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Dalton v. McCourt Electric LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

July 7, 2015

DONALD DALTON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MCCOURT ELECTRIC LLC, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, J.

This case sparked to life with a fire that occurred in the home of Donald and Loris Dalton (“Plaintiffs”) and caused substantial losses to their real and personal property--losses Plaintiffs attribute to both Intermatic, Inc. (“Intermatic”), the company that manufactured certain electronic components involved in this case, and McCourt Electric, LLC (“McCourt”), the contractor that installed said components.[1] Plaintiffs brought suit against Intermatic and McCourt, and Intermatic filed a Daubert motion to exclude Plaintiffs’ liability expert, Michael Wald. For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny the Daubert motion to exclude Mr. Wald’s expert testimony at trial.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[2]

After Mr. and Mrs. Dalton purchased their home in the spring of 2006, see Daubert Mot. Ex. B, Donald Dalton Dep. 26:10-24, May 28, 2013, ECF No. 98 [hereinafter Dalton Dep.], Mr. Dalton purchased four Intermatic ML600TW Power Packs (“Power Packs”)--devices used to reduce current for low-level exterior lighting, see Daubert Mot. ¶ 5--for Leslie McCourt (“Mr. McCourt”) to install. See Dalton Dep. 58:2-8. Without opening the packaging containing the Power Packs or examining their contents, Mr. Dalton simply left them in his basement until Mr. McCourt arrived to install them. Id. 58:13-21.

Mr. McCourt installed each Power Pack in the basement and connected the wires[3] for the Power Pack that is the subject of the instant litigation, while Mr. Dalton connected the wires to the other three Power Packs. Id. 67:16-68:20. When Mr. Dalton connected the wiring on the three Power Packs he set up, he reviewed the instructions regarding the wattage capacity limits of the Power Packs on the outside of the box that contained the Power Packs, but he did not read any material found inside the box. Id. 81:2-82:9. Until 2012, Mr. Dalton did not experience any issues with the functioning of the Power Packs. Id. 83:14-84:10.

On March 9, 2012, however, Mr. Court was startled by the sound of the smoke alarms going off in his house, and by the discovery of smoke emanating from the basement. Id. 102:10-16, 106:7-107:6. Upon entering the basement, Mr. Dalton observed sparks and flames in the area around the subject Power Pack. Id. 107:14-108:5. Ultimately, the fire “resulted in substantial injury and loss as to the Plaintiffs’ real and/or personal property.” Am. Compl. ¶ 7, ECF No. 38.

Soon after the incident, Plaintiffs retained the services of Mr. Wald of IEI Consulting, Inc., to determine the cause of the fire. See Daubert Mot. Ex. C, Wald Report 1 [hereinafter Wald Report]. Based on his examination of the site on April 6, 2012, Daubert Mot. Ex. D, Michael Wald Dep. 89:5-21, July 22, 2014 [hereinafter Wald Dep.], and on his artifact inspection on May 21, 2012, Id. 93:2-95:11, Mr. Wald opined that there “were no other electrical failures which could have caused this fire other than the failure at the load terminal of the timer.” Wald Report 1.

In describing why he found said cause “quite clear, ” Mr. Wald observed that “the section of metal bus that connects one leg of the transformer output to one of the screw terminal connections suffered a prolonged arcing failure.” Id. at 2. According to Mr. Wald, “Arcing failures not only generate local temperatures in the 3000-5000 degree Fahrenheit range, they also produce molten metal which can drop onto combustible materials below and ignite a fire. This is what happened in this incident.” Id. Mr. Wald laid out his reasoning in greater detail in the following portion of his report:

The arcing event that occurred only involved one leg of the transformer output. Thus, the cause of this damage is what is known as in-line arcing. In-line arcing occurs when a conductor breaks while current is being drawn through it and electrons jump (arc) from one side of the break to the other. The arc produces plasma and the nearby burning plastics produce carbon. Both of these cause a conductive atmosphere such that the arc can continue, consuming portions of the conductor as it travels. That is why a section of the terminal bus is consumed. This bus broke while the landscape lights were operating and arcing occurred. The possibility that there was a loose connection at the screw terminal that caused this arcing can positively be eliminated since there is no arcing or even melting at the stranded wiring at the screw terminal. Thus it is concluded that the failure originated in the section of bus below the screw terminal end.
This section of bus is part of the original construction of the timer. There is no evidence that any excessive electrical loads were placed on this bus since all of the downstream wiring and lights were in good operating condition. Therefore it must be concluded that this bus was in a damaged condition when this product was manufactured and sold. The cross sectional area of the bus was so small that the bus separated while only carrying a small load. Some defect in this material must have existed, possibly a crack or a bubble in the metal, or else the metal was damaged during manufacture and assembly by Intermatic, to ultimately result in this internal failure. It is noted that this failure occurred in the area where the bus turns (is bent) 90 degrees from horizontal to vertical which would be a likely place for a crack to form.

Id.

On July 22, 2014, and October 8, 2014, the parties conducted Mr. Wald’s expert deposition. See Wald Dep. 1:11, 171:11. Prior to the first session of his deposition, Mr. Wald was instructed to bring “[h]is entire case file and all materials in his possession regarding the above matter, including all artifacts”; prior to the second session, the instruction was elaborated to request materials “includ[ing], but [] not limited to, all literature, studies, testing, evidence and documentation of testing, that support the opinions and conclusions [Mr. Wald] has offered, and any and all other documents and materials, by whatever name known, that Mr. Wald contends support his opinions and/or conclusions and report(s) in this matter.” Daubert Mot. Ex. E, Dep. Notices.

On each occasion, Mr. Wald testified that he brought the entire contents of his file, see Wald Dep. 8:23-15:23, 178:20-179:21--except for a “little diagram of the [Dalton’s] house” that he could not find, which he thought did not have “any real relevance, ” Id. 15:5-23. Mr. Wald’s file included, inter alia, his “current bio, ” billing records, photographs, his investigative reports on the fire, and “a CD of all the electronic files that were transmitted to [him]” in connection with this case. Id. 10:24-11:16. Mr. Wald did not bring any notes--as he claimed he had not taken any during the course of his investigation, either by hand or electronically, Id. 15:24-16:15--nor did he provide any testing results or industry literature that he relied upon in his investigation. Accordingly, Mr. Wald confirmed that the sole bases for the opinions contained in his report were the photographs, his own observations, his past forensic work, and well-established and thoroughly tested principles of science, rather than any further experimentation or consultation of literature or standards. See Id. 106:13-109:5.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiffs filed a complaint on June 25, 2012, asserting the following claims: (1) negligence by Intermatic (Count I); (2) negligence by McCourt (Count II); (3) strict products liability against both Intermatic and McCourt (Count III); (4) breach of implied warranties against Intermatic (Count IV); and (5) breach of implied warranties against McCourt (Count V). Compl. ¶¶ 13-40, ECF No. 1. On March 19, 2013, Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Rueter permitted Plaintiffs to file an amended complaint to add a claim of interference with enjoyment of real property. ECF No. 37; see Am. Compl ¶¶ 16, 21, 31, 37, 44. On December 5, 2015, however, Plaintiffs stated that “[w]hen [they] proceed to trial in this ...


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