Explosion Expert Testimony in Products Liability Case is Allowed

After a residence fire, the insurer filed suit against the manufacturer of a space heater.  The defendant filed a motion to exclude the testimony of plaintiff’s explosions expert.  The court denied the motion.

Facts: This case (Erie Insurance Company v. Sunbeam Products, Inc – United States District Court – Southern District of Ohio – January 8th, 2015) involves an explosion and fire at a residence.   After the fire, the owners of the house filed a claim with their insurance company, who then in turn filed suit against the manufacturer of a space heater that they believed to have caused the fire.  The plaintiffs hired Michael Parker, a forensic engineer, as their explosions expert witness to prove their case.  The defendants filed a motion to exclude Mr. Parker’s testimony as unreliable, claiming that he did not follow the standards in NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) 921, which is a guide for fire and explosion investigations.

The NFPA has a six part method to use in determining the cause of a fire: Organizing and defining the problem, collecting the data, analyzing the data, developing a hypothesis, and testing the hypothesis.  In addition to his examination of the now defunct space heater, Mr. Parker also reviewed various reports and depositions surrounding the fire and explosion.  He also reviewed photographs of the fire scene.  Subsequently, Mr. Parker concluded that the fire was caused by an event in the electric heater in a spot not accessible to a consumer, which ruled out misuse of the product.  He used an arc mapping analysis, Mr. Parker concluded that arcing inside the heater occurred prior to the arcing found outside of the heater.

Discussion: The defendants filed a Daubert motion to exclude Mr. Parker’s expert testimony on unreliability grounds.  They state that he did not collect and analyze all of the data available to him, did not review all of the document production, did not formulate alternative hypotheses, failed to perform any tests, and did not subject his theory to peer review.

The defense argues that Mr. Parker did not speak with various professionals at the scene or those to wrote reports about the incident.  He stated that, while that is true, he did read the reports of these individuals.  Sunbeam also states that he did not read all of the documents that were produced.  Mr. Parker retorted that many of the documents were in Chinese.  Also, the court records show that Mr. Parker did indeed form alternative hypotheses.  The court stated that although Mr. Parker did not perform physical experiments on his hypotheses, which is necessary under NFPA 921.  That said, courts have stated that deductive reasoning can be used to ascertain the cause of a fire.

The defense also argued that his testimony should be excluded because he didn’t rule out all potential causes of the fire.  The court opined that this argument goes to the weight of his testimony, not it’s reliability.  As to the challenge that Mr. Parker’s theories are subject to peer review the court opined that this argument is misplaced as it is the theories that are underlying as part of the NFPA 921.

Held: The motion to exclude the testimony of Mr. Parker is denied.