Alabama Supreme Court Concludes that Daubert Does Not Apply to Testimony of Product Design Expert

Written on Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017 by T.C. Kelly
Filed under: Expert Opinions

Alabama’s version of the Daubert standard applies only to scientific testimony. In a case alleging that a car fire was caused by a defective automobile design, the Supreme Court of Alabama held that an expert based his testimony on years of technical experience in automotive design, not on science. The admissibility of his testimony therefore did not require a Daubert analysis.

Facts of the Case

At about 3:00 a.m. on a November night in 2008, a 16-year-old boy named Sydney was driving a 2008 Mazda3 in Jefferson County, Alabama. A 15-year-old girl named Natalie was sitting in the passenger seat. Sydney was driving at 55 to 60 mph when he lost control of the vehicle.

Sydney hit a curb and overcorrected, sending the vehicle into a spin. He then hit a light pole. Natalie and Sydney both survived the collision, but the vehicle burst into flames. Sydney managed to escape from the car, but he sustained serious burns. Natalie died in the fire that consumed the car.

Sydney and Natalie’s parents sued Mazda. They alleged that the Mazda3 was not crashworthy and that its defective design, including the positioning of a plastic fuel tank one-half inch from a steel muffler that had sharp protruding edges, contributed to Sydney’s injuries and Natalie’s death. The plaintiffs contended that the muffler’s sharp edges cut into the fuel tank during the collision, and that gasoline vapors ignited as they were released, causing the fire.

The case went to trial against Mazda under product liability theories allowed by Alabama law, including a claim under the Alabama Extended Manufacturer’s Liability Doctrine. The jury found in favor of Sydney and Natalie’s parents. The jury awarded $3 million in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages to Sydney. The jury awarded $4 million in wrongful death damages to Natalie’s parents. Mazda appealed.

Plaintiffs’ Evidence

The case against Mazda was based largely on the testimony of experts. In addition to medical experts who confirmed that Natalie survived the crash and died in the fire, the jury heard testimony from an accident reconstruction expert, a fire causation expert, and a causation-and-design-defect expert.

The plaintiffs’ evidence included pictures of similar vehicles that placed the muffler behind the rear axle, while the fuel tank was located in front of the rear axle. The evidence also established that Mazda sold a version of the Mazda3 in California that had a muffler with rounded edges. That version of the vehicle, as well as the Ford Focus (which was based on the Mazda3 design), eliminated the flange that had sharp protruding edges. The plaintiffs contend that the Mazda3 that Sydney was driving should have followed those design standards.

Testimony of Fire Experts

The fire experts who testified for the plaintiffs and for Mazda disagreed about the origin of the fire. Based on fire patterns, the plaintiffs’ expert testified that the fire started on the inboard side of the muffler, which was next to the fuel tank. He could not inspect the fuel tank because it was destroyed in the fire. He attributed the fire’s origin either to the sharp edges on the muffler’s flange puncturing the fuel tank, or to a failure of the inlet pipe where the exhaust pipe joins the muffler, or to a combination of those factors.

Mazda’s expert testified that the fire originated in the fuel lines. The plaintiffs’ expert rejected that possibility because it was inconsistent with the fire patterns he observed.

Defective Design Expert Testimony

The design-and-defect-causation expert, Jerry Wallingford, is a forensic engineer with 40 years of experience in the automotive industry. Wallingford based his opinions on his examination of the car, on his examination of an undamaged Mazda3, on photographs of the accident scene, and on the opinions of the plaintiff’s fire expert. He concluded that the muffler moved inward during the collision and pierced the fuel tank, releasing vapors that started the fire. He also testified about the ways in which the car’s designers could have anticipated and avoided that problem.

On cross-examination, Wallingford admitted that he did not crash test a car to support his theory of causation. He testified that he instead based his opinions of a process of deduction. He also testified that it would be impossible to replicate the accident exactly because the angles at which the muffler and other components moved were unknown.

Wallingford’s testimony about the defective design was based on his knowledge of industry standards, including documents written by a fuel-systems specialist for Ford regarding design safety. Wallingford testified that the documents reflected industry-wide knowledge and design standards, and that they were available to Mazda, which at the time was in partnership with Ford.

The documents cautioned against placing components with sharp edges near a fuel tank and that any shield separating the fuel tank from other components should be harder than those components. Wallingford testified that a heat shield separating the muffler from the fuel tank on the Mazda3 was made from aluminum, and was thus softer than the steel muffler.

Mazda’s design expert generally agreed that the Ford documents reflected industry standards, but testified that they were pre-collision standards, and that no standards can prevent injuries in a violent collision.

Admissibility of Wallingford’s Testimony

Prior to trial, Mazda asked the court to exclude Wallingford’s testimony because it did not satisfy Alabama’s version of the Daubert rule. The court ruled that Daubert did not apply because Wallingford’s testimony was not “scientific.”

Alabama’s rules of evidence require certain expert opinions to be based on sufficient data, to be the product of reliable principles or methods, and to be based on a reliable application of those principles or methods to the data. However, that rule only applies to “expert testimony based on a scientific theory, principle, methodology, or procedure.”

According to Mazda, it did not matter whether Wallingford’s opinions were actually based on science, because he portrayed his opinions to be scientific in nature. The appellate court rejected that argument, in part because Wallingford did not testify that his opinions were based on scientific principles or theories and the jury was never told that Wallingford was an expert in any field of science. The court also rejected Mazda’s position (as characterized by the court) that whenever an expert’s testimony mentions the word “science,” the testimony must be evaluated under the Daubert standard for scientific evidence.

Drawing a distinction between testimony based on science and testimony based on technical or specialized knowledge, the court decided that Wallingford’s testimony was based on the latter. Accordingly, the Alabama rules of evidence did not require Wallingford’s testimony to satisfy the Daubert standard.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.