By Miriam A. Friedman, J.D.
The owners of a home that was destroyed in a fire failed to support their assertion that the cause of the fire was a defective water heater, a federal district court in Missouri ruled. The opinion of a fire marshal who had investigated the fire was not admissible because the homeowners failed to disclose him as an expert and because his opinion was not "reliable." The opinion of the homeowners’ mechanical engineering expert also was unreliable. Consequently, the court granted the water-heater manufacturer’s motion to exclude the experts’ opinions as well as its motion for summary judgment (Howard v. Bosch Thermotechnology Corp., May 4, 2018, Perry, C.).
A fire destroyed a lake house while the owners were absent. Shortly before they had left the house, the wife washed dishes using hot water after her husband had already turned off the water intake to the house. Following an investigation, the fire marshal concluded that the water heater—which was manufactured, designed, and sold by defendant Bosch Thermotechnology Corp.—was the cause of the fire because "the circumstance of [the husband] turning off the water intake and [the wife] continuing to use hot water caused the hot water heater to be in the on position with no water to heat or keep the pipe cool." The homeowners filed suit against Bosch, asserting claims of strict liability for defective design, strict liability for failure to warn, and negligent design and failure to warn. The associate professor of mechanical engineering they retained opined that if the water heater "were to go into an overheat event, it could produce heat flux on a mounting surface at levels sufficient to cause a fire." He ultimately concluded that it was more likely than not that the water heater had caused the fire. The manufacturer moved to exclude the expert opinions of both the fire marshal and the retained expert, and also moved for summary judgment.
Need for expert testimony. The court found that due to the "complexities involved in linking a component failure of the water heater to the release of combustible heat levels to the surrounding environment," expert opinion as to causation was required for the claims to survive summary judgment.
Failure to disclose fire marshal. The court noted that although the homeowners had disclosed the fire investigation report, they never disclosed the fire marshal as an expert. In fact, when they timely disclosed their mechanical engineering expert, they explicitly stated that they did not have other experts. Because they had failed to timely disclose the fire marshal and had failed to timely make him available for deposition, the court ruled that it would exclude his testimony and evidence to the extent he rendered an expert opinion regarding the cause and origin of the fire.
Reliability of fire marshal’s opinion. In the alternative, the court found that the fire marshal’s expert opinion was inadmissible because it was unreliable, in that he had no expertise or any other basis upon which to form an opinion as to how the Bosch water heater performed in the given circumstance, let alone that the water heater remained on and that its pipes overheated and failed. Thus, the court concluded, his opinion would not be helpful to a jury. Furthermore, even assuming that his extensive experience as a firefighter, fire marshal, and fire investigator could be said to qualify him as "a fire cause and origin expert," the court was unable to find that he based his causation opinion on sufficient facts or that he applied generally acceptable methods reliably to the facts of the case.
Reliability of retained expert’s opinion. The court found that there was no reasonable factual basis for the engineering expert’s opinion that a design defect of the water heater caused the fire. The expert had no experience as a fire cause and origin investigator and had never previously performed an engineering forensic analysis. The court noted that although he opined that the water heater could cause a fire if it went into "an overheat event," he had no opinion as to whether this had actually occurred, nor did he offer an opinion as to any specific defect in the water heater that might have caused it to overheat. In addition, the expert had conducted no tests on the exemplar to see if it would overheat or to determine if there was a defect that would cause it to overheat or to measure radiative heat from the product. The court concluded that there was "simply too great an analytical gap between the data and the opinion proffered." Finally, the expert’s conclusion that the fire originated at the location of the water heater was based on the fire marshal’s conclusion, which had already been deemed unreliable.
Failure to warn. The court found that without the expert testimony, the homeowners had no way to demonstrate that the water heater had caused the fire. Thus, their failure-to-warn claims failed.
Summary judgment. Without the necessary expert testimony, the court found no evidence that a defect in the water heater was the proximate cause of the fire. As such, all claims failed.
The case is No. 4:17 CV 763 CDP.
Attorneys: Paul N. Rechenberg (Rechenberg Law, LLC) for Thomas E. Howard, Jr. J. Phillip Bryant (Pitzer Snodgrass, PC) for Bosch Thermotechnology Corp.
Companies: Bosch Thermotechnology Corp.
MainStory: TopStory ExpertEvidenceNews HouseholdProductsNews DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews CausationNews MissouriNews
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