiffs appealed to the current court.

Discussion: In the case, McCort investigated the mechanics of the fuel tank striking the flange of the yield sign and Wallingford opined on whether alternative designs for the fuel tank existed.  We turn first to McCort.

McCort collected evidence from the crash, analyzed police documents about the crash, and examined the damaged car and an undamaged model.  He concluded, through the elimination process of differential diagnosis, that the vehicle dropped independently of the car’s body.  McCort opined that the fuel tank moved downward toward the crash sequence, but the district court ruled that this “downward displacement theory” was not reliable and excluded this piece of his expert testimony.  The parties were in dispute about whether McCort “ruled out” or “ruled in” his “downward placement theory”.  The current court ruled that the record does not reflect any reliable facts for “ruling in” the “downward placement theory”, thus the district court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded it.

Turning to Jerry Wallingford’s testimony, the court also opined that district court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded his testimony.  His initial report opined that the Soul was dangerous and they there were safer alternative designs that could have been used.  The plaintiffs, on appeal, argue that Wallingford should have been allowed to opine on two safer alternative designs: Fuel tank fastening straps and a fuel tank shield.  In his analyzation, he reviewed photographs, law enforcement reports, Kia’s internal documents, and other parties’ depositions.

The district court ruled that its exclusion was, in part, due to his dependence on McCort’s theory that the tank displaced downwards.  Since the court already excluded McCorrt’s testimony, Wallingford’s testimony about other safer deigns would have to be excluded as well.  Thus, the current court opined, the district court did not exclude its discretion when it excluded Wallingford’s testimony:

Conclusion:  The opinion of the district court is affirmed.