U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses District Court’s Order Barring Expert Witness in Product Defect Case

A district court judge in Chicago granted the motion of defendant Ryobi Technologies Inc.  to exclude an expert witness as unreliable and irrelevant. Purportedly, it would have cost Ryobi $50 to $150 to install an automatic braking system on the table saw that sliced off Brandon Stollings’s index finger and portions of several other fingers in a “kickback” incident.

Under Illinois law, it is required that expert testimony is necessary to prove that a product was unreasonably dangerous.  Stollings wanted to call John Graham as his expert to testify that each saw sold without the safety device burdens society with an average of $753 in accident costs. The basis of Graham’s opinion was that the automatic braking system would have been 90 percent effective.

After this appeal was taken, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed ruling that the district court judge’s exclusion of Graham’s testimony on reliability grounds was an abuse of discretion because it “intruded too far into the province of the jury.” Graham’s expert opinion was relevant as to whether the Ryobi saw was unreasonably dangerous. 

Graham was a scholar who served from 2001-2006 as the director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Federal Office of Management and Budget and is now the dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Graham, based on his background, was eminently qualified to give expert testimony.

Graham wanted to testify that including automatic braking technology on all power saws would be socially beneficial because the average costs of accidents per saw that would be prevented by the technology exceeded the cost of the braking system.

Graham estimated that without the automatic braking technology, society would be assessed $753 in accident costs over the lifetime of the average saw. Graham included that it would make economic sense to install the technology on all saws since the cost of doing so was less than $753 per saw.

Under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, the district court judge ruled that Graham’s testimony should be excluded as not being reliable or relevant for the trier of fact. The court of appeals found that ruling to be an abuse of discretion. 

Two years before the trial, Graham submitted an expert report as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a)(2)(B). In his report, Graham described how he reached his conclusion by calculating the average cost of the table saw injury, which included medical costs, lost wages, pain and suffering and litigation costs. He then multiplied that figure by the likelihood that a saw user would suffer an injury over the lifetime of the saw, yielding an estimate of the societal cost of injury per table saw. He then discounted this number by the effectiveness rate of the automatic braking technology, which he estimated to be 90 percent.  Graham’s written report provided the sources for all of his inputs. The estimation of the effectiveness of the braking system at 90 percent was based on the inventor’s testimony that the technology worked in the “vast” majority of instances.

The district court judge said  Graham’s testimony had to be excluded because the 90 percent effectiveness input was not reliable, which made Graham’s entire opinion unreliable.

The court of appeals found that as to reliability, Graham’s bottom-line estimate of societal costs of saw accidents was so high that his opinion would have remained essentially the same even if the effectiveness rate were actually quite a bit lower. The judge should have let the jury determine how the uncertainty about the effectiveness rate affected the weight of Graham’s testimony.

The court of appeals found Graham’s testimony also satisfied Federal Rule 702’s relevance requirement. Under Illinois law, Graham’s expert opinion was relevant as to whether the Ryobi saw was unreasonably dangerous. Illinois applies both the consumer expectations test and the risk-utility test in design defect cases to determine whether a product  is unreasonably dangerous. Mikolajczyk v. Ford Motor Co., 231 Ill.2d 516 (2008). If a product is unreasonably dangerous, then the manufacturer is strictly liable for any injuries caused by the product. Murphy v. Mancari’s Chrysler Plymouth, 381 Ill.App.3d 768 (2008). Under the risk-utility test, a product is unreasonably dangerous if the risk associated with the product design outweighs the utility of the design. The court also stated that the relevant considerations are many. It is up to the fact finder or jury to “determine the importance of any particular factor” in each case.

Even though Graham’s testimony may be vulnerable to attack on cross-examination, it was still up to the fact finder to determine its weight. Although the expert’s testimony contained some vulnerable assumptions, it did not make the testimony irrelevant or inadmissible. Accordingly, the district court erred in preventing Graham from testifying. The case was returned by the court of appeals to the district court for further disposition. 

Stollings v. Ryobi Technologies, No. 12-2984 (7th Cir. Court of Appeals; Aug. 2, 2013).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling work injury cases, product defect cases, injuries to workers cases, construction accidents and personal injury matters for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 37 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Mundelein, Barrington, Orland Park, Hoffman Estates, Mount Prospect, Rolling Meadows, Bridgeview, Joliet, Aurora, St. Charles, Naperville, Chicago (Roscoe Village, Lincoln Square, Pullman) and Park Ridge, Ill.

Related blog posts:

U.S. Court of Appeals Reverses on Admissibility of Expert Testimony in Benzene Case

$20 Million Lawsuit Filed in Sudden Acceleration Wrongful-Death Lawsuit Against Toyota Motor Corp.

$362,000 Jury Verdict for Electrician Who Fell Eight Feet From Construction Platform