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New trial ordered after expert testimony improperly excluded

December 18, 2014

A couple who brought a products liability claim against a ladder manufacturer and the store that sold the ladder are entitled to a new trial after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found the magistrate judge should not have struck their expert witness’s testimony. The couple lost their case as a result of the judge’s decision.

Kurt Stuhlmacher’s parents purchased a ladder for him from Home Depot so he could work on the roof of the cabin he was building for them. The first time he used the ladder, it fell, causing Stuhlmacher to fall. He seriously injured his shoulder and groin in the accident. He and his wife sued Home Depot and the ladder’s manufacturer, Tricam Industries.

The couple’s expert, Dr. Thomas Conry, who has a doctorate in mechanical engineering, testified that Stuhlmacher may have sensed the ladder was not stable and involuntarily shifted his weight. And because Conry opined the ladder was defective because it was not made with the correct rivets, one side of it failed and caused the ladder to collapse.

But the magistrate judge struck Conry’s testimony after finding that his opinion on causation did not match up with Stuhlmacher’s testimony, who never said the ladder was unstable. Because the Stuhlmachers had no other evidence to prove proximate cause, the magistrate ruled in favor of the defendants.

“Here, the magistrate judge found that Dr. Conry’s testimony was reliable enough to be heard by the jury. However, after Dr. Conry’s direct examination, the judge struck his testimony as irrelevant under Daubert because he found that Dr. Conry’s version and Kurt’s version did not square,” Judge Claire Williams wrote. “In the magistrate judge’s view, Dr. Conry testified to one fact pattern of how the accident occurred, and Kurt testified to another fact pattern.

“We do not agree. Dr. Conry’s and Kurt’s testimony are easily reconcilable, particularly since the fall happened so quickly.”

Williams pointed out the judge took away the opportunity for the jury to decide whether Conry’s theory of the accident is credible and whether Stuhlmacher’s testimony merely reflected his memory of the event as it was happening.

The 7th Circuit found the magistrate improperly expanded his role beyond gatekeeper to trier of fact. They reversed judgment for the defendants and remanded for a new trial in Kurt Stuhlmacher and Kelly Stuhlmacher v. Home Depot USA, Incorporated and Tricam Industries, 14-2018.
 

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