Materials Engineering Expert Witness Testimony Allowed, says Appeals Court

Plaintiff sued defendant after a fire in his home alleging it was caused by material manufactured by defendant.  Plaintiff hired a materials engineering expert witness to prove his case.  Defendant filed a motion to exclude, which was denied by the court.  The appeals court affirmed the opinion.

Facts:  This case (Mazen Hanna, et al. v. Ward Manufacturing, Inc. – United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit – January 10th, 2018) involves a fire that broke out in Plaintiff’s (Hanna) home while their family was on vacation.  An investigation revealed that a part of Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing (CSST), which carried natural gas throughout the house, had been punctured.  Hanna and his insurers sued Ward, the manufacturer of the CSST and was victorious.  Ward now appeals the denial of its notion for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial.  Ward alleges that the district court erred when it allowed the expert witness testimony of Dr. Tom Eagar (materials engineering expert witness).

Discussion:  Dr. Eager’s testimony was provided to prove two facts:  1)  The perforation could only have been caused by lightning, and 2) a phenomenon called “flame lift-off”

First, the court looked at Dr. Eagar’s work and expertise in metallurgy and engineering, which are recognized in his field.  He has studied the physics of electrical arcs, which includes lightning.  In addition, he has been involved in many cases dealing with CSST and lightning and has published extensively on the topic.  In addition he opined that the hole in the CSST was caused by lightning.  He reached his conclusions by applying his training, experience, and knowledge to the physical evidence.  He also identified the characteristics of the hole, which suggested that it was caused by a lightning strike, not a household electrical current.  In addition, he saw evidence of thermal cracking which is more commonly caused by lightning strikes.  Ward argues that Dr. Eagar’s testimony should not have been allowed because he produced conclusions from evidence that was of poor quality and failed to adequately explain crucial facts.  The district court disagreed with Ward, concluding that these challenges go to the weight of the testimony and not the admissibility.  The appeals court agreed.

In addition, Ward alleges that Dr. Eagar did not consistently identify what object the CSST arced with to cause the fire and argues that this is speculative, and thus, not admissible.  Although conceding that that certain structures in the attic could have caused the arc, this does not mean that his testimony should not be admissible.  The appeals court again agreed with the district court.

Last, Ward argues that Dr. Eagar’s liftoff testimony should be excluded as they are misleading, which the lower court opined goes to the weight of the evidence, not the admissibility.

Conclusion:  The appeals court confirmed the lower court opinion allowing the expert testimony of Dr. Eagar.