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Daniel Whalen v. CSX Transportation, Inc.

Area of Law:

Personal Injury, Products Liability, Federal Employers Liability, Negligence.

Grounds:

1. Third-party defendant Haworth, Inc. (i.e., the chair manufacturer) sought to preclude the testimony of CSX’s expert, Dr. Ketchman, on the grounds that (1) he was not qualified to offer opinions regarding design defects in office chairs, (2) his testimony was based on unreliable testing methodology, and (3) Dr. Ketchman’s opinions with respect to warnings and instructions would not be helpful to a jury.

2. CSX sought to preclude the testimony of Haworth’s expert, Dr. Bellingar, because (1) she was not qualified to testify regarding safety and (2) her opinions were not reliable or relevant. 3. Plaintiff sought to preclude the testimony of Dr. Jamie R. Williams, an expert for all defendants, because (1) she was not qualified to testify about the cause of Plaintiff’s injuries, (2) her opinions were not supported by reliable methodology, (3) she impermissibly evaluated Plaintiff’s credibility, and (4) she vouched for her own credibility.

Outcome:

1. Haworth’s motion to preclude granted in part and denied in part.

2. CSX's motion to preclude granted in part and denied in part. 3. Plaintiff’s motion to preclude granted.

Analysis:

Opinions of Dr. Jeffrey Ketchman

First, the court declined to preclude the testimony of Dr. Ketchman regarding design defects in office chairs on the grounds that he was not qualified.  The court noted that while Dr. Ketchman had extensive mechanical engineering experience, he did not have any direct experience designing office chairs.  Further, Dr. Ketchman had never been qualified as an expert on office chairs despite being retained multiple times in cases involving office chairs.  The court did note, however, that Dr. Ketchman had experience designing similar products.  On balance, the court ruled that Dr. Ketchman was qualified to testify regarding the design of office chairs.  Haworth’s arguments against allowing him to testify would go to the weight, not admissibility, of his testimony.

Second, the court precluded Dr. Ketchman from testifying that the office chair had a design defect because his testing methodology was unreliable.  The court concluded that because Dr. Ketchman failed to test alternative designs, assess the utility of the office chair, or present any “discernable methodology,” his opinions were “mere ipse dixit.”  Slip op. at 43.  But the court did allow Dr. Ketchman to present fact testimony regarding some of his measurements because they were independent from his conclusions.

Finally, the court precluded Dr. Ketchman from presenting opinions regarding failure-to-warn.  The court noted that Dr. Ketchman had a “total lack of experience with the design and testing of office chair warnings and instructions,” and that his opinion was not grounded in any concrete standard.  Slip op. at 47.  Further, because Dr. Ketchman was precluded from offering an opinion about the hazards of the chair, his opinion that the chair manufacturer failed to properly warn consumers of potential hazards would not be helpful.  Slip op. at 48.

Opinions of Dr. Theresa Bellingar

First, the court precluded Dr. Bellingar from offering any opinion that the office chair had a safe design because she was not qualified.  The court reviewed Dr. Bellingar’s qualifications and found that while she had extensive expertise in ergonomics, her experience with safety issues was limited and outdated.  Thus, she was not qualified to testify regarding safety design.

Second, the court considered the reliability and relevance of Dr. Bellingar’s remaining opinions – i.e., those not dealing with safety issues.  The court found that she had experience with industry standards, which made “her conclusion that Dr. Ketchman did not comply with those standards” reliable.  Slip op. at 57.  Similarly, Dr. Bellingar’s experience in ergonomics made her testimony regarding the utility of the design relevant to the design defect claim.  See Humphrey v. Diamond Boart, Inc., 556 F. Supp. 2d 167 (E.D.N.Y. 2008) (noting that to prove a design defect, a jury must determine “whether . . . a reasonable person would conclude that the utility of the product did not outweigh the risk inherent in marketing a product designed in that manner”).  However, the court found that Dr. Bellingar’s opinion regarding Dr. Ketchman’s measurements was based on pure speculation and thus not reliable.  The court also ruled that Dr. Bellingar could not testify regarding facts she learned from Haworth because those facts all related to her precluded opinion regarding safety.

Opinions of Jamie R. Williams

The court found that Dr. Williams’ opinions were not supported by demonstrated and reliable methods and thus were inadmissible.  It did not address Plaintiff’s remaining arguments as to why Dr. Williams’ opinions should be precluded.  Specifically, the court noted that Dr. Williams provided some conclusions without explanation as to how she reached these conclusions.  Dr. Williams provided other conclusions that relied on incorrect citations to inapplicable studies.