Nelson v. Whirlpool Corporation et al
ORDER denying 151 Motion to exclude opinions and testimony of Roger Owens; denying 184 Motion for Leave to File Sur-Reply. Signed by Chief Judge William H. Steele on 5/12/2011. (tgw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
DAVID H. NELSON, etc., et al.,
) CIVIL ACTION 09-0520-WS-B
This matter is before the Court on the defendant’s Daubert motion as to Roger
Owens. (Doc. 151). The parties have submitted briefs and evidentiary materials in
support of their respective positions, (Docs. 152, 166, 169-76, 181), and the motion is
ripe for resolution.1
The plaintiffs are the personal representatives of the estates of their three minor
children, who died in a house fire on January 30, 2009. The defendant is the
manufacturer of a combination air conditioner/heater window unit in the home. The
amended complaint alleges that the unit caught fire, engulfing the house and claiming the
children’s lives. (Doc. 1 at 53).
Roger Owens is an electrical engineer. Owens identified the cause of the fire as a
failure within the unit’s control box. In particular, Owens isolated two switch terminals
as the only possible sources of the fire, from a contact failure resulting in electrical
arcing. Terminal 9 supplies power to the air conditioning compressor, and Owens
identified it as the cause of the fire if the unit was in cooling mode. Terminal 6 supplies
The plaintiffs’ motion for leave to file sur-reply, (Doc. 184), is denied.
power to the heaters, and Owens identified it as the cause of the fire if the unit was in the
heat cycle.2 The defendant challenges Owens’ ability to render these opinions.
The defendant has requested an evidentiary hearing, (Doc. 151 at 2), a decision
committed to the Court’s sound discretion. Cook v. Sheriff of Monroe County, 402 F.3d
1092, 1113 (11th Cir. 2005). “As we have explained previously, Daubert hearings are not
required, but may be helpful in complicated cases involving multiple expert witnesses.”
Id. (internal quotes omitted). For example, “[a] district court should conduct a Daubert
inquiry when the opposing party’s motion for a hearing is supported by conflicting
medical literature and expert testimony.” United States v. Hansen, 262 F.3d 1217, 1234
(11th Cir. 2001). Although the defendant cites to other experts to show their opinions
conflict with Owens’, as discussed below that is not grounds for excluding his opinions;
even if it were, their opinions are adequately set forth in the deposition excerpts on which
the defendant relies. Accordingly, the Court declines to hold a hearing.3
“Expert testimony may be admitted into evidence if: (1) the expert is qualified to
testify competently regarding the matters he intends to address; (2) the methodology by
which the expert reaches his conclusions is sufficiently reliable as determined by the sort
of inquiry mandated in Daubert; and (3) the testimony assists the trier of fact, through the
application of scientific, technical or specialized expertise, to understand the evidence or
to determine a fact in issue.” City of Tuscaloosa v. Harcros Chemicals, Inc., 158 F.3d
548, 562 (11th Cir. 1998) (footnote omitted). There are thus three discrete inquiries:
Owens recognized that, if the unit was in cooling mode, Terminal 6 could not be the
cause of the fire (because it would not be energized), and if it was in the heat cycle, Terminal 9
could not be the cause, for the same reason.
The Court also declines the defendant’s request to schedule oral argument. See Local
qualifications, relevance, and reliability.4 The burden of establishing these three
requisites lies with the proponent. United States v. Frazier, 387 F.3d 1244, 1260 (11th
Cir. 2004) (en banc).5
An expert may be qualified “by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or
education.” Fed. R. Evid. 702. An expert is not necessarily unqualified simply because
her experience does not precisely match the matter at hand. See Maiz v. Virani, 253 F.3d
641, 665 (11th Cir. 2001) (an economic expert was qualified even though he “ha[d] no
real estate development experience and thus no basis to opine regarding how the pilfered
funds would have been invested by the Plaintiffs”); id. at 669 (expert knowledgeable
concerning the practices of Mexican immigration authorities generally was qualified to
testify even though he had no experience with Monterey officials in particular). The
defendant, which has employed Owens’ services in numerous cases, does not challenge
his qualifications. (Doc. 152 at 18).
