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Chapman v. Maytag Corp.

July 29, 2002

VANESSA G. CHAPMAN, AS SPECIAL PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF KYLE E. CHAPMAN, JR., DECEASED, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
MAYTAG CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 99 C 39--Kennard P. Foster, Magistrate Judge.

Before Bauer, Coffey, and Ripple, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bauer, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED MAY 21, 2002

Vanessa Chapman filed a wrongful death suit against Maytag Corporation on behalf of the estate of her late husband, Kyle Chapman. Mr. Chapman was electrocuted when he touched a metal surface energized by a current emanating from a Maytag range in the Chapman's home. The case was tried to a jury, which returned a verdict and substantial damages in favor of the Chapmans. Maytag appeals the verdict arguing, among other things, that the district court erroneously admitted the testimony of the Chapman's expert without satisfying the mandates of Rule 702 and the Daubert test.

We agree with Maytag that the district court failed to properly apply the analytical principles set forth in Daubert and as a result, we reverse the decision of the district court and remand the case for a new trial.

BACKGROUND

On January 2, 1997, Kyle and Vanessa Chapman purchased a Magic Chef range manufactured by Maytag Corporation. With the range, the Chapmans received an Owner's Guide, a Gas Installation Manual and a warning label, affixed to the range's power cord. All three documents specifically advised the consumer that the range must be plugged into a properly grounded three-hole receptacle in compliance with local rules and the National Electrical Code, and that failure to do so may result in shock hazard. Nevertheless, Mr. Chapman plugged the range into a kitchen outlet that he previously installed himself as part of some remodeling to their home. This outlet had a three-hole, grounding type receptacle but Mr. Chapman did not install it correctly: he failed to install a grounding wire and, contrary to the explicit Maytag warnings, the outlet was not grounded.

The Maytag range was manufactured in 1996 at Maytag's Magic Chef factory in Cleveland, Tennessee. The parties do not dispute that the range was defective when it left the Maytag factory. When it was assembled, a wire branching off the power cord that is designed and intended to be enclosed within a metal housing on the rear of the unit instead became pinched between the metal frame of the range and the back cover plate that covered the electrical wiring. Over time, the insulation on the pinched wire wore down and increasing amounts of electrical current ran into the stove housing, on to the gas line, into the wall, and eventually to the heating ducts.

On several occasions in late July and early August of 1998, the Chapmans experienced electrical shocks from currents in running water in their home. Then, on August 3, Mr. Chapman sustained a severe shock from touching the gas meter while outside painting. On August 5, Mr. Chapman was in the crawl space under the home when he came in contact with the energized metal surface of a heating duct and was fatally electrocuted. It was ultimately determined that the Maytag range was the source of the electrical current.

Mrs. Chapman filed a wrongful death suit against Maytag on behalf of her husband's estate. The suit alleged that the Maytag range was defective and that the defect was the cause of Mr. Chapman's death. It is undisputed that over time, the insulation covering the pinched wire had broken down and caused a short circuit, allowing electricity to flow from the pinched wire and ultimately to the ductwork. The parties disagree on the nature of the short circuit. Maytag argues that the defect in the range was not the source of the accident and that Mr. Chapman's death could have been avoided had he plugged the range into a properly grounded outlet, as directed. Mrs. Chapman insists that the accident would have occurred regardless of whether or not the outlet was grounded.

On January 13, 2000, Maytag moved for summary judgment, proffering the affidavit of its expert, Dr. Andrew Neuhalfen, who holds a Ph.D. in Materials Engineering and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering. Dr. Neuhalfen testified that prior to Mr. Chapman's accident, there was a complete, instantaneous breakdown of the insulation covering the pinched wire. Had the outlet been properly grounded, the current flowing into the frame of the range would have been sufficient to trip the circuit breaker instantaneously, thus terminating the electric current to the outlet to which the stove was connected. According to Dr. Neuhalfen, this would have happened some time prior to the time that Mr. Chapman came into contact with the metal ductwork in the crawl space. Dr. Neuhalfen, therefore, attributed the circuit breaker's failure to trip to the undisputed fact that the outlet was not grounded. He concluded the accident would have been prevented had the outlet been properly grounded. Based on this expert testimony, Maytag argued that its range was not defective as a matter of law because it was accompanied by adequate warnings, which, if followed, would have rendered the product safe despite the presence of the pinched wire.

In response to Maytag's summary judgment motion, Mrs. Chapman proffered an affidavit of her own expert, James Petry, who holds an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. Petry put forth an alternative theory as to why the circuit breaker failed to trip at the time of the accident: a "resistive short" theory; that is, the short circuit created by the pinched wire was a resistive short, rather than a direct short. Petry opined that vibrations in the floor of the Chapman's kitchen caused the insulation covering the pinched wire to wear through and as a result, current escaped from the circuit and passed through the insulation, into the range chassis, then through the gas line to the furnace and eventually to the heating ducts. Petry stated that this leaked current eventually became high enough to electrocute Mr. Chapman, but was not high enough to trip the circuit breaker in the electrical panel of the house. Based on this "resistive short" theory, Petry asserted that the accident would have occurred regardless of whether the outlet was properly grounded. Petry represented to the court that he was "currently designing a testing procedure which when completed will conclusively prove this theory to be true."

Maytag filed a reply and a motion in limine to bar Petry's testimony as an expert, arguing that Mrs. Chapman failed to satisfy the requirements for expert testimony pursuant to Rule 702 and the Daubert standard. The court denied Maytag's summary judgment motion, as well as its motion in limine. However, the court did find that Petry "failed to specify the details supporting his opinion that Mr. Chapman would have been electrocuted," regardless of whether the outlet was properly grounded. Moreover, the court stated that the lack of any scientific testing presented a "serious problem for the status of Petry's testimony as expert opinion." Nevertheless, the court held that Maytag did not adequately demonstrate that Petry's testimony did not qualify as expert testimony.

At trial, Maytag renewed its objection to Petry's testimony as an expert, but the objection was overruled. After the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Chapmans, Maytag moved for a new trial, again arguing that Petry's "resistive short" theory should have been excluded pursuant to Rule 702 and the Daubert standard. Maytag also argued that the trial court's rulings in ...


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