Products Liability Law Daily Most testimony by injured forklift operator’s experts deemed admissible; adequacy of design and warning remain in dispute
Monday, January 14, 2019

Most testimony by injured forklift operator’s experts deemed admissible; adequacy of design and warning remain in dispute

By Levy M. Burns, J.D.

A forklift manufacturer failed to convince a federal district court that summary judgment on design and warning defect claims was warranted after the court rejected the exclusion in full of testimony by three experts for the injured operator. However, no evidence justified the operator’s bid for punitive damages.

Expert witnesses for an injured forklift operator in a suit against the forklift manufacturer could testify because they were educationally and professionally qualified to give expert testimony, a federal district court in Georgia ruled, denying the majority of the company’s motions to strike the experts’ testimony. The court also denied the manufacturer’s summary judgment motion on the operator’s design defect and failure to warn claims, finding the adequacy of the design and risk of injury in dispute. However, the court dismissed the operator’s claim for punitive damages, finding no evidence that the manufacturer had acted willfully or with malice or fraud (Vazquez v. Raymond Corp., January 11, 2019, Story, R.).

A forklift operator was injured in July 2016 while operating a Raymond 4250 Stand-Up Counterbalanced list truck during the course of his work at a tire warehouse. The forklift was designed, marketed, and sold by Raymond Corp. The operator was using the forklift to pick up a full pallet of tires, when he turned to speak with another employee while the forklift was still moving. He then lost control of the forklift and crashed into a metal column, crushing his left foot, which was outside the operator compartment.

The operator sued the manufacturer, claiming design defect, manufacturing defect, and failure to warn, and seeking punitive damages. The manufacturer moved for summary judgment and sought to exclude supporting testimony brought by the operator's experts.

The Daubert standard. The court partially granted and denied the manufacturer’s three motions to exclude the operator’s expert testimony, rejecting several of the manufacturer’s arguments that the experts were not qualified to testify. In doing so, the court applied the Daubert standard (Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., 509 U.S. 579, 589 (1993)), which assigns a trial court the role of gate-keeper to ensure that expert testimony is sufficiently tied to the facts of the case to aid the jury in resolving a factual dispute. When applying this standard, a court considers whether the expert is qualified to testify competently regarding the matters he or she intends to address, whether the methodology by which the expert reaches his or her conclusions is reliable, and whether the testimony assists the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.

Expert testimony. Here, the court found the operator's first expert to be unequivocally qualified to testify as a general human factors and warnings expert, but noted that he had no training, education, or experience in forklift design that would qualify him to offer expert testimony regarding a design defect. The court therefore allowed the expert to provide testimony regarding potential warnings or safety instructions, but excluded any original conclusions offered regarding the forklift's design.

The operator's second expert intended to offer rebuttal testimony in contravention of various anthropomorphic test dummy (ATD) tests conducted by the manufacturer. The court found that by virtue of the expert's academic credentials and specific experience working with human body models and ATD devices, he was qualified to offer testimony regarding studies and conclusions involving their use. The court therefore denied the manufacturer's motion to exclude this expert’s testimony.

Finally, the court rejected the manufacturer's contention that the operator's third expert lacked the requisite experience and qualifications to render a design defect opinion, that his opinions lacked scientific methodology, and that those opinions were universally rejected by the scientific community. Noting his master's degree in mechanical engineering and his significant experience in forklift design, the court concluded that his opinions were valid and would aid a jury. Consequently, the court denied the manufacturer's motion to exclude his testimony.

Design defect and failure to warn. The court denied the manufacturer’s summary judgment motion on the operator’s design defect and failure to warn claims. The court noted that the manufacturer's motion relied upon the exclusion of the operator's experts, which would in turn have left the operator with no factual support remaining to advance his claims. Since the court had largely denied the motions to exclude, it followed that genuine factual disputes remained for a jury to decide. The operator provided evidence that a safer design existed when the manufacturer made the forklift, that the manufacturer’s design posed a grave risk of lower leg injury, and that this danger could have been easily avoided.

Damages. The court granted the manufacturer's summary judgment motion on the operator's claim for punitive damages, however. The court ruled that under Georgia law, a punitive damages award in a tort action is appropriate only if it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that a defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, or such a disregard for the duty of care as to raise the presumption of conscious indifference to the consequences.

No evidence had been brought to justify such a finding. It was undisputed that the forklift was designed in compliance with applicable standards and regulations, and the manufacturer chose not to include a latching rear door because doing so would have decreased the forklift’s overall safety.

The case is No. 2:17-CV-20-RWS.

Attorneys: Michael J. Warshauer (Warshauer Law Group, PC) for Waldemar Vazquez. Johnathan Tyler Krawcheck (Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial, LLC) for The Raymond Corp. and Carolina Handling, LLC.

Companies: The Raymond Corp.; Carolina Handling, LLC

MainStory: TopStory IndustrialCommercialEquipNews ExpertEvidenceNews DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews DamagesNews GeorgiaNews

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