Geotechnical Engineering Expert Witness Allowed in Sinkhole Case

Plaintiff filed sued against insurance company defendant for breach of contract.  Plaintiff hired an engineering expert witness.  Defendant filed a motion to exclude this expert testimony.  The court denied the motion.

Facts:  This case (Goetz D. Vehse v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company – United States District Court – Middle District of Florida – February 22nd, 2017) involves the insurance coverage of sinkhole damage.  The plaintiff (Vehse) claims that the defendant (Liberty Mutual) breached the terms of a homeowners policy when it failed to provide coverage to repair the sinkhole.  After Liberty Mutual performed repairs to Vehse’s sinkhole damage in July 2010, it declined to continue to insure him.  In 2015, Vehse observed damage to his property he claims was repaired negligently by Liberty Mutual, and when he sought coverage, was denied.  Vehse subsequently sued Liberty Mutual for breach of contract.  Vehse hired Sunil Gulati (geotechnical engineering expert witness) to help him in his case against Liberty Mutual.  Liberty Mutual not seeks an order excluding Mr. Gulati testimony.

Discussion:  The first issue is whether Gulati is qualified to testify in this case.  He holds a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in engineering and is a Registered Environmental Property Assessor.  Gulati has over 20 years of managing Geotechnical investigations, including sinkhole evaluations.  In addition, in the past five years, he has been involved in over 1500 sinkhole evaluation projects in Florida.  Thus, Gulati’s resume, work experience, and knowledge of sinkhole remediation makes him qualified to  to provide expert witness testimony in this case.  Also, in the past, another court had found Mr. Gulati qualified to offer similar expert witness testimony.

The next issue is whether Gulati’s methodology is scientifically reliable.  Liberty Mutual points to a specific statement from Gulati’s expert report and argues that it is not supported by logic or science.  Liberty Mutual states that Mr. Gulati’s does not describe in detail where one one of his penetration test borings were performed and how he describes soil samples that were were recovered during the boring.  He first described the samples as ‘possible grout’ and then called it ‘grout’.

The court opined that Liberty Mutual has simply identified issues that should be brought out during cross examination of Gulati.  The court opined that these arguments go to the weight of the evidence, not the admissibility.  Liberty Mutual argues that Mr. Gulati cannot place a date on the sinkhole conditions found at Vehse’s house.  In addition, they argue that the finding of supposed sinkhole conditions in 2016 does not mean that the repairs from 2011 were deficient.  The court cites to a case where a similar argument was rejected and that the defense is free to cross-examine the expert during trial, but that their argument was not a basis for exclusion of the expert witness testimony.

Last, the court needs to consider whether Gulati’s testimony will assist the trier of fact.  Gulati’s deposition contained numerous technical terms, with which the average layperson is likely to be unfamiliar.

Conclusion:  The motion to exclude the expert witness testimony of Sunil Gulati is denied.