Fifth Circuit Affirms District Court’s Exclusion of Opinions of Plaintiffs’ Expert Engineers Regarding Cause of Vehicle Fire and Defective Design of Fuel Tank

On October 5, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that opinions of the plaintiffs’ expert engineers regarding the cause of a vehicle fire and the defective design of the vehicle’s fuel tank were properly excluded. In Sims v. Kia Motors of Am., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 18116 (5th Cir. Tex. Oct. 5, 2016), Henry Sims, Sr. was a passenger in the backseat of a 2010 Kia Soul when it collided with another car in an intersection, spun out and collided with a yield sign. As the Soul continued forward, the immovable base of the sign passed beneath the front bumper and continued along the underside of the vehicle until it tore a large hole in the fuel tank causing gasoline to leak onto the roadway. As the vehicle’s rear doors wouldn’t open after it came to rest, Mr. Sims was unable to escape before it erupted in flames resulting in his death.

Sims’s family members filed a product liability action against Kia Motors of America and Kia Motors Corporation in the Central District of California (the case was later transferred to the Northern District of Texas) alleging that “given the hazards posed by a vehicle’s gas tank, vehicle manufacturers must take reasonable steps to design and manufacture a gas tank that is not susceptible to failure in collisions and that, if fire in the gas tank does result, the fire does not immediately explode into the passenger cabin of the vehicle so that occupants have an opportunity to escape the burning car.” Specifically, the plaintiffs asserted that the defendants should have utilized fuel tank fastening straps or a fuel tank shield or both in the 2010 Kia Soul, and that their failure to do so rendered the vehicle unreasonably dangerous and contributed to Mr. Sims’s death.

To support their claims, the plaintiffs retained engineers Michael McCort and Jerry Wallingford. McCort traveled to the crash site to collect evidence, studied law enforcement documents about the crash, inspected both the damaged Soul and an undamaged model and ran several computer simulations. As a result his investigation, McCort concluded that Soul’s fuel tank dropped independently of the vehicle’s body allowing it to be impacted by the sign’s base. McCort, however, could not identify the “precise mechanism” of how the fuel tank lowered, nor did he recreate this occurrence in a simulation. The district court excluded McCort’s opinion after concluding that his theory was unreliable and inadmissible under Daubert and Federal Rule of Evidence 702 as he employed a “differential diagnosis approach,” a scientific technique that involved the process of elimination. In affirming this ruling, the Fifth Circuit stated that, although it was not holding that differential diagnosis could never satisfy Daubert, it was recognizing that the district court had broad discretion to make the fact specific inquiry as to whether such an approach is sufficiently reliable, especially in the absence of evidence “ruling in” an expert’s conclusion. Because the record did not reflect any reliable facts or data “ruling in” McCort’s downward displacement theory, the Fifth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the testimony.

Similarly, Wallingford reviewed photographs and law enforcement reports from the scene of the accident, Kia’s internal documents about the Soul, and depositions from other parties, including Kia’s experts. As a result of his investigation, Wallingford opined that the Soul was unreasonably dangerous and that there were two safer alternative designs that Kia could have used: a fuel tank shield which would have prevented the tank from dropping in the crash and/or rupturing and fuel tank fastening straps which would have prevented the tank from moving or raised it higher into the cavity under the vehicle, avoiding contact with the sign’s base. The district court excluded Wallingford’s opinions as unreliable due to his reliance on McCort’s theory that the tank displaced downwards during the accident, an opinion that the court already deemed inadmissible. Although the Fifth Circuit disagreed that Wallingford’s fuel tank shield opinion was dependent on McCort’s theory, it determined that this opinion was not supported by reliable facts or data to show that the shield would have prevented the rupture. Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s exclusion of Wallingford’s opinions.

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