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Friday, July 27, 2012

Ind. Decisions - 7th Circuit decides one Indiana case today

In Lapsley, et al v. Xtek (ND Ind. Van Bokkelen), a 32-page opinion, Circuit Judge Hamilton writes:

This appeal arose from an accident at a steel rolling mill that permanently disabled one of the workers there. The circumstances of that accident were unusual. Industrial grease was propelled in a jet with enough energy to penetrate and pass through the human body like a bullet. That jet hit and disabled plaintiff Leonard Lapsley. At trial the jury found that the accident was caused by a design defect in a heavy industrial product designed and manufactured by defendant Xtek, and sold and installed in the mill. That equipment contained an internal spring that could exert over ten thousand pounds of force. The jury accepted the theory of plaintiffs’ expert witness, Dr. Gary Hutter, that the spring was the culprit mechanism behind the accident and that an alternative design of a thrust plate in the equipment would have prevented the disabling accident. Xtek has appealed, challenging the district court’s denial of its Daubert motion that sought to bar Dr. Hutter from offering his expert opinions, which were essential to the plaintiffs’ case.

The purpose of the Daubert inquiry is to scrutinize proposed expert witness testimony to determine if it has “the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field” so as to be deemed reliable enough to present to a jury. Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 152 (1999). A Daubert inquiry is not designed to have the district judge take the place of the jury to decide ultimate issues of credibility and accuracy. If the proposed expert testimony meets the Daubert threshold of relevance and reliability, the accuracy of the actual evidence is to be tested before the jury with the familiar tools of “vigorous cross-examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof.” Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 596 (1993). Once the district court has adequately applied the Daubert framework, our review of the determination to admit or exclude the evidence is deferential. E.g., United States v. Lupton, 620 F.3d 790, 798-99 (7th Cir. 2010) (affirming exclusion of expert testimony); see also Kumho Tire, 526 U.S. at 152 (reversing court of appeals decision that failed to accord sufficient discretion to district court that admitted expert testimony). In this case, the district court’s stated analysis of the proposed testimony was brief, but it was also directly to the point and was sufficient to trigger deferential review on appeal. We affirm the judgment of the district court. the district court’s denial of its Daubert motion that sought to bar Dr. Hutter from offering his expert opinions, which were essential to the plaintiffs’ case. * * *

The accident that disabled Leonard Lapsley appears to have been unprecedented, and fortunately it has not been repeated with other millwrights. The uniqueness of an accident can weigh against jury findings of foreseeability and lack of reasonable care in design, but that is a matter for the jury to decide. The jury here accepted Dr. Hutter’s uncontradicted expert opinion that a reasonable designer would have considered the danger of the powerful spring being bound up unexpectedly and releasing its energy so as to act like a ram on the grease in the spindle assembly. Rule 702 provides a test of reliability, not of ultimate merit. District courts acting as gatekeepers of scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge evidence retain significant discretion under the flexible Daubert inquiry. The district court here did not misapply Daubert, and Xtek has identified no compelling reason to disturb the court’s exercise of its discretion.

The judgment of the district court is AFFIRMED.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on July 27, 2012 03:49 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions