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Hoang v. Funai Corp.

July 7, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Chief Judge Kane)


Before the Court is Defendants' motion in limine to exclude the expert opinion testimony of Bradley A. Schriver ("Schriver") and Ronald J. Panunto ("Panunto") under Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The motion is fully briefed, the Court has heard testimony from the experts, and the issues are ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, the motion will be denied.


A. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiffs initiated this action in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania on December 19, 2006, and it was timely removed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In March 2007, the Eastern District transferred the action, and another with which it had been consolidated, to this Court.*fn1 (Doc. Nos. 1-13.)

The Plaintiffs Ha. L. Hoang and Nam L. Hoang seek to recover for personal injuries and property damage suffered when a residential fire broke out at a house at 1008 Hudson Street in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on December 29, 2004. (Doc. No. 15-3, ¶¶; 42-45.) The house was owned by Nam Hoang and he lived there with his sister Ha Hoang and his mother Ken Tran. (Id. ¶¶ 29-31.) The Plaintiffs' experts have opined that the fire was caused by a defect in a Sylvania combination television/video cassette recorder ("TV/VCR") that was manufactured and sold by the Defendants. (Id. ¶¶ 33-47.) The present motion before the Court challenges the reliability of the methodology used by Plaintiffs' experts in reaching that conclusion.

B. Standard of Review

The Supreme Court has held that the trial court has "a special obligation" to ensure that any and all expert testimony is not only relevant but reliable. Kumho Tire Co., Ltd., v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 147 (1999) (quoting Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 589 (1993)). This special obligation has been likened to a "gatekeeping role" for the trial judge. Daubert, 509 U.S. at 597. Accordingly, the admission of scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge is within the discretion of the district court. General Elec. Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 146-47 (1997).

This inquiry is controlled by Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which provides:

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. As the Third Circuit has explained, these requirements represent the "trilogy of restrictions on expert testimony: qualification,*fn2 reliability and fit." Calhoun v. Yamaha Motor Corp. U.S.A., 350 F.3d 316, 321 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing Schneider v. Fried, 320 F.3d 396, 405 (3d Cir. 2003)).

When considering the reliability requirement, the Supreme Court has held that the gatekeeping function requires the trial court to "make certain that an expert, whether basing testimony upon professional studies or personal experience, employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field." Kumho Tire, 526 U.S at 152. To meet this requirement, "a litigant has to make more than a prima facie showing that his expert's methodology is reliable . . . [but] the evidentiary requirement of reliability is lower than the merits standard of correctness." Pineda v. Ford Motor Co., 520 F.3d 237, 244 (3d Cir. 2008). When evaluating the reliability of a witness's methodology, a court is guided by several familiar factors drawn from Daubert:

(1) whether a method consists of a testable hypothesis; (2) whether the method has been subject to peer review; (3) the known or potential rate of error; (4) the existence and maintenance of standards controlling the technique's operation; (5) whether the method is generally accepted; (6) the relationship of the technique to methods which have been established to be reliable; (7) the qualifications of the expert witness testifying based on the methodology; and (8) the non-judicial uses to which the method has been put.

Calhoun, 350 F.3d at 321 (citing Paoli, 35 F.3d at 742 n.8). These factors "may or may not be pertinent in assessing reliability, depending on the nature of the issue, the expert's particular expertise, and the subject of his testimony." Kumho Tire, 526 U.S. at 150. Accordingly, the Rule 702 inquiry is a flexible one, and the court should also take into account any other relevant factors. Calhoun, 350 F.3d at 321.

The final requirement is fit, which means "the expert's testimony must be relevant for the purposes of the case and must assist the trier of fact." Id. (quoting Schneider, 320 F.3d at 405). "Rule 702's helpfulness standard requires a valid scientific connection to the pertinent inquiry as a precondition to admissibility." Daubert, 509 U.S. at 591-92. This inquiry goes primarily to relevance because expert opinion which does not relate to a disputed issue is not relevant and cannot assist the trier of fact as required by Rule 702. Id. As the Supreme Court has explained,

[t]he study of the phases of the moon, for example, may provide valid scientific "knowledge" about whether a certain night was dark, and if darkness is a fact in issue, the knowledge will assist the trier of fact. However (absent creditable grounds supporting such a link), evidence that the moon was full on a certain night will not assist the trier of fact in determining whether an individual was unusually likely to have behaved irrationally on that night.

Id. Like the typical relevance inquiry, the standard for analyzing the fit of an expert's analysis to the case at hand is "not that high." United States v. Ford, 481 F.3d 215, 219-20 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Paoli, 35 F.3d at 745). But, expert testimony can be powerful and misleading because of the difficulty in evaluating it, and the Third Circuit has cautioned that district courts should tread carefully when evaluating proffered expert testimony, paying special attention to the relevance prong of Daubert. Id. at 219 n.6.

II. ...

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