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$2.9M verdict in mill accident case upheld

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the admittance of an expert’s opinion as to causation of an accident at a northern Indiana steel rolling mill, finding the federal court properly denied a company’s Daubert motion to bar that testimony.

Leonard Lapsley was severely injured in an accident at the mill when industrial grease was propelled from the roll end with enough energy to pass through his body like a bullet. He is disabled as a result of the accident.

At trial, Dr. Gary Hutter testified as a plaintiff expert witness that an internal spring in the industrial product designed and made by Xtek was the culprit mechanism behind the accident and an alternative design of a thrust plate in the equipment would have prevented the accident being as severe. Xtex filed a Daubert motion for the trial court to scrutinize Hutter’s testimony to determine whether it’s reliable enough to present to the jury. Xtek argued that Hutter’s proposed testimony lacked scientific basis.

The District Court disagreed, pointing to the “commonly known methodologies and physics calculations” that Hutter used in reaching his conclusions. The court also found that the conclusions were relevant, ruling that Xtek’s disagreement with Hutter’s theory on causation could not be the sole reason for excluding it.

The court found Hutter’s testimony about the alternative thrust plate design raised a genuine issue of fact with regard to the Lapsley’s design-defect claim. It denied summary judgment on his failure-to-warn claim. The jury found Xtek was 65 percent at fault for the accident and awarded $2.97 million. The court also denied Xtek’s Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law that sought reconsideration of the court’s refusal to exclude Hutter’s testimony.

With regard to the Rule 50(b) denial, Xtek didn’t argue that the evidence as actually presented was insufficient to support the jury verdict, but that it would have been insufficient without Hutter’s testimony. Xtek argued again that Dr. Hutter’s expert opinions regarding causation, alternate design, and reasonable care or foreseeability lacked scientific basis and should have been excluded under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert.

Xtek also claimed that since a design-defect claim also incorporates an element of foreseeability under Indiana law, the lack of evidence fatal to the failure-to-warn claim should have doomed the
design-defect claim as well.

The 7th Circuit rejected all of Xtek’s arguments in a 32-page opinion.

“The uniqueness of an accident can weigh against jury findings of foreseeability and lack of reasonable care in design, but that is a matter for the jury to decide,” Judge David Hamilton wrote. “The jury here accepted Dr. Hutter’s uncontradicted expert opinion that a reasonable designer would have considered the danger of the powerful spring being bound up unexpectedly and releasing its energy so as to act like a ram on the grease in the spindle assembly. Rule 702 provides a test of reliability, not of ultimate merit. District courts acting as gatekeepers of scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge evidence retain significant discretion under the flexible Daubert inquiry. The district court here did not misapply Daubert, and Xtek has identified no compelling reason to disturb the court’s exercise of its discretion.”

 

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