From the Desk of Partner Gordon Klug:
In general, summary judgment is not appropriate when two experts offer competing evidence. In a product defect case, it is the trier of fact that has to consider the competing evidence and determine if the product was unsafe to an extent beyond what an ordinary consumer would contemplate. The Court of Appeals, in a recent unpublished opinion, highlighted a situation where the Court could determine summary judgment is appropriate despite competing expert opinions.
In this unpublished opinion, the Court of Appeals of Washington examined two competing expert opinions to determine whether a wheel was defective when the plaintiff was injured driving his utility terrain vehicle. The Court held that one expert’s opinion was based on undisputed factual evidence that clearly disproved the other and thus there was only one conclusion that reasonable minds could reach.
Gregory Paulson & Teresa Paulson v. STI Tires and Wheels, LLC, 82478-3-I (Wash. Ct. App. Mar. 28. 2022).
In 2016, Gregory Paulson bought new STI brand wheels and tires for his utility terrain vehicle (UTV). He installed the new wheels himself before setting off on a two-day trip to Moses Lake to do some off-roading. Gregory experienced no issues on the first day, but on the second day, the UTV’s right rear wheel broke and caused the UTV to roll over two or three times, injuring Gregory.
The Paulsons sued STI under the Washington Product Liability Act (WPLA) alleging that a defect in the wheel’s manufacture caused the accident. STI moved for summary judgment and in response, the Paulsons submitted a declaration from professional engineer Michael York. York examined the wheel and opined that the alloy was compromised. STI responded with a declaration from its own professional engineer, Sam Dastmalchi. Dastmalchi opined that several hardness tests produced values within an industry-accepted range and thus there was no issue with the strength of the alloy. Dastmalchi and York attended a joint examination of the aluminum alloy and repeated the hardness testing which again showed that the casting material met industry standards. The trial court granted summary judgment for STI and the Paulsons appealed.
The WPLA imposes strict liability on the manufacturer of a defective product that results in injury if the “harm was proximately caused by the fact that the product was not reasonably safe in construction.” RCW 7.72.030(2). The statute specifies that a product is not reasonably safe in construction if “when the product left the control of the manufacturer, the product deviated in some material way from the design specifications or performance standards of the manufacturer”. RCW 7.72.030(2)(a). Evidence of custom in the product seller’s industry can be considered in determining whether the product was not reasonably safe. RCW 7.72.050(1).
STI presented three arguments: (1) that York did not express his opinion on a more-probable-than-not basis, (2) York’s opinion amounts to speculation, and (3) York’s conclusion defies the uncontroverted evidence. The Court of Appeals disagreed with STI’s first two arguments but agreed with the third.
The Court found that York’s opinion, unlike that of a medical expert whose findings require a level of medical certainty, is subject to general evidentiary standards. Thus, the expert must only express the opinion as a reasonable probability rather than speculation. The Court found that York expressed his opinion as a reasonable probability that was grounded on facts that he observed while examining the UTV rather than speculation.
Regarding STI’s third argument, the Court agreed that York’s conclusions defied the evidence. Generally, summary judgment is not appropriate when experts offer competing evidence, but the Court can decide factual questions as a matter of law if reasonable minds can reach but one conclusion. Allen v. State, 118 Wn.2d 753, 760, 826 P.2d 200 (1992). The Court found that Dastmalchi’s evidence disproved York’s opinion and as a result, reasonable minds could reach only one conclusion- the manufacturer’s casting met industry standards.
The Big Picture:
This case goes to show how important expert testimony can be in many types of civil cases. Under Washington’s rules of evidence, experts can rely upon “facts and data” when formulating their opinions. In this case, experts on both sides agreed that during the joint examination, the hardness testing was “the most common method of certifying that a casting was heat-treated properly and in accordance with industry standards.” Plaintiff expert’s opinion, however, was based on the conclusion that since there was no evidence of, “a collision forceful enough to fracture the wheels… the only explanation was that the wheel failed because of a manufacturing defect.” Although Plaintiff’s and Defendant’s experts arrived at very different opinions, the Court found that there was no dispute that hardness testing did not reveal a manufacturing defect. As such the Court held that the Plaintiff expert’s opinion was based upon inaccurate facts and, as such, was not a proper basis to support a professional opinion.
In this case, the Court of Appeals concluded that if your expert can show that a product meets industry standards then it cannot be defective under Washington’s Products Liability Act, even if there are competing expert opinions. If one expert’s theory that a product is defective is disproved by another expert, then there can only be one conclusion—the product was not defective.