A product-liability case stemmed from an accident where Plaintiff, a coal miner, sustained injuries to his left hand while using the Defendant’s equipment (a roof bolter).

Plaintiff claimed that the injury occurred because he was holding onto the handle of the roof bolter which extended his hand beyond the roof and outside the protective operator compartment. He argued that the injuries wouldn’t have occurred if handle hadn’t been so close to the edge of the operator compartment which left his hand unprotected. Plaintiffs argued that the location of the handle caused the roof bolter to be defective. Plaintiffs’ experts opined that the handle should’ve been located farther inside the cab preventing an accident.

Plaintiff called two mining expert witnesses. Defendant argued that their testimony didn’t meet the standards of Rule 702 and Daubert. Also, that the experts weren’t qualified to offer design and manufacturing opinions. Even if they were, their methodology was subjective and insufficient to satisfy Daubert.

Chief Judge Joseph H. McKinley, Jr. of the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Kentucky cited Daubert in his opinion, noting that in determining whether testimony is reliable, the Court’s focus “must be solely on principles and methodology, not on the conclusions that they generate.”

The First Mining Engineer Expert

Defendant claimed that the Plaintiff’s first mining engineer expert witness: (1) wasn’t qualified to offer opinions on the design of underground mining equipment; (2) his testimony wasn’t relevant; (3) his expert opinions lack a sufficiently reliable basis. The judge disagreed with Defendant’s argument, noting that this engineer had a Bachelor’s Degree in Mining Engineering, was a licensed Professional Engineer in several states, and was a Certified Mine Safety and Health Administration Instructor with more than 35 years of experience. He designed coal mines, including the height of coal seam walls, widths of the coal ribs, methods for extraction, equipment to be use, and overall management of mining operations. The first mining expert witness stated that during his many years as a mining engineer, he operated roof bolters and examined roof bolters work underground.

Further, the judge held that the fact that he never personally designed a roof bolter before his opinions rendered in this case didn’t disqualify him as an expert.

“The federal courts in a number of product liability cases involving engineering experts have allowed an expert witness with general knowledge to give expert testimony. [However], the expert had no specialized knowledge of the particular product.” The court considers a proposed expert’s “full range of practical experience as well as academic or technical training when determining whether that expert is qualified to render an opinion in a given area.”

Here, the first mining expert witness offered knowledgeable testimony on the design and, specifically, the location of the operator handles from a safety standpoint. Judge McKinley found that his knowledge as an engineer and his experience as both a mining and a project engineer qualified him to offer opinions as to whether the location of the operator handle declared if that equipment is considered defective.

Defendant responded back by stating that the first engineer had no experience to base his opinion that the handhold’s position necessarily exposes a part of the operator’s hand to the area outside the canopy. Judge McKinley stated that the first mining expert’s report based upon Defendant’s technical drawings that document the location of the operator handle. Further, the first engineer reviewed deposition testimony from coal miners who operated the machine to confirm how the operator handle was use.

While this expert didn’t inspect the subject equipment, didn’t measure it, or design a roof bolter in his career, all of this goes to the weight and credibility of the evidence, the judge held. The first mining expert witness was a licensed engineer with years of experience in underground coal mines, had observed roof bolters in use, studied the technical drawings of the operator handle, and was aware of the dangers that the mines present to the operation of such equipment. His opinions possessed a sufficiently reliable basis.

The Second Mining Engineer Expert

Defendant also tried to exclude the testimony of Plaintiff’s second mining engineering expert witness, arguing that: (1) he wasn’t qualified to offer opinions on the design of underground mining equipment, and (2) his testimony was cumulative. Judge McKinley disagreed.

The engineer had a degree in mine engineering and was a certified mine inspector and mining engineer. His career spanned 40 years as a mining engineer, division chief for the state Department of Resources, and as Superintendent of the Mine Safety and Health Administration Academy. The MSHA is responsible for enforcing safety guidelines in surface and underground coal mines nationwide. This engineer was familiar with the environment of coal mines and, based upon his education, experience, and training as a mine inspector knew the specifications equipment must meet to operate safely in the environment of underground coal mines. He had been qualified to offer testimony in previous trials on the design safety aspect of equipment in coal mines.

Even though the second mining expert witness never personally designed a roof bolter prior to his opinions rendered in this case didn’t disqualify him as an expert. Just like the first engineer, the judge held that the second engineer’s knowledge and experience as a mining engineer and a certified mine inspector qualified him to offer opinions as to whether the location of the operator handle made the equipment defective and unreasonably dangerous.

In addition to challenging the second engineer’s qualifications, Defendant moved to exclude his testimony arguing that he relied entirely on the first engineer’s report to form his opinion. Judge McKinley noted that the court could exclude evidence that was repetitious and cumulative of testimony already offered at trial. Specifically, like other testimony, expert testimony may be excluded under Rule 403.

Judge McKinley explained that courts had determined that “it is acceptable for an expert to base an opinion on testing performed by other individuals.” While the second engineer used the first engineer’s technical drawings and photographs, he also relied on other information. Although both of the Plaintiff’s experts ultimately reached the same conclusion— the location of the operator handles on the Defendant’s equipment rendered it in a defective and unreasonably dangerous condition, their testimony was complimentary rather than cumulative.

The two experts offered different perspectives on the conditions of the underground coal mines and expected safety concerns a manufacturer must consider in designing its equipment. Their training and experience were different, Judge McKinley held. The first engineer’s background involved that of a licensed engineer and project engineer who designed coal mines and designed certain processing equipment. In contrast, the second engineer specialized in mine safety, including equipment in underground mines and was to testify about the duty established by federal regulations for mining equipment manufactured and intended to be used in underground coal mines including the requirement of canopies covering equipment in underground mines. “Nothing about their likely testimony suggests the dangers contemplated by Rule 403 substantially outweigh the probative value.”

As a result, the motions in limine by Defendant to preclude the testimony of Plaintiffs’ experts were denied.

An expert does not necessarily need to have design experience to provide testimony on product defects, as long as he has the relevant experience and training that qualify him to render the opinion.

2016 WL 276126 (W.D. Ky January 20, 2016)