Fire Expert Witness Partially Allowed

Plaintiff sued defendant for negligence in the design of a toaster that caught on fire, causing the death of the owner.  The plaintiff hired an expert to assist in his case, and a motion to exclude was denied in part and granted in part

Facts:  This case (DAVID OSTRINSKY As Administrator of the Estate of Michael Ostrinsky, deceased v. BLACK & DECKER – United States District Court – Northern District of Illinois – November 16th, 2016) involves a wrongful death action against Black and Decker (B&D) for wrongful death negligence and Survival Action negligence.  Michael Ostrinsky died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning when a toaster made by B&D failed to pop up bagel slices and started a fire.  The plaintiff, the estate of Mr. Ostrinsky, hired Darl Eberolse, a fire expert witness, to assist in his case and B&D filed a motion to exclude Ostrinsky’s expert testimony.  B&D argues that Ebersole does not have the proper qualifications to offer certain opinions and that some of his opinions are not reliable.

Discussion:  B&D argues that Ebersole is not qualified to offer the following opinions:  1) B&D did not follow a reasonable standard of care in the design of the toaster and this failure caused Ostrinsky’s death, 2) It was unreasonable for B&D to create a toaster that would heat food to the combustion point as a result of failures within the toaster, 3) that if a design was provided that would have prevented the fire, it would not have had a significant cost to the manufacturer and would not have ceased the utility of the Toaster, and 4) the Toaster’s owners manual did not warn the user that the appliance could fail.

Regarding the cause of the fire, B&D argues that he lacks training in toaster design and knowledge of the toaster industry.  The court opined that an expert need not be required to have such specialized training that dealt with the specific product at issue in the case.  Ebersole’s training in electrical engineering and electrical safety and his experience with fire investigations qualify him to testify in this case.

The court also ruled that Ebersole’s experience and training in electrical engineering, electrical safety, and fire investigation are sufficient to qualify him to offer an opinion related to the Toaster indefinitely heating of food to the point of combustion.  However, the court agreed with the defendant with regard to an alternative design of the Toaster.  Because he does not have sufficient knowledge of the toaster industry in 1994, or any knowledge of toaster design, In addition, the court ruled that he lacks the qualification to opine on the cost that would have been imposed on the manufacturers of the of an alternative design.

Last, the court ruled that Ebersole lacks the qualifications to provide expert testimony regarding an alternative warning that should have been included in the Toaster’s owner’s manual.

With regard to the reliability of Ebersole’s opinions, B&D argues that the following opinions are not reliable: 1) the negligent design caused the Fire; 2) that alternative designs should have been added to to original design; and 3) that an alternative warning should have been included in the owner’s manual.  The court agreed with B&D on two of these points (numbers two and three) and excluded these opinions.  The court allowed the first opinion.

Conclusion:  The motion to exclude the expert opinions of Darl Erbolse was partially granted and partially denied.