A federal appeals court reversed a $3 million judgment in favor of a personal injury plaintiff who alleged a defective vehicle caused him to suffer serious injuries in a 2012 car accident. The court ruled that expert witness testimony pertaining to the speed control cable should not have been admitted. Specifically, the appellate court ruled, the precedent set in the 1993 case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals meant the trial court had a duty to perform certain gatekeeping functions with regard to its expert witnesses, and yet the court failed to do so.
According to court records from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in the most recent case, plaintiff was driving his pickup truck, which he had recently purchased, on a road in West Virginia. He was traveling about 50 mph when he realized he was unable to slow down when he let up on the accelerator pedal. He tried to slow the pickup by applying the brakes, but this did not work. In order to avoid hitting anyone else, he turned the truck off the road, drove over a curb and crashed his vehicle into a brick wall of a local business. The tires continued spinning for about half a minute after the engine shut down.
There was no indication the vehicle previously had problems with the accelerator, throttle or cruise control.
Plaintiff filed a product liability lawsuit for the allegedly defective vehicle against defendant manufacturer, asserting strict liability, negligence and breach of warranty.
Evidence indicated that the general design and function of the throttle control system in the car is typical of any modern passenger vehicle, with the accelerator cable attaches the throttle and pedal in a pulley system.
After the crash, plaintiff hired an electrical engineer to analyze the engine and throttle in his truck. The engineer approached the exam with the view that mechanical binding is often the problem in failure to decelerate cases, and that the accelerator cable is often an issue. Contaminates or other buildup could potentially get lodged in that area and cause a malfunction. He didn’t find that to be the case here. However, he did find debris in the casing cap, and concluded this caused the guide tube to stick due to a so-called “wedging effect.” The problem, in the court’s view, was that the expert witness had no way to know how much of the buildup was present in the cap or whether it was enough to create a wedge between the cap and the guide tube sufficient enough that the throttle would be stuck open. The tool the engineer used to conduct his analysis doesn’t allow one the means to look in the casing cap or determine the amount of debris that would be there.
The witness did indicate that Ford flagged this as a potential risk in one of its 1987 guide models. This was a 2001 vehicle.
The case went to trial and jurors sided with the plaintiff awarding him $3 million in damages.
However upon reversal, the federal appeals court ruled the case should never have gotten to the trial phase because the scientific methods of plaintiff’s expert witness weren’t properly vetted per the Daubert method checklist. Florida only recently adopted the Daubert method for vetting expert witnesses in civil cases. This standard is far more rigorous than the previous so-called Frye rule, which had been used since 1923.
Call Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, at 1-800-646-1210.
Nease v. Ford Motor Co., Feb. 1, 2017, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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