A crane accident in Mississippi left an operator physically and mentally incapacitated. His wife sued the crane manufacturer under Mississippi’s products liability statute. After a lengthy trial, a jury found that the manufacturer failed to warn crane operators that if the crane tips over, large weights stacked on the rear of the crane can slide forward and strike the operator’s cab.
Manufacturer argued that it deserved a new trial because the district court improperly qualified Plaintiff’s engineer as an expert. The district court denied Manufacturer’s motions, and it appealed.
Plaintiff proffered an expert in mechanical engineering, human factors, and warnings. Manufacturer claimed that the district court abused its discretion by finding this witness qualified to testify as a warnings expert.
Fifth Circuit Judge Don R. Willett wrote that given the district court’s “broad discretion,” the Court “will not find error unless the ruling is manifestly erroneous.”
Manufacturer argued that the expert lacked the credentials necessary to be a warnings expert. First, it said that his curriculum vitae lacked any references to or discussion of “the word ‘warning.'” Second, he didn’t sit on the American National Standards Institute Z535 committee, which develops standards for designing warnings. And finally, the expert had experience with drafting warnings for particular components of cranes and small-scale cranes—but not crawler-crane warnings, Manufacturer said.
Plaintiff defended the expert by reciting his formal qualifications. He worked as a full-time, tenured university professor of mechanical engineering for the past 18 years. Prior to this, he received an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from MIT, a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from MIT. According to Plaintiff, the expert also had extensive practical experience. In addition, the expert had: (1) researched and taught courses related to human-factors analysis or analyzing human-machine interactions; (2) published articles on hazard analysis; (3) lectured about hazard analysis, risk assessment, and safe operation of machines; (4) worked with and researched cranes and crane controls for 20 years; (5) designed small-scale cranes and drafted safety warnings for components of those cranes; and (6) researched warnings, generally, and read crane warnings, specifically, throughout his career.
Judge Willett found that the district court’s decision was not “manifestly erroneous” because sufficient evidence supported its ruling. The warnings expert was an experienced mechanical engineering professor who conducted research and taught courses relating to hazard analysis and human-machine interactions. He worked with cranes and crane controls for the past two decades. The judge also noted that the expert designed small-scale cranes and drafted accompanying safety warnings. Over his lengthy career, he researched and read warnings about many types of cranes. And he understood industry standards for warnings.
Manufacturer cited no Fifth Circuit case where the Court had held that a district court abused its discretion by qualifying someone as an expert on the basis of an imprecise match between the expert’s qualifications and the issue about which she planned to testify.
Judge Willett said that Manufacturer ‘s conception of expertise could turn the expert-qualification process into a “battle of labels” where expertise is defined so narrowly that qualified experts are irrationally excluded from testifying.
The Court saw the absurdity of this approach where Manufacturer sought to exclude a mechanical engineer with a background in warnings and small-crane design from testifying as an expert about warnings for a crawler crane.
The Fifth Circuit declined to adopt this approach. As long as there are “sufficient indicia” that an individual will “provide a reliable opinion” on a subject, a district court may qualify that individual as an expert.
The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court in full.
Williams v. Monitowoc Cranes, L.L.C., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 21618 (5thCir, August 3, 2018)