To the requirement of Rule 401 that evidence possess a “tendency to make the
existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more
probable or less probable,” Rule 702 adds that expert evidence must “assist the trier of
fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” The evidence must
“concern matters that are beyond the understanding of the average lay person. ...
Proffered expert testimony generally will not help the trier of fact when it offers nothing
more than what lawyers for the parties can argue in closing arguments.” Frazier, 387
F.3d at 1262-63. In addition, there must be “an appropriate ‘fit’ with respect to the
offered opinion and the facts of the case.” McDowell v. Brown, 392 F.3d 1283, 1299
See Quiet Technology DC-8, Inc. v. Hurel-Dubois UK Ltd., 326 F.3d 1333, 1341 (11th
Cir. 2003) (although there is “some overlap” among these inquiries, they “are distinct concepts
that courts and litigants must take care not to conflate”).
Expert testimony must also satisfy other applicable rules of evidence, including Rules
401, 402 and 403. Allison v. McGhan Medical Corp., 184 F.3d 1300, 1309 (11th Cir. 1999).
(11th Cir. 2004); accord Boca Raton Community Hospital, Inc. v. Tenet Health Care
Corp., 582 F.3d 1227, 1232 (11th Cir. 2009). The defendant argues that Owens’ opinion
that a failure at Terminal 9 caused the fire does not “fit” the facts of the case because the
unit was not in cooling mode but in the heat cycle. (Doc. 152 at 8; Doc. 181 at 1).
The defendant’s argument assumes it has been definitively resolved that the unit
was in the heat cycle at the moment the fire started. It has not. Most obviously, Owens’
testimony is that Terminal 9 shows physical signs of extreme temperature exposure from
an internal source that are consistent with and indicate a fire-causing contact failure, and
the defendant has not attempted to show that the methodology Owens employed to reach
this conclusion is unreliable. That is, Owens’ scientific testimony itself indicates the unit
was in cooling mode, and it is sufficient on its own to raise a jury question as to whether
the unit was in that mode when the fire began.
The defendant complains that Mrs. Nelson and her surviving son testified the
heater was on, the complaint alleges it, Owens’ report states it, and the cold weather
supports it. (Doc. 152 at 11-12; Doc. 181 at 6-7). The actual testimony is not as strong
or complete as the defendant believes, and it is certainly not unheard of for a family
member growing too hot during the night to alter a setting. The defendant also ignores its
own expert’s initial belief – later retracted – that Terminal 9 was energized at the time of
the fire. But that is for the jury to sort out; the defendant offers no explanation how the
Court can on a Daubert motion take the factual question of the unit’s setting from the
Even were the lay evidence as strong as the defendant presents it, and even if the
Court could withdraw fact questions from the jury on a Daubert motion, as noted above
Owens’ own testimony creates a fact issue as to the unit’s setting. It is not correct, as the
defendant appears to assume, that an expert is forbidden to draw conclusions that suggest
a different underlying fact than testified to by lay witnesses, as is obvious from a simple
example. Under the defendant’s view, once a lay witness testified without lay
contradiction that she was driving 30 miles per hour at the moment of collision, no expert
could testify that, based on his exhaustive and impeccable scientific study, her speed at
collision was 50 mph. The suggestion is untenable; the very point of scientific testimony
is to test and either support or discredit unscientific assumptions and assertions about the
relevant events, not to be held hostage to them.
The most heavily litigated component of the Daubert analysis is reliability.
Expert testimony “must be ‘scientific,’ meaning grounded in the methods and procedures
of science, and must constitute ‘knowledge,’ meaning more than subjective belief or
unsupported assumptions.” McDowell, 392 F.3d at 1298. Rule 702 identifies three
components of the reliability element: “(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.”
