Nuclear Engineer Expert WitnessesA helicopter manufacturer appealed a jury verdict in a products-liability action awarding the plaintiffs $21M in damages.  

The case stems from a 2013 air ambulance crash in Kentucky that claimed the lives of a three-person flight crew, including the pilot, the flight nurse, and the flight medic. The helicopter sustained a catastrophic series of events that ultimately led to the fatal crash. Although the parties disagreed on the initial cause of the catastrophic events leading to the crash, there was no dispute that the helicopter broke apart in midair. 

The estate of the victims filed a complaint against the helicopter manufacturer, claiming that one of the two main rotor blades on the air ambulance helicopter was defectively manufactured by the defendant. They contended that the rotor blade was defectively manufactured with a four-inch void or disbond between the blade’s aluminum skin and its honeycomb core. This void in the main rotor blade caused increased deflection in the blade over time, and on the night of the crash, the defective main rotor blade fractured and caused extreme vibration that tore the helicopter apart in midair. Plaintiffs sought damages for lost wages, pain and suffering, loss of spousal consortium, and loss of parental consortium. Helicopter manufacturer answered and denied that a manufacturing defect caused the helicopter to crash.  

The case was tried before a jury, during which the parties put on extensive expert testimony. Plaintiffs’ proof centered around their claims of the manufacturing defect. Helicopter manufacturer introduced evidence that the crash of the air ambulance helicopter was caused by pilot error, that no manufacturing defect (void) existed in the helicopter’s main rotor blade, and even if a four-inch void had existed in one of the main rotor blades, that void wouldn’t have compromised the structural integrity of the blade so as to cause the crash. 

The jury found in favor of plaintiffs and said that an unreasonably dangerous manufacturing defect existed in one of the rotor blades that constituted a substantial factor in causing the helicopter crash. The jury also found that the pilot didn’t act negligently and that his actions weren’t a substantial factor in causing the crash. Helicopter manufacturer appealed, challenging the trial court’s ruling to disqualify its expert witness. 

The manufacturer argued that the trial court erred by determining that its expert wasn’t qualified to testify as an expert witness. The helicopter manufacturer engaged the expert to give his expert opinion on whether a manufacturing void existed in the main rotor blade causing the helicopter crash. Helicopter manufacturer conceded that its expert wasn’t educated in the field of materials engineering but instead held a doctorate degree in nuclear engineering. The manufacturer alleged he was qualified as he possessed “30 years of materials science experience, including a focus on radiation-induced changes attributable to the electromagnetic spectrum . . . and atomic principles.” The manufacturer additionally maintained that “materials engineering is an important specialty of nuclear engineering, and is critical to understanding the changes of microstructure and physical properties of materials exposed to radiation.”  

In an opinion written by Judge Jeff S. Taylor, along with a panel of Judges Sara Walter Combs and Larry E. Thompson concurring, he explained that the Kentucky Supreme Court has clarified that expert opinion testimony is admissible provided: 

  1. the witness is qualified to render an opinion on the subject matter 
  2. the subject matter satisfies the requirements of Daubert; 
  3. the subject matter satisfies the test of relevancy set forth in Kentucky Rue of Evidence (KRE) 401, subject to the balancing of probativeness against prejudice required by KRE 403; and  
  4. the opinion will assist the trier of fact per KRE 702. 

Plaintiffs filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude the expert testimony of the nuclear engineer. At the motion hearing, the expert testified extensively regarding his expert qualifications and the substance of his expert opinion. He opined that the main rotor blade of the air ambulance helicopter didn’t break apart in midair. Instead, he opined that the blade only separated when it hit the ground. The expert opined that the pilot lost control of the aircraft causing the main rotor blade to suffer damage. It was his opinion that no manufacturing void existed in the helicopter’s main rotor blade. Additionally, he stated that any void present in the blade was caused by exposure to the elements during its storage after the crash. 

After hearing that testimony, the trial court concluded that the expert wasn’t qualified to give expert opinion upon whether the air ambulance helicopter’s main rotor blade contained a manufacturing void that caused the crash. In its order, the trial court particularly determined, inter alia, that Plaintiffs challenged the expert‘s qualifications to present opinions in the field of materials engineering (metallurgy); that materials engineering, metallurgy and, particularly, materials engineering for purposes of air crash failure analysis are complex and highly specialized disciplines requiring many years of formal education and study; and that the expert had no degree on any level in the field of materials engineering or metallurgy. In addition, the nuclear engineer never worked full time in the aviation industry, never consulted in any non-litigation capacity with any company that makes any kind of aircraft or aircraft components, and never worked with any governmental agency or any branch of the U.S. military to perform any failure analysis of any air craft. 

Further, the trial court found that from the standpoint of experience, this would be the first time that this expert wouldve had determine from any materials engineering analysis whether there would be a void or disbond in a helicopter main rotor blade. 

The Court of Appeals held that in light of the trial court’s well-reasoned order, it didn’t believe that the trial court abused its discretion by concluding that the nuclear engineer wasn’t qualified to render an expert opinion upon whether a void existed in the air ambulance helicopter’s main rotor blade. 

While the judgment of the circuit court was reversed and remanded, the ruling on the expert’s disqualification was upheld.