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Donegal Mut. Ins. Co. v. Electrolux North America, July 24, 2012

Facts

Plaintiff, Donegal Mutual Insurance Company, instituted this subrogation action against Defendant, Electrolux Home Products, following a November 12, 2006 fire that involved a dryer manufactured by Defendant. Plaintiff asserted negligence, strict liability, and breach of contract; the dryer was defective and causes a fire in the home of the insured, Vanessa Schantz.

Plaintiff’s expert, Michael Stoddard, offered the following opinions:

  1. The dryer is defective because its bearing assembly does not fail safe and fails into a fire causing condition.
  2. The dryer is defective because lint accumulates near the heat source, allowing the lint to sere as either a first fuel or an accelerating fuel in development and spread of fire.

On June 29, 2010, Defendant filed a Motion to Exclude Stoddard’s opinion. This motion was granted in part. The court held that Stoddard’s bearing failure opinion satisfied Daubert. However, his opinion that the bearing assembly failed due to a defect did not satisfy. The court also held that Stoddard could opine that the lint served as a first fuel, but not that the dryer defect allowed lint to accumulate because his methods were unreliable.

This action concerns Plaintiff’s Motion for Reconsideration. Plaintiff narrowly challenges the court’s ruling that Stoddard used unreliable methods to reach his opinion that the dryer defect allowed lint to accumulate.

Standard of Review

Motion to Reconsider must demonstrate one of the following: (1) an intervening change in controlling law; (2) the availability of new evidence that was not available when the court entered judgment; (3)the need to correct a clear error of law or fact or to prevent manifest injustices.

Discussion

Plaintiff claims that if the court declines its request to reconsider, the Court will establish inconsistent precedent. Plaintiff cites Rager v. General Electric Co., No. 1:08-cv-1482 (M.D.Pa. Dec. 22, 2010). Plaintiff claims that the only discernable difference between this case and Rager is that a Daubert hearing was held in Rager.

Plaintiff had failed to proffer any testimony at the hearing scheduled for Defendant’s challenge to Stoddard’s testimony. On November 2, 2011, the court held a Daubert hearing.

Court’s Analysis of 921

Stoddard testified that he “followed methodology outlined in National Fire Protection Association Code 921 (NFPA 921). Specifically, he testified that he developed a hypothesis that the dryer defectively allows lint to accumulate, examined lint accumulation in several exemplar dryers, performed tests on Electrolux dryers and other design alternatives to compare the lint accumulation, and concluded that the dryer in this case defectively allowed lint to accumulate near the heat source. He also testified that he cannot determine whether lint or clothing was the first fuel in the dryer fire, and that the fire in this case did not result from an excessive buildup of lint, but from the failure of the bearing assembly that allowed the heating drum to detach and come into contact with the energized heating element during operation. Plaintiff wanted the Court to reconsider its determination that Stoddard’s opinion that the dryer at issue defectively allows lint to accumulate near the heat source does not satisfy the requirements of Daubter and Rule 702.”

A trial court has a special obligation to ensure that expert testimony is relevant and reliable. The inquiry is controlled by Rule 702, which represents a “trilogy of requirements:” qualification, reliability, and fit. The Court considered Stoddard’s testimony and the Plaintiff’s concessions, and determined that his opinion that the dryer defect allowed lint to accumulate is unreliable.

Stoddard was able to provide testimony in the Daubert hearing that he could speak about burning dryers and that excessive build up of lint can cause the lint to ignite. The court then analyzed the probative value compared to the prejudicial value of this testimony. United States v. Stevens, 935 F.2d 1380, 1399 (3d Cir. 1991) said that expert testimony can be powerful and quite misleading, so a judge must weigh the possible prejudice under Rule 403.

This court held that any testimony by Stoddard would be unhelpful and confusing. Further, this case is different from Rager because that expert offered a different opinion than Mr. Stoddard’s. That expert offered that the dryer’s design promoted build up of lint. Here, Stoddard is suggesting the defect could allow lint accumulation.

Conclusion

Plaintiff did not offer grounds for altering or amending the December 22, 2010 order. Mr. Stoddard’s testimony would not be helpful to the jury. This opinion would not change controlling precedent (Rager). Plaintiff’s Motion to Reconsider is denied.

© Copyright 2020 Armstrong Teasdale LLP. All rights reserved National Law Review, Volume II, Number 243

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