Fire Investigators’ Product Defect Opinion Stifled by Federal Court

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The United States District Court for the District of Kansas recently addressed the qualifications of a fire investigator to offer testimony concerning the existence of a causal defect in a combine. In the subject case (Case No. 14-1183-JTM), a fire destroyed a John Deere S670 manufactured by the defendant and insured by plaintiff. The plaintiff filed suit alleging that the combine contained a defect that caused the fire.

In support of its theory, the plaintiff proffered the expert testimony of a certified fire and explosion investigator who examined the combine, reviewed photographs, interviewed the insured, observed fire patterns, documented fire damage, and concluded that the fire originated between the machine’s engine and Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF). The expert further determined that the fire was caused by a defect in the combine’s Emissions Control System (ECS). The defendant argued that the expert’s opinion testimony should be excluded in its entirety because he was not qualified to testify as to alleged defects in a combine’s emissions system.

In granting the motion in part, the district court held that although the expert’s training and experience qualified him to testify about the origin of the fire, he was not qualified to testify about a defect in the combine. In that regard, although the expert previously worked as an automotive technician, he never worked on a combine, was not an engineer and had no other training, education or experience in designing or analyzing software systems similar to that used in the S670.

The district court’s ruling demonstrates that testimony must not be extended beyond the area of an expert’s expertise. With this in mind, attorneys must conduct a thorough investigation prior to disclosing and when evaluating expert testimony to ensure that the expert is qualified by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education to offer all proffered opinions. Attorneys who fail to conduct this investigation risk having testimony vital to their client’s case excluded.

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