Credentials and subjective opinion alone found insufficient for admitting expert testimony; Court rejects the testimony of transportation safety expert witness in personal injury suit
Posted on November 7, 2023 by ewp_staff_writer
This case arises from a tractor-trailer truck accident in which the Plaintiff Rodney Bibbs, an independent contractor truck driver, was injured when the load in his trailer allegedly shifted, causing him to lose control and overturn his truck. Bibbs was hired to transport a pre-loaded trailer of packaged beer from the defendant Molson Coors’ brewery in Virginia to Ohio. While passing through West Virginia, Bibbs claims the load suddenly shifted, causing the accident and his injuries. After initially failing to timely disclose any liability expert to support his claims, the Court allowed the Plaintiff to disclose a single liability expert, James E. Lewis, under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26(a)2.
Bibbs sued Molson Coors for negligence in packing and loading the beer pallets onto the trailer, alleging this caused the load shift and subsequent accident. Molson Coors filed a motion for summary judgment.
In the legal matter at hand, the Plaintiff is a commercial truck driver who worked as an independent contractor for a trucking company named High Horse Logistics. High Horse Logistics was hired by J.B. Hunt, a well-known freight and logistics company, to transport a pre-loaded trailer of packaged beer. The journey began at Molson Coors’ Shenandoah Brewery, which is located in Elkton, Virginia, with the destination being a beer distributor located north of Columbus, Ohio. The date of the incident was May 19, 2020. The truck driver in question, Bibbs, had embarked on this particular transportation task.
While in transit, and specifically while passing through Ritchie County, West Virginia, on a four-lane divided highway, an unfortunate event occurred. The trailer’s beer load, which Bibbs was responsible for transporting, allegedly shifted spontaneously. This shift in the load led to Bibbs losing control of the truck and trailer, ultimately resulting in the truck and trailer overturning in the highway’s median. Consequently, this accident led to Bibbs claiming that he sustained multiple injuries as a result of the incident and the record does not indicate the number of libations tragically lost.
Defendant, Molson Coors, filed a motion to exclude the testimony of the Plaintiff’s liability expert witness, James E. Lewis. Molson Coors raised objections to Lewis’ qualifications, methodology, and the reliability of his opinions. Molson Coors argued that Lewis was not sufficiently qualified to offer expert opinions in the relevant fields.
Transportation Safety Expert Witness
James E. Lewis holds a Masters of Education degree with a specialty in Curriculum Development from the University of Maryland as well as a Bachelors of Applied Science in Criminal Justice and a Bachelors of Applied Medical Science in Psychology/Sociology, also from the University of Maryland. He is currently employed as a Transportation Safety Expert for Evidence Solutions, Inc. He also works as the owner of Total Transportation Training, providing training and consulting services related to Department of Transportation (DOT) compliance and safety standards in the trucking and towing industries.
Discussions by the Court
The Court first set forth the legal standard for admitting expert testimony under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Experts may testify if their knowledge will help the trier of fact, the testimony is based on sufficient facts, it is the product of reliable methods, and those methods were reliably applied to the facts. Proffered expert opinions that fail to meet this standard are inadmissible under Daubert. Courts have broad discretion to determine if the facts relied upon by an expert are sufficient to support their opinion. While experts have latitude, the existence of sufficient facts and a reliable methodology are mandatory for admissibility. A key factor in assessing reliability is whether the methodology can be tested or subjected to peer review. But credentials and subjective opinion alone, without more, are insufficient for admissibility, as was held in Viterbo v. Dow Chemical Company.
Turning to Lewis’ testimony, the Court noted his conclusion that Molson Coors was negligent in packing the pallets, causing the load shift and Bibbs’ accident. To support this, Lewis cited an interview with Bibbs, impressions from Molson Coors’ counsel, personal anecdote, and his review of some photos.
Molson Coors argued that Lewis was not sufficiently qualified to offer expert opinions in the relevant fields. Despite Lewis’ self-identification as a “Transportation Safety Expert,” Molson Coors contended that his educational and professional background did not align with the specific subject matter of the case. Lewis held degrees in psychology/sociology, criminal justice, and a Master of Education with a specialty in curriculum development. Importantly, Lewis had no experience teaching courses or holding professorial positions in cargo loading, accident reconstruction, or related fields. He is also not an accident reconstructionist and had no engineering or similar background.
