Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Case Brief: Watson v. Ford Motor Co.

By Brian A. Comer

UPDATE: The South Carolina Supreme Court has re-filed this opinion as of September 13, 2010, and the below brief was based on the first opinion, and not the re-filed one. Please see this post for more details and links to the current opinion. The new opinion upholds the reversal and deals with the same issues (expert testimony and admission of other incidents), but it also includes additional language concerning Ford's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.


Yesterday, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed an $18 million jury verdict against Ford Motor Co. on grounds that the trial court erred in admitting certain expert testimony, as well as in admitting evidence of other incidents. The case can be found here . It provides some great guidance on South Carolina's law concerning the admissibility of expert testimony and the responsibility of the trial court to act as a "gatekeeper" for same. It also sets forth certain factors that can be applied in the products liability context to determine whether evidence of other incidents should be admitted.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: In December of 1999, Plaintiff Sonya Watson ("Watson") was driving a 1995 Ford Explorer with three other passengers, including Patricia Carter ("Carter"). After entering the interstate, Watson lost control of the vehicle, and it rolled for times. Watson and Carter were ejected from the vehicle. Watson was rendered a quadriplegic, and Carter died.

PROCEDURE: Plaintiffs filed a products liability lawsuit against Ford, D&D Motors, Inc. and TRW Vehicle Safety Systems, Inc., alleging that the cruise control system and seatbelts were defective and seeking actual and punitive damages. Plaintiffs' theory was that the Ford Explorer's cruise control system was defective because it allowed electromagnetic interference ("EMI") to affect it. Plaintiffs presented an electrical engineer, Dr. Antony Anderson, to support their theory. He testified that EMI can interfere with the speed component of a cruise control system and cause a vehicle to suddenly accelerate. He also testified that Ford could have used "twisted pair wiring" to prevent EMI so that the accident would not have occurred. Plaintiffs also presented the testimony of Bill Williams as an expert on "cruise control diagnosis," as well as evidence from four witnesses who testified about other incidents in which their Ford Explorers suddenly accelerated. Ford presented its own cruise control expert, Karl Passeger, who testified that EMI signals have no effect on cruise control. Ford also presented evidence that the floor mats could have caused the acceleration, as they had on prior occasions. The jury awarded compensatory damages of $15 million to Watson and $3 million to Carter's Estate.

ISSUES: The South Carolina Supreme Court addressed three issues presented by Ford on appeal:

  1. Did the trial court err in qualifying Plaintiffs' expert Bill Williams as an expert in cruise control systems?
  2. Did the trial court err in allowing Dr. Anderson's expert testimony regarding EMI and alternative feasible design?
  3. Did the trial court err in allowing evidence of other incidents of sudden acceleration in Explorers?


RULES AND OPINION: The Court reviewed South Carolina's law of admission of expert testimony, which is governed by South Carolina Rule of Evidence 702. The trial court must make three key preliminary findings before presenting the testimony to the jury:

First, the trial judge must find that the subject matter is beyond the ordinary knowledge of the jury, thus requiring an expert to explain the matter to the jury. Next, while the expert need not be a specialist in the particular branch of the field, the trial court must find that the proffered expert has indeed acquired the requisite knowledge and skill to qualify as an expert in the particular subject matter. Finally, the trial court must evaluate the substance of the testimony and determine whether it is reliable.

(Citations omitted). The Court analyzed the three appellate issues in this context.

Issue Number 1: The Court found that the trial court erred in qualifying Mr. Williams as an expert on cruise control diagnosis. A trial court's inquiry into the qualifications of an expert should be "broad in scope." Although Williams testified that he had worked in the automotive industry as a trainer, consultant, software developer, and a writer, his qualifications were lacking in other respects.

  • He had no professional experience working on cruise control systems prior to the litigation.
  • He had not conducted any comparison of the Explorer's cruise control system to any other system.
  • He had never taught or published papers on cruise control systems.
  • "Williams had no knowledge, skill, experience, training or education specifically related to cruise control systems." Instead, he "taught [him]self" about the Explorer's system prior to trial.

The Court found that the trial court failed to properly evaluate Williams' qualifications specific to cruise control systems and erred in qualifying him as a cruise control expert. However, Williams' testimony was primarily descriptive of the cruise control system, its scope was controlled by the trial court, and he was subject to extensive cross examination to impeach his credibility. Therefore, the error did not prejudice Ford.

