Expert testimony is often the key to winning a product liability case. If an expert witness proves inadequate, the plaintiff’s case may not survive long enough to get in front of a jury. To give a recent example, a federal judge in Savannah gutted most of a plaintiff’s case on summary judgment after determining his expert witness was unqualified and unreliable.
Grieco v. Tecumesh Products Company
The plaintiff worked as a repairman. In 2010, while making repairs to the compressor of a walk-in refrigerator, the compressor caught fire, burning the repairman’s hair, shoulder and arms. He subsequently sued the manufacturer of the compressor, alleging numerous product liability and breach of warranty claims. (Although the plaintiff’s claims are governed by Georgia state law, his case is being tried in federal court, as the manufacturer is an out-of-state corporation.)
During pre-trial discovery, the plaintiff offered an expert witness. This witness was a “self-employed mechanical contractor and consultant.” Beyond a general knowledge of how refrigeration units worked, the witness did not possess any special expertise in the design or manufacture of compressors. Nor did the witness have any education in mechanical engineering. Nor had he previously testified as an expert in any other product liability case involving compressors.
U.S. Senior District Judge B. Avant Edenfield, the Savannah-based judge presiding over the lawsuit, found the witness unqualified under federal and Georgia law. “An expert on design defects must have the knowledge, skill, experience, training, and education to discuss the inherent risks, utility, and benefits of a product,” Judge Edenfield said. The witness here had none of these. At best, the witness knew how to deconstruct and reassemble a compressor. But he lacked the experience or training to actually design a compressor.
As Judge Edenfield explained, “Georgia courts recognize three forms of product defects: manufacturing, design, and marketing/packaging.” The plaintiff here alleged all three. But his expert witness was not qualified to testify as to either manufacturing or design–and the plaintiff had no other evidence proving the compressor was defective–so Judge Edenfield granted the manufacturer summary judgment on those claims.
The third issue–marketing and packaging–revolves around a warning label on the compressor. The plaintiff admitted he never read the label before starting his repairs. That meant he could not proceed with a claim that the label’s warning was itself inadequate. Nevertheless, Judge Edenfield said the plaintiff could still argue before a jury that the “location and presentation of the warning” constituted a failure to adequately communicate the dangers of the compressor.
The plaintiff also said the manufacturer breached three separate warranties applicable to the compressor. Judge Edenfield disagreed and granted the manufacturer summary judgment on all but one claim. He said the plaintiff could proceed with his argument the manufacturer breached an “implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose” under Georgia law. The issue of “fitness” is separate from the question of whether the product was defective, Judge Edenfield said. “Unfit means unable to fulfill the particular purpose, regardless of the presence of a defect.”