Oglesby v. General Motors, 98-1716

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
Citation190 F.3d 244
Docket NumberNo. 98-1818,CA-97-40,No. 98-1716,98-1716,98-1818
PartiesPage 244 190 F.3d 244 (4th Cir. 1999) JAMES L. OGLESBY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, Defendant-Appellee. JAMES L. OGLESBY, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, Defendant-Appellant. (
Decision Date31 August 1999

Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Charleston. Falcon B. Hawkins, Senior District Judge.

COUNSEL ARGUED: Jill Waldman, GIBBS & HOLMES, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellant. W. Randall Bassett, KING & SPALDING, Atlanta, Georgia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Allan R. Holmes, GIBBS & HOLMES, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellant. Chilton Davis Varner, KING & SPALDING, Atlanta, Georgia; Wm. Howell Morrison, HOLMES & THOMSON, L.L.P., Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellee.

Before WILKINSON, Chief Judge, and NIEMEYER and MICHAEL, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Niemeyer wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge Wilkinson and Judge Michael joined.


NIEMEYER, Circuit Judge:

While James Oglesby was leaning into the engine compartment of a seven-year old Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck to adjust a transmission cable, a radiator hose detached, causing Oglesby serious burn injuries. Contending that his injuries were caused by a defective plastic hose connector between the radiator and the radiator hose, Oglesby filed this product liability action against General Motors Corporation, the manufacturer of the truck, alleging negligence, breach of warranty, and strict liability under South Carolina law.

On General Motors' motion, the district court entered summary judgment in General Motors' favor, rejecting under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 the opinion of Oglesby's expert witness, a mechanical engineer, but ruling that the principles of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), did not govern the admissibility of that testimony. The district court also concluded that Oglesby failed to prove that the part was defective when it left General Motors' manufacturing plant and that General Motors breached its duty of care in manufacturing the product.

For the reasons that follow, we affirm.


In or around 1991, Blaine Nielson purchased a used 1988 Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. Within the first years after purchasing the truck, Nielson had to overhaul the truck's engine and rebuild its transmission. At the same time, he removed the radiator, cleaned and flushed it, and replaced the radiator's hoses.

Several years later, in June 1995 when the truck had about 156,000 miles on it, the rods began "knocking," and the engine began to overheat. Nielson and his friend, James Oglesby, who was a certified mechanic, completely rebuilt the engine. During this repair, not only did they replace the thermostat in the radiator, but they also removed and cleaned the radiator, replacing one of its hose clamps.

Within two weeks of this repair, the transmission began to shift "too slowly," and Nielson took the truck to Oglesby's place of work to have Oglesby adjust the transmission "detent cable," which causes the transmission to change gears. To reach the detent cable, Oglesby stepped on the driver's side front bumper, leaned into the engine compartment, and reached down toward the engine's firewall where the cable was located. Oglesby's body was positioned on the driver's side of the truck facing the windshield with his backside facing the radiator. As Nielson described it, Oglesby "was kneeling up inside, reaching to adjust the linkage. He is short, so instead of reaching over the fender -like I'm taller, but I don't know how to do it, so Jim was doing that for me. But he got up inside and was leaning up over the carburetor and stuff." As Oglesby leaned down to adjust the cable, Nielson stated that he heard "a big `w[h]oosh' sound" and he heard Oglesby yell. The radiator hose had detached and sprayed hot coolant on Oglesby, severely burning his torso from the waist down and his legs. Oglesby thereafter received extended hospital care to treat his burns.

Following the incident, Nielson reattached the radiator hose and continued driving the truck. Two months later, in September 1995, Nielson and Oglesby's attorney inspected the radiator and discovered a broken piece of the plastic inlet connector inside the radiator hose. The inlet connector is a lipped pipe-type piece that serves as the connection device between the radiator hose and the radiator.

