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From Products Liability Law Daily, December 27, 2013

Absence of reliable expert testimony dooms design defect and failure to warn claims 

By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.

Design defect and failure to warn claims against the manufacturer of a ladderstand that collapsed during setup resulting in user injury were dismissed by a federal district court in Mississippi because the user failed to present reliable expert witness testimony in support of those claims (Runnels v. Tahsin Industrial Corp, USA, December 23, 2013, Reeves, C.).

Background. Edward Runnels suffered serious spinal injuries when a ladderstand manufactured by Tahsin Industrial Corp. buckled while he was trying to set up the ladderstand. Runnels claimed that the collapse of the ladderstand was the result of manufacturing defects, design defects, and inadequate warnings and instructions. Specifically, Runnel asserted that the ladderstand was manufactured with substandard material and should have included ladder sleeves to reinforce the ladderstand joints. Runnels filed a products liability action against Tahsin under the Mississippi Product Liability Act (MPLA). In support of his claims, Runnels designated three expert witnesses. Tahsin has challenged the admissibility of the experts’ testimony and filed a motion for summary judgment on all claims.

Expert witnesses. The admissibility of expert testimony is governed by the Daubert standard which provides that testimony by a witness who is qualified by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify if: (1) the information provided by the expert will help the trier of facts to understand the evidence or determine a fact in issue; (2) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data; (3) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (4) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case. Based on this analysis, the court concluded that the plaintiff’s first witness Shambani Watts was not qualified to provide expert testimony on any issues presented in the case. As such, his testimony was excluded in its entirety.

As for the remaining two plaintiff witnesses, Robert Carbonara and Salvatore Malguarnera, the court found that Mr. Carbonara was qualified to testify as to the quality and strength of the metal used to make the ladderstand, but that his testimony was limited to that issue. Finally, as to Mr. Malguarnera, the court excluded his testimony regarding the absence of ladder sleeves, the use of straps or ropes, design defects, deferred a decision on the admissibility of his testimony regarding plaintiff use of the ladderstand, and allowed his testimony as it related to accident reconstruction as limited by the court’s ruling.

Failure to warn. Under the MPLA, expert testimony in a failure to warn claim is required where, as in this case, the adequacy of the warning is not obvious to the ordinary layperson. The plaintiff bears the burden of proving that a warning or instructions defect rendered the product unreasonably dangerous, and that the inadequate warnings or instructions were the proximate cause of his injuries. In this case, because all three of the plaintiff’s experts were found to have not been qualified to offer testimony on the adequacy of the warnings or instructions, the plaintiff has failed to satisfy the claim. Thus, summary judgment in favor of the defendant was granted.

Design defects. To prevail on a design defect claim, the plaintiff must be able to show that a feasible alternative design would have prevented his injuries. In order to support such a claim, the plaintiff must present expert testimony that independently establishes the technical basis for the utility and safety of the proposed alternative design. The testimony of Carbonera and Malguarnera, which asserted that use of a stronger metal and a ladder sleeve would have prevented the accident, was speculative at best and did not, by itself, prove that an alternative design would have prevented the injuries. Accordingly, the plaintiff design defect claim did not survive the defendant’s summary judgment motion.

Manufacturing defect. A manufacturing design defect claim must show that a product deviated in a material way from the manufacturer’s specification or from otherwise identical units manufactured to the same manufacturing specification, and that the defective condition rendered the product unreasonably dangerous and proximately caused the damages for which recovery was sought. The expert testimony regarding the use of substandard materials in the manufacturing of the ladderstand was sufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact on this issue. Consequently, summary judgment on the manufacturing defect claim was denied.

Punitive damages. Punitive damages may be available if a plaintiff can prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant against who punitive damages are sought acted with a willful, wanton, or reckless disregard for the safety of others, or committed actual fraud. The plaintiff bears the burden of proving that punitive damages are warranted. Because the plaintiff has failed to satisfy this burden, the claim for punitive damages was rejected.

The case number is 3:11-CV-106-CWR-LRA.

Attorneys: James Ashley Ogden (Ogden & Assoc.) for Edward Runnels, Nonette Runnels. Bishop A. Bartoni - PHV (Clark Hill, PLC), Charles Greg Copeland (Copeland, Cook, Taylor & Bush, pa) for Tahsin Industrial Corporation, USA.

Companies: Tahsin Industrial Corporation, USA

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews ExpertEvidenceNews SportsandRecEquipmentNews MississippiNews

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