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From Products Liability Law Daily, May 28, 2013

U.S. High Court Denies Review of 10th Circuit’s Reversal of Seatbelt Verdict

By Susan Lasser, J.D.

A petition by a front seat passenger, who suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury as a result of an automobile rollover accident, to review a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit (Hoffman v. Ford Motor Co. (10thCir), No. 10-1137, August 16, 2012) on the question of the admissibility of expert testimony was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court (Hoffman v. Ford Motor Co., Dkt. No. 12-889, filed January 17, 2013, cert. denied May 28, 2013). The Tenth Circuit held that the opinion of a mechanical engineer who testified that a defect in the design of the seatbelt buckle which had restrained the passenger, Erica Hoffman, caused the buckle to “inertially unlatch” when the vehicle, a 1999 Ford Mercury Cougar Coupe, rolled over, thereby ejecting the passenger, should not have been admitted into evidence. The court of appeals also held that without the expert’s testimony, the passenger and her parents, Gary and Sandra Hoffman, failed to present sufficient evidence at trial to support the jury’s verdict, which had been in the passenger’s favor, in her action against Ford Motor Company, the vehicle manufacturer. After a 10-day trial and over three days of deliberation, the jury found the Hoffmans’ total damages to be $18 million and that Ford was 25 percent at fault, resulting in a judgment of $4.5 million against Ford. The passenger and her parents asked the U.S. High Court to review the court of appeals’ decision reversing the verdict to determine whether a uniform abuse of discretion standard was necessary in determining the admissibility of expert testimony.

Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion. The court of appeals determined that the expert failed to present a scientific connection between the accelerations he found necessary to inertially unlatch seatbelt buckles tested in the laboratory and accelerations that occurred or could have occurred on the passenger’s buckle during the rollover. The court concluded that the expert’s opinion was not reliable or relevant and should not have been admitted at trial. In addition, the appellate court ruled that without the mechanical engineer’s testimony, which the court found was the only evidence supporting the passenger’s inertial unlatch theory and the contention that the passenger’s seatbelt buckle was defective, the jury verdict lacked sufficient evidentiary support.

Petition for certiorari. In her petition, the passenger objected that the Tenth Circuit’s opinion was not consistent with an abuse of discretion review. The petition also noted that the vehicle manufacturer’s own expert established that the g forces capable of being generated in a crash were sufficient to cause the inertial unlatch of the passenger’s seatbelt. The petition complained that while the Tenth Circuit criticized the passenger’s expert’s methodology, the vehicle maker’s own expert confirmed its validity, which the petition asserted left the court of appeal’s rationale “without scientific support.” Further, the petition noted that, as the dissent in the case recognized, the basis of the Tenth Circuit majority’s reversal was their conclusion that planar crash test data cannot serve as a proxy for rollover crash test data. The passenger contended that this was not correct. Her petition also stated that she and her parents proceeded to trial with substantial physical evidence of her belt use and corroborative witness testimony, including the testimony of the expert mechanical engineer excluded by the Tenth Circuit. Ultimately, the petition argued that the Tenth Circuit erred in analyzing the evidence and erred in failing to give the trial court the mandated level of discretion.

Petition’s questions presented. The questions presented by the passenger and her parents were: (1) whether the U.S. Supreme Court should provide a uniform abuse of discretion standard regarding the admissibility of expert testimony consistent with its rulings in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), General Electric v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136 (1997), and Kumho Tire Co., Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999) to resolve the conflict among the circuit courts in reviewing the gatekeeping responsibilities of district courts so as to not interfere with the right to a jury trial; and (2) whether the U.S. Supreme Court should resolve the conflict among the circuits and confirm that de novo review is not appropriate for evidentiary determinations.

The case number is 12-889.

Attorneys: Angela L. Ekker (Lathrop & Gage) for Erica Hoffman; and Gregory G. Garre (Latham & Watkins, LLP) for Ford Motor Co.

Companies: Ford Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory ExpertEvidenceNews MotorEquipmentNews

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