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Easterling v. Ford Motor Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

March 29, 2018




         This is a product liability case arising out of a motor vehicle accident. Plaintiff Jerry Easterling has sued defendant Ford Motor Company for injuries he sustained when he lost control of his 2003 Ford F-250 pickup truck and crashed. He alleges that he was wearing his seat belt at the time of the accident and that the seat belt buckle unlatched during the crash sequence due to a defect in its design and manufacture.

         The case is now before the court on three related motions filed by Ford: (1) Ford's motion for summary judgment (doc. 38); (2) Ford's motion to exclude the opinions that have been offered by Easterling's designated expert witness on product defect, Donald R. Phillips, P.E.[1] (doc. 40); and (3) Ford's motion to strike Phillips's “newly disclosed” expert opinion and any related testing performed in support of the opinion (doc. 89). The court held a hearing on the motion to exclude Phillips's opinions on January 30, 2018. Phillips testified at the hearing, as did Easterling's other expert witness, Eric Van Iderstine. Following the hearing, Ford filed its motion to exclude Phillips's “newly disclosed” opinion and any testing performed in support thereof.

         All three of the pending motions have been fully briefed by the parties and are ripe for decision. Because the court's rulings on Ford's motion to exclude Phillips's opinions and motion to strike his “newly disclosed” opinion and related testing will impact the court's decision on Ford's motion for summary judgment, the court will consider the motion to exclude and motion to strike first, and will then address the motion for summary judgment. For the reasons discussed below, the court concludes that all three motions are due to be granted.


         A. The Accident

         On the morning of December 30, 2012, Easterling was driving his 2003 Ford F-250 pickup truck on a two-lane road in Bessemer, Alabama. He hit a patch of ice and lost control of the vehicle. His truck veered off the right shoulder of the road, struck an embankment, crossed back over the road, and struck a ditch. The truck then rotated and turned over on the driver's side, where it came to rest. (Ala. Uniform Traffic Accident Report).[2] Easterling sustained multiple serious injuries in the accident.

         According to Easterling, he is a habitual seat belt user and was wearing his seat belt at the time of the accident.[3] However, at some point during the crash the seat belt buckle unlatched. (Deposition of Jerry Easterling at 94, 106-07).[4]Easterling contends that his injuries would not have been as serious if the seat belt buckle had remained latched throughout the entire crash sequence.

         B. The Seat Belt Buckle

         The driver's seat belt buckle in Easterling's 2003 Ford F-250 pickup truck was part of a three-point restraint system manufactured by TRW Vehicle Safety Systems, Inc.[5] The buckle is identified as the TRW “RNS4G” buckle. Eric Van Iderstine, a professional engineer who performed CT scans of the buckle, provided a detailed description of the buckle assembly:

The design of the seat belt buckle assembly in the 2003 Ford F-250 utilizes a metal frame with a plastic cover …. The buckle cover has an opening that allows the latch plate to be inserted. When inserted, the latch plate slides in between surfaces of the metal frame. The latch plate depresses a spring loaded ejector that is intended to eject an improperly seated latch plate to prevent a “false latch” condition. Once the latch plate is inserted, a spring loaded lock bar passes through a cutout in the latch plate and in each side of the buckle frame. The lock bar is held in place by the metal latch spring …. The latch spring is affixed to the buckle button and is deflected away from the lock bar when the button is depressed. The metal latch spring is deflected away from the lock bar by a slide surface on a white plastic assembly riveted to the buckle frame. The white plastic assembly incorporates two cantilevered springs that return the buckle button to its fully returned, initial position. The buckle button has angled ramp-type features molded into the buckle button. The angled ramp-type features are used to move the lock bar out of position as the buckle button is depressed. The buckle button also has backing tab features that move behind a fully seated lock bar when the button is fully returned to prevent the lock bar from moving out of position.

(Report of Eric L. Van Iderstine dated Aug. 9, 2016 at 2-3).[6]

         Van Iderstine's initial CT scan of the subject buckle revealed that the two plastic (polymer) return springs for the buckle button were fractured and “failed to contact the buckle button, precluding the spring operation and button return.” (Id. at 3). A subsequent scan of the buckle with the latch plate inserted also revealed that the fractured springs were “not in contact with their mating features on the buckle button … and not capable of fully returning the buckle button.” (Supplemental Report of Eric L. Van Iderstine dated Sept. 27, 2016 at 2).[7]

         Van Iderstine also conducted a series of tests to determine whether a seat belt buckle can unlatch if the release button is in a partially depressed position. Van Iderstine initially evaluated two “exemplar buckles” using a fixture that allowed the button to be depressed in a repeatable manner. The evaluations revealed that “the condition of a partially depressed buckle button can result in the unintended unlatching and release of the latch plate.” (Van Iderstine Report at 6). Van Iderstine subsequently tested the subject buckle with the release button depressed 2.9 mm below the buckle cover. The testing “demonstrated that the buckle functionality is compromised due to the buckle not fully returning. … Pulling by hand on the latch plate and seat belt webbing resulted in the release of the latch plate from the buckle[.]” (Van Iderstine Supp. Report at 3).

