Eleventh Circuit Reverses Exclusion of Expert Testimony in Defective Dryer Case – United Fire and Casualty v. Whirlpool
Recently, our St. Louis personal injury lawyers wrote about a product defect case in Missouri involving a Whirlpool refrigerator blamed for a house fire. In a recent Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case, United Fire and Casualty v. Whirlpool, Whirlpool was the manufacturer of a different appliance blamed for a house fire. United Fire is the subrogee for Robert and Theresa Corral of Florida, whose home caught fire in 2008. It brought a strict liability lawsuit against Whirlpool, arguing that the dryer’s defects caused the fire, and thus the Corrals’ losses that United Fire covered. The trial court excluded evidence proferred by two expert witnesses for United Fire, then granted summary judgment to Whirlpool, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed all of those decisions.
The Corral family was out at the time the fire started, but had put a load in the dryer around 8 p.m. A call to the local fire department was placed just before 10 p.m. A professional fire investigator hired by United Fire, Arms, concluded that the fire started in the dryer, likely because of a wire with thin insulation that could have shorted out a metal exhaust pipe and sent enough electricity through the pipe to start a fire. Arms had not seen this situation before and cited no published studies. United Fire also hired a professional engineer, Clarke, to examine the dryer. He concluded that part of the metal pipe had melted, which was only possible at 2800 degrees or higher, and with a forced draft that could only have come from the fan. These two experts were excluded by the trial court, however, which found that their theories were unreliable.
The Eleventh Circuit disagreed on appeal. It agreed that Arms’s testimony about the ignition sequence was not sufficiently tested, but felt that the rest of his potential testimony was up to standards. His testimony on the fire’s origin was rooted in his investigation, with supporting evidence, and the industry standard for fire investigation. The trial court didn’t address any of this when it excluded 100 percent of Arms’s evidence, the Eleventh said. Thus, it reversed as to testimony on the origin of the fire. It also found the trial court too restrictive as to testimony from Clarke. Clarke did not need to point to published scholarship on the melting point of dryer ducts, it said; indeed, there may not be much such scholarship. Clarke extensively described his methodology for the trial court, the Eleventh said, and applied his advanced metallurgy training to analyze the duct. Thus, it also reversed the exclusion of Clarke’s testimony. Armed with those reversals, the Eleventh found that their testimony created a genuine issue of material fact, and also reversed the summary judgment ruling.
As a Missouri burn injury attorney, I’m pleased to see that the lawsuit will go forward. The opinion doesn’t detail the family’s losses, but the damage to the dryer, and the two-hour window between their departure and the call to the fire department, suggests that it could have been extensive. If a design or manufacturing defect was to blame, the manufacturer should be held legally liable. Defendants like manufacturers know that cases involving expert testimony can’t go forward if the trial court chooses to exclude all the experts. As a result, the defendants often focus on excluding experts instead of on the merits of the case. As a southern Illinois accident lawyer, I applaud court decisions that discourage this practice by requiring good grounds for excluding an expert.
If you suffered a serious accident because of a defective product, or any other bad decision by someone else, don’t wait to call Carey, Danis & Lowe for help. You can reach us through our website or call toll-free at 1-877-678-3400.
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