Issue Number 2: The Court found that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting Dr. Anderson's testimony. First, the Court rejected the notion that technical evidence is not subject to the same reliability requirements as scientific evidence. "The trial court must examine the substance of the testimony to determine if it is reliable, regardless of whether the expert evidence is scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge."

Next, the Court examined Dr. Anderson's qualifications and the reliability of his testimony (applying the reliability factors articulated in State v. Council, 335 S.C. 1, 19, 515 S.E.2d 515, 517 (1999)). The Court found that with regard to his opinions concerning alternative feasible design, Dr. Anderson failed to meet Rule 702's rule that the witness be qualified in the particular area of expertise. Dr. Anderson's experience was in working with large generators with different electrical wiring systems and voltage levels. He had no experience in the automotive industry, never studied a cruise control system, and never designed any component of such a system. Plaintiffs also failed to illustrate that his testimony that twisted pair wiring would have cured the EMI defect was reliable, or how it could be incorporated into a cruise control system. There was also a lack of evidence to support the economic feasibility of this alternative.

The Court also found that Dr. Anderson's testimony about EMI and its effect on the cruise control system was unreliable. He admitted that his theory had not been peer-reviewed, he had never published papers on it, and he had never tested it. He also could not pinpoint where the EMI that caused the malfunction originated, or the system in the Explorer that it affected. His only document to support his theory was a 1975 National Highway Safety Administration report, which had been superseded in 1989. The Court focused on the fact that Dr. Anderson had never published his theory, never tested it, and that his theory had been rejected in the scientific community. Admission of Dr. Anderson's testimony was prejudicial error because it was the only evidence presented by Plaintiffs to support their theory of defect.

Issue Number 3: The Court found that the trial court's admission of evidence of other incidents of sudden acceleration was prejudicial error. Evidence of similar incidents is admissible where there is some special relation between the accidents tending to prove or disprove some fact in dispute. (Citing Whaley v. CSX Transp., Inc., 362 S.C. 456, 483, 609 S.E.2d 286, 300 (2005)). The Court also cited to a District of North Carolina case, Buckman v. Bombardier Corp., 893 F. Supp. 547, 552 (E.D. N.C. 1995), for factors to consider regarding admissibility of similar incidents to prove defect, including (1) similarity of the products, (2) similarity of defects, (3) causation related to defect in the other incidents, and (4) exclusion of other reasonably secondary explanations for the cause of the other incidents. Plaintiffs failed to show that the incidents were substantially similar and failed to establish a special relation between the other incidents and Plaintiffs' accident. The products were not similar because the other incidents involved Explorers made in different years and of a different model type. Plaintiffs failed to show a similarity of causation between the incidents, and they failed to excluse reasonable explanations for the cause in the other incidents. Therefore, this evidence was irrelevant. The admission of this evidence was highly prejudicial, especially in light of the fact that Plaintiffs' counsel highlighted it in his closing argument and "thereby possibly induced the jury to speculate as to other causes of the accident not supported by any evidence."

CONCURRING OPINION: Justice Pleicones wrote the concurring opinion for Justices Waller, Beatty, Kittredge, and Pleicones. The concurring opinion focuses primarily on the framework for analyzing the admissibility of expert testimony. It disagrees with the first inquiry in the framework articulated in the majority opinion, "Is the subject matter of the testimony beyond the knowledge of a layperson, thus requiring and expert to explain it?" Instead, the concurring opinion cites to the framework cited in State v. Council, 335 S.C. 1, 515 S.E.2d 508 (1999), which is (1) is the underlying science reliable?; (2) is the expert qualified?; and (3) would the evidence assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue? The concurring opinion also disagreed that the model and manufacture year of the Explorers in the other incidents were meaningful distinctions for purposes of excluding this evidence.

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  1. I think that having Explorers of different makes at different year should have been admitted as evidence.

  2. The appeal verdict is a shame - especially the non admission of similar incidents elsewhere. It appears at trial the plaintiffs ought to have shown that the cruise control system in all ford explorers is the same, and that the cruise control system in UK ford explorers is the same - the jury then being entitled to draw inferences from similar incidents.