         C. Donald Phillips's Opinions

         Easterling's claims against Ford are based on the contention that his seat belt buckle unintentionally unlatched during the crash of his vehicle due to a defect in the buckle's design and manufacture. He has designated Donald Phillips, P.E., as his expert witness on product defect. Phillips, a mechanical engineer, has opined that “due to the cracked defective seat belt buckle release button plastic return springs the seat belt became inadvertently released and resulted in serious personal injury to Mr. Easterling.” (Report of Donald R. Phillips dated Aug. 10, 2016 at 14).[8] More specifically, Phillips has opined that because the cracked return springs were “no longer providing adequate return force to the release button, ” the release button “fail[ed] to return to a full ‘up' position, ” which in turn “result[ed] in the release ramp of the button design to come in close contact with the lock bar of the buckle frame resulting in less than full engagement of the lock bar and … allowing for [the] buckle to inadvertently release the latch plate causing the driver to be ejected from a fully belted position.” (Id. at 8-9).

         Phillips has also expressed the opinion that “steel coil” release button return springs are more “robust” and resistant to “cyclical fatigue” and “aging” than plastic return springs. (Phillips Report at 6-7). He asserts that Ford knew or should have known that steel coil return springs have been used in other manufacturers' buckle designs and that Ford placed Easterling “at risk for increased injuries in crashes” by failing to utilize such an alternative design. (Id. at 7, 14).

         Lastly, Phillips has opined that Ford “should have warned or recalled the 2003 Ford F-250 Super Duty pickup trucks due to failed or failing seat belt buckle release button plastic return springs.” (Id. at 14). At his deposition, Phillips clarified that he is not offering an opinion “on how to design a warning to tell consumers that they have cracked return springs.” (Deposition of Donald R. Phillips at 253).[9] Rather, it is his opinion that Ford should have “alert[ed] the public through either a disclosure [(a technical service bulletin)] or a recall saying, ‘We have discovered this issue with our seat belt buckles. We need to have them brought in and checked for cracked return springs.'” (Id. at 253-54).


         Ford has moved to exclude Phillips's defect, causation, and failure-to-warn opinions under Fed.R.Evid. 702 and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).[10] (Doc. 40). Rule 702 controls the admission of expert testimony in the federal courts. It provides:

A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:
(a) the expert's scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

         In Daubert, the Supreme Court held that Rule 702 imposes a “gatekeeping” obligation upon a trial judge to “ensure that any and all scientific testimony ... is not only relevant, but reliable.” 509 U.S. at 589 & n.7. The Court later clarified that this function applies to all expert testimony under Rule 702, not just “scientific” testimony. Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 147 (1999). “[T]he objective of that requirement is to ensure the reliability and relevancy of expert testimony. It is to make certain that an expert, whether basing testimony upon professional studies or personal experience, employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field.” United States v. Frazier, 387 F.3d 1244, 1260 (11th Cir. 2004) (en banc) (quoting Kumho Tire, 526 U.S. at 152).

         In determining the admissibility of expert testimony, the court is to “engage in a rigorous three-part inquiry, ” considering

whether: (1) the expert is qualified to testify competently regarding the matters he intends to address; (2) the methodology by which the expert reaches his conclusions is sufficiently reliable as determined by the sort of inquiry mandated in Daubert; and (3) the testimony assists the trier of fact, through the application of scientific, technical, or specialized expertise, to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.

