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Alabama Personal Injury Expert Testimony and a Look at Newell Rubbermaid v. Raymond Corp.

Apr 18, 2012 - Dangerous Products/Liability, Personal Injury by

You can sustain an injury doing almost anything. But when you suffer an injury because of someone else, how do you prove that they are at fault?

One of the key components to proving certain types of Tuscaloosa personal injury cases is providing expert witness testimony. The law governing expert witness testimony is complex.

Federal Rule of Evidence (FRE) 702 governs the admissibility of expert witness testimony in federal court i.e. necessary qualifications of an expert witness, requirement that expert’s testimony be based on reliable principles and methods.

In Newell Rubbermaid v. Raymond Corp. a federal appeals court addressed, among other things, the admissibility of expert witness testimony.

This case arose where Hashman (Victim) was working in a factory for Newell Rubbermaid, Inc. (Newell or Employer). The victim was required to use a Dockstocker forklift which was manufactured by Raymond (Manufacturer). As part of the design of this forklift, the rear of the machine had no guard door to protect the operator.

The following is the Court’s description of the accident:

Before beginning her shift on December 23, 2004, Hasman completed the required safety check and found nothing wrong with Dockstocker. Later that day, while driving toward a ‘robot cage’ with the operator compartment facing forward, Hashman attempted to brake by ‘plugging’ the forklift; i.e. manually reversing the direction in which the forklift was traveling. But the Dockstocker did not immediately stop. Hashman testified in her deposition that she ‘got scared’ and ‘stepped off’ the Dockstocker, but other evidence in the record suggests that Hashman instead lost her balance and slipped out of the operator compartment. In any event, Hashman’s left foot became trapped between the forklift and the robot cage, causing serious injuries that ultimately resulted in partial amputation.
The victim (Hashman) sued her employer as part of a workers’ compensation claim. After the proceedings were complete, the employer then filed a subrogation action against the manufacturer of the Dockstocker forklift under a theory that it had a defective design. The employer alleged that the victim’s (Hashman) foot would not have left the operator compartment had the manufacturer equipped the Dockstocker forklift with a rear guard door.

In order to prove a case for defective design, the moving party must generally provide expert witness testimony. Because of this requirement, the employer sought the testimony of a forensic engineer named Railsback (expert).

The manufacturer claimed that there was no defect in the design of the forklift, and countered the expert’s experience, training, and contentions.

The court looked to the law governing the admissibility of expert witness testimony. Although there is no definitive checklist or test to determine whether an expert witness meets the requirements of Rule 702, the United Supreme Court in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993) provided a number of factors that typically ‘bear on the inquiry’. These factors include whether the theory or technique proposed by the expert witness can be tested, whether the theory or technique has been subject to peer review and whether the theory or technique has gained general acceptance in the field. Simply put, an expert witness’ theory or technique must be based upon reliable scientific methods.

The court found that the expert’s testimony was not admissible because his methods were not scientifically sound. In reaching this decision, the court noted that the expert used anecdotal evidence in support of his theory without questioning or verifying the data and the expert did not actually test his alternative designs.

Because the employer failed to provide the court with admissible expert testimony of a design defect, the court awarded summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer, dismissing the employer’s case.

While this case was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, the rules governing the admissibility of expert testimony in cases currently being filed in Alabama State Courts are very similar. As a result, this case is helpful in analyzing the admissibility of expert witness testimony.

Additional Resources:

Newell Rubbermaid, Inc. v. Raymond Corp., No. 10-3912 (6th Cir. Apr. 3, 2012).

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