Smith v. Ford Motor Co.

Decision Date02 June 2000
Docket NumberNo. 99-2656,99-2656
Citation215 F.3d 713,2000 WL 709895
Parties(7th Cir. 2000) Mark A. Smith, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Ford Motor Company, Defendant-Appellee
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. IP97-1965-C-Y--Richard L. Young, Judge. [Copyrighted Material Omitted]

[Copyrighted Material Omitted] Before Coffey, Flaum, and Diane P. Wood, Circuit Judges.

Flaum, Circuit Judge.

Mark A. Smith filed suit in Indiana state court against Ford Motor Company ("Ford") alleging that the injuries he sustained from a car accident were the result of a defective product designed and manufactured by Ford. Ford removed the suit to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana under 28 U.S.C. sec.sec. 1332 and 1441(a), and the district court dismissed Smith's suit with prejudice. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse and remand.

I. BACKGROUND

On November 8, 1995, at approximately 2:00 a.m., Smith was involved in a one-car accident when he fell asleep at the wheel of his Ford Econoline 150E van and careened off the road. At the time of the accident, Smith was traveling in the rightmost westbound lane of Highway 50 near Dillsboro, Indiana. After falling asleep, Smith crossed over the left lane, across a grassy median, and over the two eastbound lanes before he awoke. Upon waking, Smith jerked the wheel of the van to the right to move the van back to the westbound lanes of traffic. Smith claims that at this point, the steering mechanism in the van malfunctioned and he was no longer able to control the van. The van left the road, hit a concrete culvert, and eventually came to rest in a soybean field. Smith suffered several injuries as a result of this accident. After the accident, Smith stored the van and alleges that it has remained in an unaltered condition.

On November 7, 1997, Smith filed a complaint against Ford in Indiana state court alleging that his injuries from the 1995 accident were caused by a defect in the power steering gearbox of the Ford van he was driving. Ford removed the case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, invoking that court's diversity jurisdiction.

Smith proposed to call two experts in support of his case. His first expert was James Cassassa, a mechanical engineer, who formerly worked for General Motors performing accident reconstruction and analysis, and who currently works for Wolf Technical Services, Inc., a private company, performing similar work. Cassassa inspected the Ford van in May 1996 and May 1998. As a result of his inspections, Cassassa concluded that there was an internal failure in the steering gearbox of the van, that the failure had occurred while the van was in use before it left the road, and that the failure was not caused by the impact of the van with anything else. Although Cassassa was able to conclude that the steering had failed due to a defect in the parts inside of the steering gearbox, he was unable to determine whether the defect was due to the design or the manufacture of the affected parts. Cassassa outlined several hypothetical design and manufacturing defects that could have caused the failure.

Smith's second witness was Karl Muszar, a metallurgical engineer, who worked for General Motors for seventeen years before leaving to form his own engineering firm. After the gearbox was removed from Smith's van and opened under the supervision of a Ford technician, Muszar inspected and tested the mechanisms inside the gearbox. He determined that the steering had failed due to overloading of the torsion bar and that the specific parts were manufactured according to Ford specifications. Like Cassassa, Muszar concluded that the steering failure was the result of either a manufacturing defect or a design defect but could not determine which type of defect had actually occurred. Muszar offered several hypothetical explanations for the failure and stated that in his opinion using a different metal for the torsion bar would have been a better choice.

Smith's original counsel withdrew on February 4, 1999, and Smith's present counsel first appeared before the district court on February 18, 1999. On March 24, 1999, Smith's new counsel filed a motion to continue the jury trial, which had been set for April 26, 1999, because he had a previous trial already set for state court on the same day. The district court denied this motion on April 15, 1999, and the trial schedules were not worked out until April 20, when the state court judge was persuaded to reset the state trial. Meanwhile, on March 15, Ford filed a motion to exclude the testimony of Smith's experts. Smith was ordered to respond to this motion by April 19, but did not respond until April 21, when he filed a motion for leave to file late along with his response to Ford's motion to exclude his expert witnesses. The district court struck Smith's written response but allowed Smith to respond to the motion in open court on April 26.

