Products Liability Law Daily Unreliability of expert testimony erodes case against lawnmower maker
Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Unreliability of expert testimony erodes case against lawnmower maker

By Leah S. Poniatowski, J.D.

Landscaper’s employee also failed to prove manufacturer’s liability over employer’s actions impeding message of manufacturer’s warnings.

An expert testifying on the behalf of a landscaping company’s employee who allegedly had been injured by a defective lawnmower did not adequately support his conclusions, rendering them inadmissible and undermining the employee’s design defect claim for failure to establish causation, a federal district court in New York ruled. Additionally, there was no evidence to support the causation element in the employee’s failure to warn claim because his employer had attached an aftermarket device over the original warning label on the at-issue lawnmower (Fuentes v. Scag Power Equipment – Division of Metalcraft of Mayville, Inc., August 13, 2019, Hurley, D.).

During a lawn mowing job, an employee of a landscaping company used a Scag SW36A-16KAI walk-behind lawnmower for the first time. Prior to the employee’s use of the mower, his employer had fitted the mower with an aftermarket grass catcher. The grass catcher attachment required removal of the manufacturer’s discharge chute and the attachment frame rubbed against the manufacturer’s warning label regarding the danger of an uncovered discharge chute. On the day the employee first used the mower, the warning label had been partially worn off, the grass catcher had been removed, and no discharge chute or other apparatus had been affixed to the side of the mower to cover the side.

While operating the lawnmower at the job site, the employee lost control of the equipment after striking tree roots. He did not let go of the gas on the handlebar, which caused the mower to spin around and partially amputate his left foot when it entered the open side of the mower. He filed a multi-count lawsuit against the mower’s manufacturer, Metalcraft of Mayville and its Scag Power Equipment Division, plus others. Metalcraft moved for summary judgment on the injured man’s claims.

Expert testimony. The employee offered the testimony of a professor of engineering with additional certification in accident reconstruction and related disciplines. Despite the manufacturer’s challenge that the expert was not qualified because he had no professional experience designing or manufacturing lawnmowers, the court found that the expert was adequately qualified to testify. However, the court agreed that the expert’s testimony was largely conclusory and, therefore, was inadmissible. The expert’s report did not offer any facts, data, or reliable methods or principles to support his opinions, the court observed. Specifically, the expert did not explain the technical basis of his opinions or how he had applied his knowledge and experience. The court also remarked that the expert’s methodology had not been peer-reviewed nor was there any indication that it had been shared with other experts in the field. Furthermore, the testimony was not reliable because it lacked any discussion whatsoever of a comparison to the utility/cost of the design and alternative designs.

Failure to warn. The court held that the employee met the first two elements of the failure-to-warn claim but failed to satisfy the third: causation. The manufacturer asserted that there was a warning decal in Spanish instructing that all the warning labels are available in Spanish, i.e., the language the employee could read. The warning label in English cautioning that use of the mower without the discharge chute was blocked and had been worn off by a device not approved by the manufacturer. Further, there was no evidence that the manufacturer was responsible for the employer’s conduct, including the employer’s failure to have obtained the warning labels in Spanish or to have translated the affixed labels, provided or read the manual to the employee, as well as its use of an unapproved device despite clear warning of the danger of not operating the mower with an unguarded discharge chute, and having that device obscure the manufacturer’s warning. Accordingly, the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment for both negligent and strict liability failure-to-warn claims was granted.

Design defect. The court determined that the employee did not satisfy the feasible alternative design element of his design defect claim. The court explained that expert testimony is required to establish liability for design defect claims, and because the employee’s expert did not offer reliable opinions in support thereof, the claim failed. Therefore, the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment on negligent and strict liability design defect claims was granted. Relatedly noting that a claim for breach of implied warranty could not stand if a strict products liability claim is not adequately pleaded, the court held that the employee’s breach of warranty failed for lack of reliable expert testimony.

The case is No. 2:17-cv-825 (DRH) (AKT).

Attorneys: Andres F. Alonso (Alonso Krangle LLP) for Jose Fuentes. Brian James Carey (McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP) for Scag Power Equipment – Division of Metalcraft of Mayville, Inc.

Companies: Scag Power Equipment – Division of Metalcraft of Mayville, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory WarningsNews DesignManufacturingNews ExpertEvidenceNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews NewYorkNews

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