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Aldridge v. Forest River

December 11, 2007

LINDA ALDRIDGE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FOREST RIVER, INC., SPECIFIC CRUISE SYSTEMS, INC. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Elaine E. Bucklo United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Defendants Specific Cruise Systems, Inc.("Specific Cruise Systems") and Forest River, Inc. ("Forest River") have moved to bar the testimony of plaintiff Linda Aldridge's ("Aldridge") expert witness, James Des Jardins ("Des Jardins"), pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Additionally, Specific Cruise Systems has moved for summary judgment on all of Aldridge's claims against it. For the reasons stated herein, defendants' motions to bar are granted in part and denied in part, and Specific Cruise System's motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part.

I.

Aldridge's four-count complaint alleges claims for strict liability and negligence against each defendant. Aldridge alleges that, on January 20, 2004, she was descending the steps of her recreational vehicle ("RV") when the step controller retracted, causing her to fall and sustain injuries. The RV was manufactured by Forest River. The step controller was manufactured by Specific Cruise Systems.

II.

Des Jardins is a retired professional engineer who currently works as a forensic engineer in litigation matters. He authored a report, in which he provided his opinion that Aldridge's fall "was proximately caused by design and/or manufacturing defects" in the Specific Cruise Systems step controller and the Forest River RV due to the following: (1) the defect(s) "caused the steps to retract without a legitimate initiating signal and/or the step controller's acceptance of a false electrical signal[;]" and (2) the lack of warnings at or near the door as well as in the Forest River RV Manual or the Specific Cruise Systems Owners Manual. In his deposition, Des Jardins testified that it is his opinion that "electronic or electrical noise" (a "spike") caused the steps to retract inadvertently.

The admissibility of expert testimony is governed by Federal Rule of Evidence 702, which reads:

If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.

FED. R. EVID. 702. For expert testimony to be admitted under Rule 702, the movant must establish that the testimony is both reliable and would assist the trier of fact in understanding the evidence or determining a fact at issue in the case. See Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 589-91 (1993); Winters v. Fru-Con Inc., 498 F.3d 734, 741 (7th Cir. 2007). The primary purpose of Rule 702 is to avoid confusing and unreliable expert testimony. See Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592. Nevertheless, "[t]he rejection of expert testimony is the exception rather than the rule, and the trial court's role as gatekeeper is not intended to serve as a replacement for the adversary system." Spearman Indus. v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 128 F. Supp. 2d 1148, 1150 (N.D. Ill. 2001) (quotation omitted). Cross examination and the presentation of contrary evidence are the "traditional and appropriate means" of attacking expert testimony. Daubert, 509 U.S. at 596 (citing Rock v. Arkansas, 483 U.S. 44, 61 (1987)).

In analyzing the reliability of expert testimony, I must determine whether the expert is qualified in the relevant field and examine the expert's methodology. Smith v. Ford Motor Co., 215 F.3d 713, 718 (7th Cir. 2000) (citing Kumho Tire Co., Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 153 (1999)). An expert whose knowledge in an area is based on practical experience, as opposed to academic or technical training, may be qualified to render an opinion. See id. Daubert set forth several non-exclusive factors to aid the inquiry into the reliability of a proffered expert's methodology as follows: (1) whether the proffered theory can be, and has been, tested; (2) whether the theory has been subjected to peer review and publication; (3) whether the theory has been evaluated in light of the known, or potential, rate of error; and (4) whether the theory has been accepted in the relevant scientific community. Daubert, 509 U.S. at 593-94; Winters, 498 F.3d at 742. A. Qualifications At the outset, Specific Cruise Systems and Forest River challenge Des Jardins' qualifications. Essentially, defendants contend that Des Jardins is not qualified because he is not an electrical engineer, but he has opined that the alleged step controller malfunction was caused by an electrical problem. Defendants do not, as Aldridge contends, base the motions to bar on the fact that Des Jardins cannot identify the source of the electrical problem that he opines caused the step controller to operate inadvertently.

I conclude that Des Jardins is qualified to offer an opinion as to the alleged defect in the step controller. Des Jardins is not an electrical engineer, but rather a mechanical engineer with more than fifty years of experience. He is not, however, wholly lacking in academic electrical engineering training. Des Jardins testified that he has some expertise and education in electrical engineering. He took some basic electronics courses in the early 1960s. Additionally, Des Jardins possesses some knowledge of electrical engineering based on his practical experience. Defendants dispute this practical knowledge, particularly because Des Jardins testified that the company he ran before he retired used electrical engineering consultants if the subject matter was beyond his level of expertise. But it is not clear that the phenomenon of electronic noise as a cause of inadvertent operation necessarily exceeds Des Jardins' practical expertise. Further, while Des Jardins testified that he has not had experience specifically with RV stair steps, the company he ran before he retired was involved with the design of mechanisms similar to the electrical stair steps at issue in this case. Overall, Des Jardins is sufficiently qualified to offer the opinion that the step controller malfunctioned due to an electrical, as opposed to a mechanical, problem.

B. Methodology

Specific Cruise Systems and Forest River also challenge the reliability of Des Jardins' methodology. Even though Des Jardins qualifies as an expert, he cannot testify if his methodology is unreliable. Des Jardins' opinions cover the following topics:

(1) the alleged failure of the step controller due to design and manufacturing defects; (2) the existence of a safer alternative design; and (3) the failure to warn. I find Des Jardins' methodology is sufficiently reliable as to the cause of the alleged step controller malfunction, but has ...


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