Frazier, 387 F.3d at 1260 (quoting City of Tuscaloosa v. Harcros Chems., Inc., 158 F.3d 548, 562 (11th Cir. 1998)). While there is “some overlap” among these requirements, “they remain distinct concepts and the courts must take care not to conflate them.” Id. The proponent of expert testimony bears the burden at trial to establish these elements of admissibility. Id. However, a party moving under Daubert to preclude testimony by its opponent's expert must first make a threshold showing sufficient to indicate that its adversary will be unable to meet its burden at trial with regard to the testimony. See Gottstein v. Flying J, Inc., 2001 WL 36102297, at *1 (N.D. Ala. Aug. 22, 2001); cf. Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991) (recognizing that, even where a party has the burden of proof at trial, that party need not produce proof supporting his claim in response to a motion for summary judgment unless the movant has first presented evidence that would negate an element of the non-movant's claim or indicates that the non-movant will be unable to meet his burden at trial; “it is never enough simply to state that the non-moving party cannot meet its burden at trial”).

         As to the first element, the Eleventh Circuit has recognized that “experts may be qualified in various ways. While scientific training or education may provide possible means to qualify, experience in a field may offer another path to expert status.” Frazier, 387 F.3d at 1260-61. “Of course, the unremarkable observation that an expert may be qualified by experience does not mean that experience, standing alone, is a sufficient foundation rendering reliable any conceivable opinion the expert may express.” Id. at 1261. Rather, “while an expert's overwhelming qualifications may bear on the reliability of his proffered testimony, they are by no means a guarantor of reliability.... [O]ur caselaw plainly establishes that one may be considered an expert but still offer unreliable testimony.” Id. (quoting Quiet Technology DC-8, Inc. v. Hurel-Dubois UK Ltd., 326 F.3d 1333, 1341-42 (11th Cir. 2003)).

         Turning to the second requirement, the trial judge must evaluate the reliability of expert opinion by assessing “whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid and ... whether that reasoning or methodology properly can be applied to the facts in issue.” Frazier, 387 F.3d at 1262 (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592-93). In this inquiry, courts generally consider: “(1) whether the expert's theory can be and has been tested; (2) whether the theory has been subjected to peer review and publication; (3) the known or potential rate of error of the particular scientific technique; and (4) whether the technique is generally accepted in the scientific community.” Id. (quoting Quiet Tech., 326 F.3d at 1341). However, “these factors are illustrative, not exhaustive; not all of them will apply in every case, and in some cases other factors will be equally important in evaluating the reliability of proffered expert opinion.” Id. “Exactly how reliability is evaluated may vary from case to case, but what remains constant is the requirement that the trial judge evaluate the reliability of the testimony before allowing its admission at trial.” Id. (emphasis in original).

         As to the third requirement, the Eleventh Circuit has stated that expert testimony must “assist the trier of fact” by shedding light on matters “that are beyond the understanding of the average lay person.” Frazier, 387 F.3d at 1262 (citing United States v. Ruoco, 765 F.2d 983, 985 (11th Cir. 1985)). “Proffered expert testimony generally will not help the trier of fact when it offers nothing more than what lawyers for the parties can argue in closing arguments.” Id. at 1262-63.

         While undertaking these analyses, however, it must be kept in mind that “[a] district court's gatekeeper role under Daubert ‘is not intended to supplant the adversary system or the role of the jury.' ” Quiet Tech., 326 F.3d at 1341 (quoting Maiz v. Virani, 253 F.3d 641, 666 (11th Cir. 2001), quoting Allison v. McGhan, 184 F.3d 1300, 1311 (11th Cir. 1999)); see also Adams v. Laboratory Corp. of Amer., 760 F.3d 1322, 1334 (11th Cir. 2014); United States v. 14.38 Acres of Land, More or Less Situated in Leflore Cnty., State of Miss., 80 F.3d 1074, 1078 (5th Cir. 1996). Instead, “[v]igorous cross-examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof are the traditional and appropriate means of attacking shaky but admissible evidence.” Daubert, 509 U.S. at 596; see also United States v. 0.161 Acres of Land, more or less, situated in City of Birmingham, Jefferson Cnty., Ala., 837 F.2d 1036, 1042 (11th Cir. 1988). Accordingly, while the court must determine that expert testimony is sufficiently reliable to be admissible, once it has done so “it is not the role of the district court to make ultimate conclusions as to the persuasiveness of the proffered evidence.” Quiet Technology, 326 F.3d at 1341; see also 0.161 Acres of Land, 837 F.2d at 1040-41 (“Importantly, the jury is instructed that it is completely free to accept or reject an expert's testimony, and to evaluate the weight given such testimony in light of the reasons the expert supplies for his opinion.”).

         Here, Ford argues that Phillips's opinions are inadmissible under Rule 702 and Daubert because (1) he is not qualified to offer the opinions, (2) his opinions are not reliable, and (3) his opinions do not “fit” the facts of the case. Easterling responds that Phillips is ...

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