Hoang v. Funai Corp., Inc., 652 F. Supp. 2d 564 (M.D. Pa. 2009)

The Court denied Defendants’ motion in limine to exclude the expert opinion testimony of Bradley A. Schriver and Ronald J. Panunto under Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The Plaintiffs’ experts opined that a fire at Plaintiffs’ residence was caused by a defect in a Sylvania combination television/video cassette recorder (“TV/VCR”) that was manufactured and sold by the Defendants. Defendants challenged the reliability of the methodology used by Plaintiffs’ experts in reaching that conclusion.

First, Defendants challenged Shriver’s opinion. Shriver based his opinion on interviews with city fire investigators, along with an analysis of the severity of damage and charring in different locations, tracing the origin of the fire to a table on which the TV/VCR unit was situated. After eliminating other sources, such as incense or candles, Schriver concluded that the only remaining ignition source was the TV/VCR, which he could not eliminate as a cause of the fire. The Court held that Shriver’s reliance, among other data sources, on city fire investigators did not render his methodology unreliable. Furthermore, the Court held that, despite the fact that Schriver did not reference the methodology he used in guiding his investigation, his investigation was based on the reliable methodology set forth in the NFPA 921 guidelines. The Court further held that there was not such a great gap between the data and the conclusion reached to render Schriver’s opinion – that an open flame did not cause the fire – unreliable.

Defendants next challenged Panunto’s opinion. Panunto based his opinion on X-rays of the TV/VCR unit, photographs of the fire scene, incident reports of the Harrisburg Police and Bureau of Fire, and statements of Nam Hoang and Kien Tran. He used the NFPA 921 guideline to arrive at his opinion that the TV/VCR was defective and that it caused the fire. The Court rejected Defendants’ arguments that Panunto’s opinion merely “piggy-backs” on the findings and conclusions of Schriver and city fire investigators, and that his opinion was unreliable as he had never physically visited the fire scene. The Court held that Panunto’s reliance on photographic evidence, X-Rays and other statements and opinions did not render his opinion unreliable. The Court further held that Panunto’s application of the NFPA 921 provision on process of elimination was sufficiently reliable.

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