Rager v. General Elec. Co., No. 1:08-cv-1482 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 22, 2010)

Following a hearing, the Court evaluated the testimony of three experts who offered testimony in a case involving a fatal residential fire. The Court denied Defendant’s motions in limine to exclude the opinion testimony of Dr. Wayne K. Ross, M.D., Ronald Parsons, and Scott Jones pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a)(2)(B) and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 589 (1993).

Dr. Wayne K. Ross’ report concluded that the cause two young children”suffered severe conscious pain and suffering for a number of minutes before they expired” from smoke inhalation and thermal burns. The Court found that Dr. Ross’ reliance on witnesses on the scene and coroner photographs were sufficiently reliable to support his opinion that the children died from smoke inhalation and thermal burns. The Court found that Dr. Ross’ examination of, inter alia, the levels of CO found in the boys’ blood; the soot on one of the boy’s feet, hands, and knees; and photographic evidence of vomitous on a pillow were sufficiently reliable to support Dr. Ross’ conclusion that the boys experienced conscious pain and suffering. The Court also held that, based on his methodology and experience, Dr. Ross was able to state with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the boys experienced conscious pain and suffering for a number of minutes.

Plaintiffs’ second expert, Ronald Parsons, investigated the cause and origin of the fire. Parsons testified that his cause and origin investigation was guided by NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, published by the National Fire Protection Association. In determining the origin of the fire, Parsons reviewed various sources, including fire patterns, witness information, fire dynamics, and arc mapping. Based on this information, Parsons concluded that the fire originated within the family’s clothes dryer. Parsons also opined that the fire was caused by lint that ignited at the electric heating element, which ignited secondary fuels in the dryer. Parson’s concluded that this lint ignition occurred due to a design defect, as the dryer’s design promotes the build-up of lint in close proximity to the heating element. The Court held that, despite the fact that Parson’s lint ignition theory was not generally accepted in the field of engineering or in the appliance design community, on balance, the Daubert factors favored admission of Parsons’ expert testimony. The Court noted that Parsons’ theory consisted of a testable hypothesis; that his thoery was based on the NFPA 921 methodology, a methodology that is sufficiently reliable for purposes of admissibility; and that Parsons’ qualifications weighed in favor of admissibility, as he had been a fire cause and origin analyst for over thirty years conducted at least 3,000 fire investigations, and is certified as a fire and explosion investigator. The Court also held that Parsons’ practice of putting lint balls into contact with the heating element of the dryer for the purposes of testing did not render his methodology unreliable.

Plaintiff’s third expert, Scott Jones, a registered professional mechanical and electrical engineer, offered opinions on the cause and origin of the fire, and on the safety of the dryer’s design. Specifically, Jones analyzed evidence of electrical arcs, and noted the existence of charred remnants of lint, to conclude that lint ignited in the rear of the dryer and spread to the drum. Jones also opined that GE should have applied the accepted standard for product design analysis, known as Failure Modes Effects Analysis, to identify and address “the present concern for lint build-up in the heater system.” Jones offered his opinion that two design changes to the dryer would eliminate the potential for fire: addition of a heat shield and use of an axial heater. His expert report also discussed the feasibility of this alternative design. The Court held that Jones’ reliance on Parsons’ lint ignition theory was acceptable, as Parsons’ lint igition theory was sufficiently reliable. In response to GE’s argument that Jones’ opinion is unreliable because it relied on Parsons’ opinion and lacks an independent basis, the Court held that Jones conducted an independent review of the remains of the Rager dryer in accordance with NFPA 921 guidelines and that he reached his own admissible conclusions based upon his own independent analysis. The Court also rejected GE’s argument that Jones’ opinion was unreliable because his alternative design had not been life tested or commercially developed. The Court noted that the alternative designs presented by Jones had been incorporated into prototypes and tested. The Court concluded that Jones’ experience, prototype testing, and evidence of industry practice supported a finding that his opinion on alternative design is reliable.

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