Fourth Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment for Defendants in Product Defect Case on Failure to Show Defect or Causation
Plaintiffs brought product defect claims against an auto manufacturer alleging that the manufacturer’s vehicles experience unintended acceleration. The district court granted summary judgment for the manufacturer after excluding the opinions of the plaintiffs’ three experts on the basis that their opinions did not meet the Daubert standard for the admission of expert testimony. The district court then granted summary judgment, concluding that without the expert testimony, the plaintiffs could not show there was a defect in the vehicles and could not show that any defect caused the unintended acceleration.
In Belville v. Ford Motor Co., No. 18-1470 (4th Cir., March 25, 2019), the Fourth Circuit affirmed the exclusion of the plaintiffs’ experts’ opinions and the grant of summary judgment for the manufacturer. Applying Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence and the Daubert standard, the Fourth Circuit concluded plaintiffs’ experts’ opinions were not sufficiently reliable and did not meet the standard for a host of reasons, including:
- The experts did not test any vehicle in “actual conditions” so all of the opinions were “purely theoretical”;
- The experts did not test any of the plaintiffs’ vehicles or any vehicle in the plaintiffs’ proposed class;
- The experts did not offer any opinion that the purported defects were the cause of any unintended acceleration experienced by the plaintiffs;
- The experts relied on unsupported assumptions;
- The experts’ testing results varied between different vehicles; and
- The experts’ theories had been rejected by two government agencies as lacking evidence.
The Belville decision does not break any new legal ground and is essentially a standard application of the Daubert standard, but the decision is useful in detailing how expert opinions can fail to be sufficiently reliable so as to be admissible. The case serves as a reminder that plaintiffs’ experts need to make sure all of the basic criteria are met before offering an opinion. Did the expert actually examine the product at issue? Does the expert have an explanation as to how a defect in the product caused the problem? Does the expert have support for any assumptions used in arriving at the expert’s opinion?