Christian Klorczyk was changing the oil on a car in his family garage when the car fell from its jack stand. The accident ended Christian’s life. His parents and Christian’s estate sued a number of defendants for manufacturing and selling a defective jack stand.
The Klorczyk estate relied on an expert witness to prove the jack stand was defective. The defendants made a predictable Daubert challenge to the admissibility of the expert’s opinion. A federal judge in the District of Connecticut denied the challenge.
The jack stand was manufactured by Wei Fu. It was sold to Sears by MVP (HK) Industries. Shinn Fu Corporation is the parent company of Wei Fu and MVP. Its American affiliate is Shinn Fu Company of America (SFA). The Klorczyk estate sued all of those companies, although the court dismissed Shinn Fu Corporation because it (unlike its American affiliate) played no role in manufacturing, marketing, or selling the jack stand.
Facts of the Case
The defendants contend that Christian used a floor jack to raise the car and then crawled under it without supporting the car with a jack stand. Christian’s parents contend that Christian used a jack stand to support the car after using a floor jack to raise it.
The evidence was undisputed that Christian purchased a jack stand set from Sears about two months before the accident and that nobody had used it before. When Christian’s father entered the garage, he discovered that the car had crushed his son. He observed one jack stand from the set of four resting on its side. That jack stand was on the passenger side of the car, while the other three jack stands in the set were on the driver’s side.
Christian’s father saw that the floor jack was standing upright next to the car with its lifting arm fully depressed and its lifting handle removed. His father had taught Christian to leave the floor jack in that position after placing the car on a jack stand.
In addition to the testimony of Christian’s father and a first responder who arrived at the scene, the Klorczyk estate relied on an expert witness who reconstructed the accident. The defendants moved to exclude the testimony of the estate’s expert.
Frederick Heath prepared an expert report for the Klorczyks. He concluded that the jack stand experienced a phenomenon known as “false engagement.” While the teeth of a ratchet bar on a jack stand should fit snugly into the body of the pawl, sometimes a tooth edge rests against the pawl tip, creating the appearance that it is fully engaged. That “false engagement” makes the jack stand insecure.
If the ratchet bar is not fully engaged, bumping into the jack stand could cause the ratchet bar to slide down into the base, causing the car to fall. Heath concluded that false engagement explained the accident.
James Sprague provided an expert opinion for the defendants. Based on scrape marks on the car’s side, he concluded that Christian crawled under the car while it was still raised by the floor jack. The Klorczyks contended that scrapes on the car’s side were caused by winter driving.
Heath prepared a rebuttal report. He concluded that it would take 400 pounds of force to move the floor jack after it raised a car, and that no such force was present in the garage at the time of the accident. He also disagreed with Sprague’s claim that the jack stand could not have held the car sufficiently high to allow Christian to crawl beneath the car at the point where the car made contact with his body.
Defective Design Evidence
A former employee of SFA testified that he investigated earlier instances of false engagement and that SFA was aware of the problem. The employee developed an alternative design that would have used a locking pin to assure that the ratchet bar remained in place. However, SFA declined to adopt the safer design.
A number of SFA’s competitors sell similar jack stands that incorporate a locking pin as a safety feature. The former employee of SFA admitted that SFA was aware that its competitors used that design.
Competitors also included a warning about false engagement in their instruction manuals. No such warning was included in SFA’s manual, despite SFA’s awareness of the problem.
Challenge to Heath’s Qualifications
The defendants contended that Heath was not qualified to testify as an expert because he had no experience in accident reconstruction other than giving testimony as an expert witness. The court noted, however, that Heath has a degree in mechanical engineering and has authored many publications on vehicle lifting, safety, and accidents. He has performed accident reconstructions before, and the fact that he did so in his capacity as an expert witness did not diminish his expertise.
Challenge to Facts Supporting Heath’s Opinions
The defendants also concluded that Heath’s report lacked an adequate factual foundation because he relied on evidence provided by Christian’s father. The court recognized that “there is nothing nefarious about an expert relying on witness accounts.” Experts must base opinions on facts and those facts often come from witnesses.
The court noted that experts cannot comment on the credibility of witnesses; that is, they cannot say that they believe that a witness told them the truth. They are nonetheless free to premise an opinion on facts supplied by an eyewitness that they assume to be true for the purpose of rendering an opinion. Different experts may reach different opinions based on different eyewitness accounts. It is up to the jury to decide whether the facts upon which an expert relies have been established.
Moreover, Heath did not rely exclusively on facts provided by Christian’s father. He also reviewed accident reports that recorded the observations of the first responder and he visited the accident scene. When he prepared his rebuttal report, he conducted testing to determine how much force would be required to move a floor jack if Christian had, in fact, crawled under the car while it was supported only by a floor jack. That testing provided data in support of his opinion that the theory advanced by the defendants’ expert was improbable.
Notably, the court emphasized that when it asks whether an expert’s opinion is supported by “sufficient facts or data,” it must not decide whether the facts upon which the expert relies are true. If a jury could reasonably find those facts to be true, the only question for the court is whether the facts are sufficient to support the expert’s opinion. That is a distinction that some judges forget in their zeal to apply Daubert.
Challenges to Heath’s Methodology
The court also rejected attacks on Heath’s methodology. The defendants faulted him for not inspecting the jack stand’s surfaces closely, for not taking into account the weather (although the weather inside the garage was presumably unremarkable), and for failing to discuss engineering literature. None of those attacks rendered Heath’s methodology unsound.
The failure to cite peer-reviewed studies is not dispositive when an expert relies on his own experience and on sound principles of science. As the court noted (and as judges sometimes forget), an expert need not rule out every possible alternative cause of an accident if a reasonable methodology allows the expert to arrive at a likely cause.
The defendants complained that Heath tested worn jack stands rather than the new jack stand that Christian used, but Heath testified that a worn jack stand is less likely to experience false engagement. The test results were therefore not skewed in the family’s favor by testing a worn jack stand.
Since Heath’s methodology was reliable and since a jury could credit his findings, the court determined that Heath’s opinions were admissible. The defendants were free to present competing expert testimony and to cross-examine Heath to expose the weaknesses they perceive in his opinions, but it is ultimately the jury, not the court, that decides whether those opinions are worthy of belief.