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Rupert v. Ford Motor Co.

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

February 23, 2015

JACQUELINE C. RUPERT, Plaintiff,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, a foreign corporation, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

CATHY BISSOON, District Judge.

I. MEMORANDUM

Pending before the Court is Defendant Ford Motor Company's ("Defendant") Motion for Summary Judgment and Motion to Exclude Experts/Motion for a Daubert Hearing (Doc. 100). For the reasons stated herein, the Court will grant Defendant's motions. In summary, Defendant argues that: (1) the Court should exclude the testimony of Plaintiff's expert, Byron Bloch, [1] as he is not qualified as an expert and he fails to satisfy the Daubert reliability test; and (2) Plaintiff cannot meet her burden of establishing a "crashworthiness" products liability claim against Defendant, and thus Defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Court finds that a subset of Mr. Bloch's conclusions is insufficiently reliable, and his testimony is partially excluded. Based on that exclusion, Defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

By way of factual background, Mr. Rupert was involved in a motor vehicle accident on May 27, 2010, in Adams Township, Pennsylvania, while driving a 1993 Ford F-250 pick-up truck (the "Rupert vehicle"). Def.'s Facts at ¶¶ 1-2 (Doc. 102). While driving along Route 228, Third Party Defendant Steven B. Macon caused his vehicle (the "Brayman vehicle") to cross the center line and strike the front area of the Rupert vehicle at a high rate of speed. Id. at ¶ 2. A third vehicle, which had been travelling behind Mr. Rupert, crashed into and beneath the rear of his truck. Id. at ¶ 4. Plaintiff contends that the passenger compartment of the Rupert vehicle was excessively crushed as a result of the accident, entrapping Mr. Rupert. Pl.'s Facts at ¶ 5 (Doc. 109). Defendant denies both that the vehicle was "excessively crushed" and that Mr. Rupert was entrapped. Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Facts at ¶¶ 5, 9 (Doc. 116). Various witnesses attempted to extricate Mr. Rupert from the vehicle, but none were successful. Pl.'s Facts at ¶ 7. A fire occurred post-impact, and Mr. Rupert sustained serious injuries. Id. at ¶ 8.

Original Plaintiffs Michael T. Rupert ("Mr. Rupert") and his wife, Jacqueline C. Rupert ("Mrs. Rupert"), both Pennsylvania residents domiciled in Pennsylvania, asserted claims against Defendant, a Delaware corporation with its principle place on business in Michigan, related to injuries Mr. Rupert sustained during the 2010 motor vehicle accident. Am. Compl. ¶ 1-14 (Doc. 23). In two separately filed amended complaints (Docs. 23 and 24), the original Plaintiffs asserted claims of strict product liability (Count I); strict liability - failure to warn (Count II); negligence (Count III); loss of consortium (Count IV); negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count V); and they seek punitive damages.[2] On December 31, 2013, the Court dismissed Mr. Rupert's claims against Defendant. (Docs. 60, 61). Plaintiff Jacqueline Rupert's claims against Defendant, Counts IV and V, remain.[3]

Defendant has moved to exclude the opinions of Plaintiff's proposed expert, Byron Bloch, and to grant summary judgment in favor of Defendant. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. at 2. In the alternative, Defendant requested a Daubert Hearing. Id. The Court granted Defendant's alternative request and held a Daubert hearing on February 4, 2015, during which Byron Bloch testified. Defendant continues to challenge Mr. Bloch's designation as an expert and the reliability of his conclusions, and moves for summary judgment.

ANALYSIS

Expert Designation

In support of her crashworthiness claim, Plaintiff retained Mr. Bloch as a design defect/crashworthiness expert. Id. at ¶ 10. Defendant challenges his designation as an expert in this area based on the "trilogy of restrictions on expert testimony: qualification, reliability and fit." Schneider v. Fried, 320 F.3d 396, 405 (3d Cir. 2003). To be qualified as an expert, the witness must possess "specialized expertise, " but the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has made clear that the requirement is a liberal one. Id.; In re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litig., 35 F.3d 717, 741 (3d Cir.1994) ("Paoli II") ("[A] broad range of knowledge, skills, and training qualify an expert as such.").

Mr. Bloch has over 40 years of automobile safety design experience; Defendant disputes the value of this experience and notes that he is not a licensed engineer. Pl.'s Facts at ¶ 11; Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Facts at ¶ 11. Mr. Bloch studied Science Engineering and Industrial Design from 1955-1961 at various Universities. Pl.'s Br. in Opp'n. at Ex. 2, p. 5 (Doc. 112). He holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he majored in industrial design. Id.; Transcript, Daubert Hearing, Feb. 4, 2014 ("Tr.") at p. 22. From 1961 to 1966 he worked with a number of companies in the field of engineering. Pl.'s Br. in Opp'n. at Ex. 2, p. 4-5. Two of those jobs, in 1966 and 1967, related to automobiles. Id. at 5.

For over forty years, Mr. Bloch has worked as an independent consultant in auto safety design and crashworthiness through his company, Byron Bloch, Auto Safety Design. Tr. at 21. From 1965 to 1968, Mr. Bloch worked as a research editor for Road TEST Magazine, evaluating the design and safety technology features of automobiles. Pl.'s Br. in Opp'n. at Ex. 2, p. 2. He worked with the National Safety Council as a judge, evaluating accident prevention research. Id. Between 1971 and the present, Mr. Bloch has testified and/or presented information regarding auto safety issues before the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA"), the Department of Transportation ("DOT"), the U.S. House of Representatives, and the National Motor Vehicle Safety Advisory Council. Id. at 8-9. Intermittently, from approximately 1967 to 1999, he consulted with companies and news programs in the area of automobile safety. Id. at 2. From 1970 through the present, Mr. Bloch has lectured at colleges, universities and professional groups on auto safety issues. Id. Between 1968 and the present, he has testified as an automobile safety expert in approximately thirty cases in state and federal courts. Id. at 3-4. Mr. Bloch has published and/or presented on automobile/traffic safety approximately forty-four times. Id. at 5-8. In 2001, he received a "Lifetime Achievement Award" at the Twelfth Annual World Traffic Safety Symposium. Id. at 5.

Through his work, Mr. Bloch has orchestrated, observed and/or analyzed vehicle crash tests on multiple occasions. Tr. at 24-28. His work with crash tests led to his recommendation to the automobile industry that they relocate fuel tanks away from the backs of vehicles, where they were easily ignited in collisions. Id. at 26-27. It is now the case that fuel tanks are located in the "safety zone forward of the rear axle, " reducing annual burn deaths from approximately 700 to less than 100. Id. at 26. He also specifically studied the risks of poor quality front seat anchoring and the merits of energy-absorbing safety bumper systems. Id. at 27-28.

Defendant insists that Mr. Bloch should not be deemed an expert under the Federal Rules of Evidence, as he lacks a formal degree in the field of engineering. Defendant's argument overlooks the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit's position that Rule 702 imposes a "liberal" standard. Paoli II, 35 F.3d at 741. In Waldorf v. Shuta, the Third Circuit stated that:

Rule 702 requires the witness to have "specialized knowledge" regarding the area of testimony. The basis of this specialized knowledge can be practical experience as well as academic training and credentials. We have interpreted the specialized knowledge requirement liberally, and have stated that this policy of liberal admissibility of expert testimony extends to the substantive as well as the formal qualifications of experts. However, ...

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