Daubert identifies several non-exclusive factors that a court may consider as
appropriate in gauging the reliability of the principles and methods utilized by the expert:
(1) whether the methodology has been, or is amenable to, testing; (2) whether it has been
subjected to peer review and/or publication; (3) the known and potential error rate of the
methodology; and (4) whether it has been generally accepted in the relevant scientific
community. 509 U.S. at 593-94. “Notably, ... these factors do not exhaust the universe
of considerations that may bear on the reliability of a given expert opinion, and a federal
court should consider any additional factors that may advance its Rule 702 analysis.”
Quiet Technology DC-8, Inc. v. Hurel-Dubois UK Ltd., 326 F.3d 1333, 1341 (11th Cir.
2003). Among such factors, “[i]n evaluating the reliability of an expert’s method, ... a
district court may properly consider whether the expert’s methodology has been
contrived to reach a particular result.” Rink v. Cheminova, Inc., 400 F.3d 1286, 1293
n.7 (11th Cir. 2005).
Whatever factors are considered, the Court’s focus should “be solely on principles
and methodology, not the conclusions they generate.” Allison v. McGhan Medical Corp.,
184 F.3d 1300, 1312 (11th Cir. 1999) (internal quotes omitted). It is therefore error to
conflate admissibility with credibility, as by considering the relative weight of competing
experts and their opinions. Quiet Technology, 326 F.3d at 1341. Thus, for example, “a
district court may not exclude an expert because it believes the expert lacks personal
credibility because of prior bad acts or other prior instances of untruthfulness.” Rink, 400
F.3d at 1293 n.7.
Owens’ initial report specified the cause of the fire as a contact failure at Terminal
9. Shortly before his deposition, Owens issued a second report, which identified the
cause as a contact failure at either Terminal 9 or Terminal 6, depending on the mode in
which the unit was operating. The defendant argues that Owens’ implication of Terminal
6 is unreliable because his methodology failed to follow any scientific basis and because
his opinion is contrary to the scientific testing in the case. (Doc. 152 at 15; Doc. 181 at
According to the defendant, the only basis for Owens’ opinion as to Terminal 6 is
that he belatedly realized Terminal 9 was not energized in the heat cycle but that
Terminal 6 was. If that were indeed Owens’ only basis, there would be a serious question
of the reliability of his opinion concerning Terminal 6, but it is not.
As discussed by the plaintiffs, Owens’ methodology, recognized by authoritative
sources, was to utilize a process of elimination of possible causes of the fire. He first
ruled out external sources, then identified possible internal sources in the area of the
house where the fire was initially seen. He ruled out the house’s wiring, then eliminated
the receptacle to which the unit was connected and the power cord connecting the unit to
the receptacle. Owens then ruled out all sources within the unit other than the control
box. The physical evidence indicated the fire started inside the control box, because the
capacitor did not blow out as it is designed to do when subjected to heat from outside the
control box but melted first from the wiring connected to the selector switch, which was
consistent with a fire originating from within the control box. Owens then ruled out the
capacitor and all terminals except Terminal 9 and Terminal 6.
At this point, Owens had eliminated, by examination and testing, all possible
sources of the fire other than Terminals 9 and 6, and he so stated in his initial report. As
between these two possible sources, Owens identified Terminal 9 as the cause because its
more dramatic physical evidence of abnormal electrical activity made it a more likely
candidate. Owens did not in his initial report rule out Terminal 6 as the source, and his
second report and deposition confirm that he found physical evidence at Terminal 6
sufficient to implicate it as the source. Thus his opinion that Terminal 9 was the cause if
the unit was in cool mode and that Terminal 6 was the cause if the unit was in the heat
The defendant does not argue that Owens’ methodology of progressively ruling
out fire sources is unreliable. He was thereby left with two possible causes. If the unit
was in the heat cycle, as the defendant maintains, Terminal 9 would not be a possible
cause, leaving – by the same methodology – Terminal 6 as the only possible cause.
