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From Products Liability Law Daily, June 12, 2014

Electrical engineering expert’s testimony sufficient to create jury question in pickup truck fire matter

By Susan Lasser, J.D.

In an action involving a pickup truck that allegedly started a warehouse fire, an expert in electrical engineering was properly qualified as an expert witness, and his testimony was sufficient to deny the truck manufacturer’s motion for directed verdict and to submit the case to the jury, the South Carolina Supreme Court held, reversing the state court of appeals and upholding a $41,000 jury verdict (5 Star, Inc. v. Ford Motor Co., June 11, 2014, Kittredge, J.).

Background. In February 2005, lawn maintenance and pressure washing company, 5 Star, Inc., purchased a used 1996 Ford F-250 pickup truck. The company is owned by Stan Shelby, who parked the truck for a weekend in one of the company’s warehouses. Shelby returned to the warehouse two days later and found that a fire had occurred, destroying the truck and severely damaging the warehouse. The local chief fire investigator observed that the truck was located in the middle of the warehouse, which was where the most extensive damage occurred. He also noted that the engine compartment of the truck was the likely origin of the fire.

5 Star filed a products liability action against Ford Motor Co. for negligent design of the speed control deactivation switch (deactivation switch), seeking actual and punitive damages. The deactivation switch acts as a mechanism to deactivate the cruise control when the driver presses the brake pedal, and is wired into the brake light circuit. For safety reasons, the deactivation switch must remain energized at all times. Its electrical component is separated from flammable brake fluid by a thin membrane.

In support of its claim, 5 Star relied on the testimony of Leonard Greene, an expert in electrical engineering and fire origin and cause who testified that the fire originated in the engine compartment. He further opined that due to numerous problems with the design of the deactivation switch, the fire was caused by a malfunction in the deactivation switch. Greene stated that it was “very foreseeable” that the thin membrane separating the electrical component, which is constantly energized, from the flammable brake fluid, would leak and create a significant risk for an engine fire.

Ford moved for a directed verdict at the close of 5 Star’s case and renewed its motion at the close of all the evidence. The manufacturer argued that 5 Star failed to prove the essential elements of a negligent design defect claim, but the trial court denied both motions. The jury found Ford liable for the negligent design of the deactivation switch and awarded 5 Star $41,000 in actual damages. The state court of appeals, however, reversed, finding that the trial court erred by not directing a verdict in favor of Ford because the appellate court found that 5 Star offered no evidence that Ford’s conduct in designing the deactivation switch was negligent. Although the trial court had qualified Greene as an expert in electrical engineering and fire origin and cause, the court of appeals agreed with Ford that Greene was not qualified to offer an opinion as to whether the manufacturer breached its duty to exercise due care in designing the deactivation switch. Without Greene’s testimony, the appellate court ruled that 5 Star failed to present any evidence that Ford’s conduct was negligent and held that the trial court erred.

Qualification of expert. The South Carolina Supreme Court reviewed the court of appeals’ ruling that Greene was not qualified to offer expert testimony as to whether Ford exercised due care in designing the deactivation switch, and agreed with 5 Star that the appellate court erred. The state supreme court found that Greene’s extensive qualifications in electrical engineering relating to automobiles were sufficient to enable him to testify regarding Ford’s exercise of due care. Specifically, Greene was a licensed electrical engineer in South Carolina who earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and was a member of a number of professional engineer associations. In addition, he had been qualified as an expert in fire origin and cause, electrical engineering, and defective products, and had provided testimony between 50 and 100 times as an expert for both plaintiffs and defendants. He also testified that he had conducted investigations on an electrical component as a possible cause of fire many times during his career. Further, the state high court found that he had “a vast amount of experience related to automotive engineering and ha[d] designed many component parts that were used in vehicles and other products.” He had also been hired previously by component manufacturers to determine the cause and origin of fires in boats, buses, and other large commercial vehicles. Specifically, he had investigated a number of fires caused by the deactivation switch in Ford vehicles, including reviewing the relevant scientific literature. Therefore, the South Carolina Supreme Court found that Greene was properly qualified by the trial court as an expert to render an opinion as to whether Ford breached its engineering standard of care in designing the deactivation switch. As such the court held that the appellate court erred in finding Greene unqualified as an expert to testify as to Ford’s alleged negligence in designing the deactivation switch.

Expert’s testimony was sufficient to create a question of fact for the jury. The state supreme court described Greene’s testimony as “[r]elying on foundational scientific principles known at least since the invention of the combustion engine,” and noted that the expert provided testimony that the deactivation switch design was defective in three ways. First, he stated that the deactivation switch was designed to be constantly energized, and that a safer design would have been that it only had power when the ignition was on. Next, Greene testified that the deactivation switch was rated for two amperes, but was protected only by a fifteen-ampere fuse, which allowed the deactivation switch to “overheat and start a fire before the 15-ampere fuse would ever blow.” Third, he stated that the deactivation switch’s design of having an electrical component next to flammable hydraulic brake fluid, separated only by a thin membrane, made it foreseeable that the membrane “will leak eventually” because of brake pressure pushing on the membrane. He testified that when flammable brake fluid leaks into a constantly energized, overheated electrical circuit, a fire is a foreseeable result, and that the “obvious risk” could have been avoided by installing a $2 fuse in series with the deactivation switch in order to limit the current to one or two amperes. On cross-examination, he stated that the manufacturer should have caught the potential failure issues during an internal review.

The state supreme court agreed with 5 Star’s argument that the appellate court erred by not finding that Greene’s testimony was sufficient to create a jury question as to whether Ford failed to exercise due care in designing the deactivation switch. Further, the court held that the absence of direct evidence that Ford knew of the design defect in the deactivation switch was not dispositive of a negligence claim. To require an admission of a design defect by a manufacturer as a prerequisite for a negligence claim, as Ford had argued, was contrary to law and at odds with the policy of encouraging manufacturers to design products safely based on well-understood principles of safety and science, according to the South Carolina high court. The court reversed and remanded the case to the court of appeals.

The case number is 27398.

Attorneys: Thomas R. Goldstein (Belk Cobb Infinger & Goldstein, PA) for 5 Star, Inc. Mitchell C. Brown (Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP) for Ford Motor Co.

Companies: 5 Star, Inc.; Ford Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory ExpertEvidenceNews DesignManufacturingNews MotorEquipmentNews SouthCarolinaNews

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