Oglesby filed suit against General Motors, the manufacturer of the truck, in state court in Charleston, South Carolina, alleging liability based on negligence, breach of warranty, and strict liability. General Motors removed the case to federal court, based on diversity of citizenship, and filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that the hose connector was not defective when it left control of General Motors, that it had breached no duty of reasonable care, and that plaintiff's expert testimony was inadmissible under both Daubert and Federal Rule of Evidence 702.1 In answer to General Motors' motion and in support of his claims, Oglesby presented the opinion of Douglas Bradbury, a former professor of mechanical engineering at Clemson University. Bradbury had previously consulted in an array of cases involving the mechanical design and safety of various industrial products, but he had no particularized experience or expertise in evaluating either automobile manufacturing processes or the strength of plastic automobile component parts.

In preparing to render his expert opinion, Bradbury looked at the broken plastic connector and the piece which broke off, took physical measurements of the connector, and photographed the parts. These three steps constituted the entirety of Bradbury's investigation into the part or its manufacture. He found that "the connector [was] not circular, but [was] a flattened oval in shape," noting that the difference between "the major and minor dimensions of the oval shape [was] 1/10 inch." Bradbury did not know nor learn how the part was manufactured or from what material it was manufactured. He did not know nor learn any specifications prescribed for the part, and he did not perform any tests or calculations to determine the strength of the part or the stresses to which it was subjected. From his observation and measurement, Bradbury concluded:

The out-of-roundness of the upper (inlet) hose connector was apparently a manufacturing defect. Certainly, there would be no reason to design it as an oval shape, considering the method of clamping. Two probable causes of the out-of-roundness are recognized. One is that the upper connector was manufactured out-of-round. This is most unlikely, considering that the mold was designed to produce round, circular connectors. Also, the out-of-roundness should have been seen during the routine on-line inspection.

It is most likely that a defect in the formulation or handling of the thermo-setting plastic caused time-dependent internal stresses which deformed the connector from round to oval, ultimately resulting in the loosening of the upper hose and the scalding of James Oglesby.

After Bradbury gave his opinion, a General Motors expert testified that the part was "not a thermosetting plastic," but a "nylon composite, glass filled," that had "thermoplastic" characteristics including the "ability to be remolten." Bradbury then submitted a supplemental affidavit stating, "I incorrectly stated that the inlet connector was made of thermosetting plastic when it was really made of a glass thermoplastic nylon composite." Nonetheless, he concluded, still without possessing the specific properties of the material, that the "error does not in any way alter my opinion as to the defect."

General Motors' expert concluded that the "hose separation was . . . due to large bending loads applied to the hose connection" from "Mr. Oglesby leaning or pressing his torso against the radiator hose." General Motors also determined that Oglesby was the only individual, past or present, to file a complaint alleging a defect in the inlet connector installed in any of the 2,505,491 series C/K trucks, which included the 1988 Silverado model, that it manufactured between 1987 and 1991.

In granting General Motors' summary judgment motion on strict liability and breach of warranty, the district court applied South Carolina product liability law and concluded that Oglesby "failed to produce competent evidence that the truck was in the same condition as when it left the defendant's possession," explaining that the truck's "age, mileage, and prior repairs exceed the reasonable limits of establishing the fundamental element that the product was in the same condition at the time of the accident as when it left the defendant's possession." On the negligence claim, the court ruled that "[p]laintiff has shown this court nothing which would support the claim that GM knew of a potential product defect involving this type of radiator." While the district court concluded that Daubert did not apply to Bradbury's testimony because it was not scientific testimony, it nevertheless held that Federal Rule of Evidence 702 limited the admissibility of testimony of an expert testifying in a field of technical or other specialized knowledge such as engineering. Applying Rule 702, the court refused to consider Bradbury's opinion because it was mere speculation:

The proposed testimony must go beyond mere speculation or conjecture to be of assistance to the trier of fact. In this case, while plaintiff's expert is clearly qualified as an expert on various engineering principles, his proposed opinion in this case lacks any probative value and would be of no assistance to the trier of fact. . . . [T]his court finds that [Bradbury's] proposed testimony lacks the reliability,...

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