This case arose from a December 31, 2015 fire at an apartment complex in Everett, Washington that caused significant damage. The fire originated in the bedroom of Mark Davis, who died in the fire. At the time, Davis had an HP laptop in his room that contained a lithium-ion battery. Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company (Plaintiff), the insurer of the apartment complex, filed a subrogation lawsuit against HP (Defendant), alleging the fire was caused by an internal failure of the laptop battery pack. Plaintiff asserted claims of negligence and strict product liability under Washington law.
Plaintiff retained two expert witnesses who opined that the fire was caused by the laptop battery having an internal short circuit, which then ignited surrounding combustible materials. Defendant filed motions to exclude the testimony of both experts under Daubert, as well as a motion for summary judgment.
Fire Origin And Cause Determination Expert Witness
Michael D. Eskra has over 30 years of experience in the energy, power source, and battery industries. He is the owner of Eskra Technical Products, Inc., which provides consulting services related to batteries and power systems. Eskra has worked extensively with various battery chemistries including lithium-ion, lithium polymer, nickel metal hydride, and lead acid batteries. He has been involved in battery technology development, manufacturing, testing, and failure analysis. Eskra previously held senior executive and technical management roles at companies such as Electro Energy, Inc., Johnson Controls, and General Motors. He has managed large government and commercial battery technology contracts and research programs. Eskra has over 300 published papers and articles and 5 U.S. patents related to batteries and materials. He obtained his undergraduate degree in Chemical Process Engineering. Eskra has received certification as a Fire and Explosion Investigator, Fire Instructor, Vehicle Fire Investigator, and Project Management Professional. He is a member of professional organizations including the Society of Automotive Engineers, the National Association of Fire Investigators, and the International Association of Arson Investigators.
Ken Rice is a Senior Fire Investigator at Jensen Hughes retained by Plaintiff to investigate the December 31 fire and determine its cause.
Discussion by the Court
Defendant Hewlett-Packard filed two motions to exclude expert testimony under Daubert along with a motion for summary judgment in this case. The first motion sought to exclude certain opinions of Plaintiff’s expert Michael D. Eskra.
Eskra’s testimony was divided into three main categories: (1) general background explanations of how lithium-ion batteries function; (2) his analysis of physical evidence from the actual fire scene; and (3) testing he conducted on exemplar laptop batteries. The Court found categories (1) and (2) to be sufficiently reliable and denied Defendant’s motion as to testimony in those areas. For example, Eskra could testify generally that lithium-ion batteries can experience thermal runaway events under certain conditions that can lead to fires. He could also testify about his analysis of CT scans taken of the recovered battery cells from the scene and his conclusion that one cell appeared to have an internal short circuit.
However, the Court granted Defendant’s motion to exclude all of Eskra’s testimony in the third category related to his exemplar testing. Eskra had tested batteries from a different manufacturer than those in the HP laptop at issue. The Court held that this failure to test batteries matching the actual products rendered his methodology and any defect identified at the conclusions drawn from the testing unreliable. The Court explained that in a manufacturing defect case, the exemplar product used for testing must be sufficiently similar to the actual product. Otherwise, the testing cannot produce relevant evidence regarding the specific product at issue. Here, testing a different manufacturer’s batteries could not reliably indicate whether the HP laptop battery had a particular defect.
The second motion sought to exclude certain opinions of Plaintiff’s fire investigation expert Ken Rice. Rice applied National Fire Protection Association’s Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations (“NFPA 921”) methodology in examining the fire scene evidence and determining the fire originated on the bed and was caused by the laptop. Defendant argued Rice deviated from NFPA 921 guidelines in multiple ways, rendering his testimony unreliable.
The Court granted Defendant’s motion only as to Rice’s opinion that an internal failure of the laptop battery specifically caused the fire. The Court found Rice was unqualified to conclusively opine on the intricate workings of lithium-ion batteries and draw conclusions such as the fire being caused by an internal failure of the Laptop’s battery pack. However, the Court otherwise denied Defendant’s motion. It held Rice reliably followed NFPA 921 in reaching his conclusions about the fire’s area of origin and the laptop being a potential cause and alluded to the Defendant’s failure to to show that Mr. Rice’s methodology was so flawed as to be unreliable. Even where Rice may have emphasized some evidence over other conflicting evidence, the Court held this went to the weight and credibility of Rice’s conclusions rather than their admissibility.
In summary, Defendant prevailed only in part on its Daubert motions. Eskra’s opinions based on testing of exemplar batteries from another manufacturer were excluded, as was Rice’s independent conclusion about the specific mechanism of battery failure. But both experts were still permitted to testify as to matters within their expertise, including the origin of the fire on the bed and the laptop being a potential fire cause based on scene evidence. The Court found that while imperfect, the experts’ methodologies on these core points were sufficiently reliable under Daubert standards to pass the threshold for admissibility.
On summary judgment, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s negligence claim after Plaintiff conceded that Washington law did not permit a claim for negligence in a product liability action. But it otherwise denied summary judgment. The Court held that despite deficiencies in Plaintiff’s expert opinions, enough evidence remained through Rice’s testimony to allow a reasonable jury to find the fire was indeed caused by the laptop.
The Court has granted in part and denied in part the Daubert Motion filed regarding the testimony of Michael D. Eskra. Similarly, the Court admitted Ken Rice’s testimony in part. Additionally, the Summary Judgment Motion filed by the Defendant has also been granted in part and denied in part by the Court. Importantly, as a result of these rulings, the Court has chosen to dismiss the Plaintiff’s negligence claim from the case. This means that the Plaintiff’s allegation related to negligence will not proceed further in this legal matter. Since the remaining issues are yet to be resolved, this case still awaits an outcome.
- The case also shows that experts must employ reliable testing methodology tied to the actual products at issue. Eskra’s testing of exemplar batteries from another manufacturer bore no relevance to whether the HP battery had a defect. His opinions based on that flawed testing were excluded.
- Additionally, the Court emphasized that minor deviations from recommended investigative guidelines like NFPA 921 relate to weight rather than admissibility. The expert still must reliably apply the overall investigative methodology. Disputes over the interpretation of evidence are left to the jury.
In sum, this case reinforces that experts must stay within their qualifications, tie their analysis directly to the items involved in the incident, and demonstrate reliable methodology overall. While some opinions may be excluded, experts can still testify to relevant matters within their expertise if they demonstrate methodological reliability. Robust cross-examination remains the primary tool for attacking shaky but admissible expert testimony.