Owens’ opinion as to Terminal 6 is not unreliable as failing to follow any scientific basis.
The defendant’s challenge to Owens’ opinion on Terminal 6 as contrary to the
scientific testing is likewise unavailing. The defendant is essentially asking the Court to
accept the opinion of its experts that there is no evidence of abnormal electrical activity at
Terminal 6 over the testimony of Owens that there is, and the Court is precluded from
weighing the relative credibility of experts at this stage.
The same is presumably true with respect to the defendants’ position that Owens’
opinion contradicts that of the plaintiffs’ metallurgist, Rex McClellan. At any rate,
Owens’ opinion is not in irredeemable conflict with McClellan’s. Owens testified that
pitting and material transfer are indicative of electrical arcing, and there is evidence of
pitting and material transfer at Terminal 6. McClellan did testify that he found no
physical evidence of arcing at Terminal 9 (he was not asked about Terminal 6), but he
also testified that microarcing ordinarily occurs without leaving any physical evidence.
McClellan specifically stated that Owens could be correct about the arcing but that he
(McClellan) simply could not verify it with physical evidence of microarcing.
Owens’ opinion as to Terminal 6 is not an opinion “contrived solely for present
litigation” as that and like terms are used in the cases to which the defendant cites. (Doc.
152 at 26-27). His opinion, presumably like all those offered in this litigation, applies
pre-existing expertise to this particular case and responds to the issues presented by it,
which makes the opinion not suspect but useful. Likewise, his opinion is not simply his
“ipse dixit.” (Id. at 28).
To the uncertain extent the defendant suggests that Owens’ opinion is
impermissibly speculative because he “equivocates” between Terminal 6 and Terminal 9,
(Doc. 152 at 20), the objection is meritless. The dual possibilities are not the result of
speculation but a response to differing views among the litigants of the mode in which
the unit was operating. Nothing in McClain v. Metabolife International, Inc., 401 F.3d
1233 (11th Cir. 2005), to which the defendant cites, draws Owens’ opinion into question.
In its reply brief, the defendant advances a new argument: that Owens did not
reliably exclude the power cord as a potential cause of the fire. (Doc. 181 at 1, 6, 9-10).
No such argument appears in the defendant’s principal brief. District courts, including
this one, ordinarily do not consider arguments raised for the first time on reply.6 The
defendant offers no reason the Court should excuse it from application of the rule in this
case, and the Court declines to do so. The defendant should not assume its argument
would have prevailed had it been timely presented.
See Park City Water Authority v. North Fork Apartments, L .P., 2009 WL 4898354 at
*1 n.2 (S.D. Ala. 2009) (citing cases from over 40 districts applying the rule in 2009 alone). The
Eleventh Circuit follows a similar rule. E.g., Herring v. Secretary, Department of Corrections,
397 F.3d 1338, 1342 (11th Cir. 2005) (“As we have repeatedly admonished, arguments raised for
the first time in a reply brief are not properly before a reviewing court.”) (internal quotes
The Court has identified some of the reasons supporting the rule. “In order to avoid a
scenario in which endless sur-reply briefs are filed, or the Court is forced to perform a litigant’s
research for it on a key legal issue because that party has not had an opportunity to be heard, or a
movant is incentivized to save his best arguments for his reply brief so as to secure a tactical
advantage based on the nonmovant’s lack of opportunity to rebut them, this Court does not
consider arguments raised for the first time in a reply brief.” Hardy v. Jim Walter Homes, Inc.,
2008 WL 906455 at *8 (S.D. Ala. 2008).
For the reasons set forth above, the defendant’s motion to exclude opinions and
testimony of Roger Owens is denied.
DONE and ORDERED this 12th day of May, 2011.
s/ WILLIAM H. STEELE
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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