On April 26, after empaneling the jury, the district court conducted a hearing regarding Ford's motion to exclude Smith's experts. The district court concluded that the experts were not qualified to testify as to design defects and that their testimony would not be helpful to the jury. The district court then granted Ford's motion to exclude both experts. Smith moved for a continuance to acquire a design expert who would satisfy the court, but this motion was denied. Ford then moved to dismiss the case on the ground that under Indiana tort law a claim for product liability could not be proven without experts. The district court granted this motion and dismissed the case with prejudice. Smith now appeals.

II. DISCUSSION

Smith argues that the district court erred when it 1) excluded his expert witnesses; 2) denied his motion for a continuance to obtain additional experts; and 3) granted Ford's motion to dismiss his claims with prejudice. We address each of these arguments in turn.

A. Exclusion of Expert Witnesses

Smith first argues that the district court erred in excluding the testimony of his experts Cassassa and Muszar on the ground that neither witness was qualified as an expert in a relevant field and neither witness's testimony was reliable or would have been helpful to the jury. We review de novo whether the district court applied the appropriate legal standard in making its decision to admit or exclude expert testimony. See Walker v. Soo Line R.R. Co., 208 F.3d 581, 590 (7th Cir. 2000); United States v. Hall, 165 F.3d 1095, 1101 (7th Cir. 1999). We review for abuse of discretion the district court's choice of factors to include within that framework as well as its ultimate conclusions regarding the admissibility of expert testimony. See Kumho Tire Co., Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 152 (1999) (stating that the abuse of discretion standard "applies as much to the trial court's decisions about how to determine reliability as to its ultimate conclusion"). A court abuses its discretion when it commits "a serious error of judgment, such as reliance on a forbidden factor or failure to consider an essential factor." Powell v. AT&T Comm., Inc., 938 F.2d 823, 825 (7th Cir. 1991).

The admission of expert testimony is specifically governed by Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and the principles announced in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc. 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Rule 702 states:

If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.

The Supreme Court in Daubert interpreted this rule to require that "the trial judge must ensure that any and all scientific testimony or evidence admitted is not only relevant, but reliable." 509 U.S. at 589. In other words, as a threshold matter "a district court is required to determine (1) whether the expert would testify to valid scientific knowledge, and (2) whether that testimony would assist the trier of fact with a fact at issue." Walker, 208 F.3d at 586. When making these determinations, the district court functions as a "gatekeeper" whose role is "to keep experts within their proper scope, lest apparently scientific testimony carry more weight with the jury than it deserves." DePaepe v. General Motors Corp., 141 F.3d 715, 720 (7th Cir. 1998).

In analyzing the reliability of proposed expert testimony, the role of the court is to determine whether the expert is qualified in the relevant field and to examine the methodology the expert has used in reaching his conclusions. See Kumho, 526 U.S. at 153. An expert may be qualified by "knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education." Fed. R. Evid. 702. While "extensive academic and practical expertise" in an area is certainly sufficient to qualify a potential witness as an expert, Bryant v. City of Chicago, 200 F.3d 1092, 1098 (7th Cir. 2000), "Rule 702 specifically contemplates the admission of testimony by experts whose knowledge is based on experience," Walker, 208 F.3d at 591. See Kumho, 526 U.S. at 156 ("[N]o one denies that an expert might draw a conclusion from a set of observations based on extensive and specialized experience."). Thus, a court should consider a proposed expert's full range of practical experience as well as academic or technical training when determining whether that expert is qualified to render an opinion in a given area.

A court's reliability analysis does not end with its conclusion that an expert is qualified to testify about a given matter. Even "[a] supremely qualified expert cannot waltz into the courtroom and render opinions unless those opinions are based upon some recognized scientific method." Clark v. Takata...

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