Molson Coors highlighted that Lewis had never worked for a brewer, had no experience loading or securing products at a brewery, and had no relevant degrees or certifications. Additionally, Lewis had never testified as a packaging, cargo loading, or accident reconstruction expert in any prior case. Molson Coors emphasized that the case in question was concerned with Lewis’ first-hand involvement, or lack thereof, of offering expert opinions related to load securement, loading methodology, and the role of cargo in a tractor-trailer accident. All of these factors called into question Lewis’s qualifications to provide expert testimony in this case.
The Court inferred that Lewis’ expert report can be characterized as no more than a highly informed opinion. While Lewis’ industry experience makes him an “expert” in the colloquial sense, he did not demonstrate the reliable methodology required to be considered an expert under Rule 702. Without evidence that Lewis used a reliable methodology, rather than just his credentials and subjective opinion, he could not be qualified as an expert witness.
Bibbs’ liability expert, James E. Lewis, had opined that Molson Coors poorly wrapped and secured the beer load without pallets and had prohibited Bibbs from checking the load securement on the loaded trailer, which he believed caused Bibbs’ accident. He did not deny that pallets were wrapped but contended that they were wrapped improperly and failed to provide any specific criteria for adequate pallet wrapping. Additionally, he lacked knowledge about the type of wrap Molson used or their typical pallet-wrapping methods for this case.
Regarding the absence of pallets, Lewis had surmised, based on a single photograph, that Molson did not use pallets, without having any context or details about the photograph. This opinion contradicted the information on the bill of lading, which had indicated that the beer was loaded on pallets.
Lewis’ opinion about Molson prohibiting Bibbs from checking the load was also noted. However, he did not provide any details about what Bibbs would have done differently or whether such an action would have made any difference in preventing the accident.
Lewis conducted an interview with the Plaintiff, Bibbs, during which he did not record notes or create a verifiable record. This interview forms a significant basis for his opinions. However, Lewis was unaware of Bibbs’ contradictory deposition testimony, and his failure to consider this sworn testimony raises questions about the reliability of his methodology.
During the Defendant’s deposition, Lewis revealed several key points about his involvement in the case. First, he acknowledged that he was unaware of any formal standards that could guide shippers in selecting suitable pallet wrapping and had not assessed whether such standards existed. Additionally, he stated that he did not physically inspect the vehicle or the crash site related to the accident. Lewis also emphasized that the only photos he analyzed were those provided to him, and he did not conduct any independent investigation or testing of items relevant to the case, including the tractor-trailer involved in the accident. Furthermore, he confirmed that he had never conducted any form of accident reconstruction to identify potential causes of the accident. His conclusion that the wrapping was faulty was solely based on examining the pallets after the accident and reviewing the photos provided to him.
The Defendant argued that Lewis’ opinions have not been subjected to any independent testing or validation. Without conducting any accident reconstruction, testing, or analysis in this case, Lewis’ conclusions are deemed to be unsupported speculation. His opinions are not grounded in the scientific or analytical rigor that characterizes expert testimony in relevant fields.
Because Lewis could be qualified as an expert witness, his testimony—insofar as it is offered as expert testimony—was held to be inadmissible by the Court.
The Court granted Molson Coors’ motion to strike Lewis as an expert witness. Without the necessary expert testimony, Bibbs could not maintain his negligence claim, entitling Molson Coors to summary judgment as a matter of law. The Court granted Molson Coors’ motion for summary judgment and subsequently dismissed the case with prejudice.
This case illustrates several important requirements for expert witness testimony to be admissible under Rule 702 and Daubert. First, extensive credentials and subjective opinion alone are insufficient – the expert must employ a reliable, testable methodology applied to the facts of the case. Second, the expert cannot simply rely on limited facts like interviews and documents provided by counsel. Independent testing, investigation, and evaluation of the evidence is required. Third, the expert must actually inspect and analyze the physical evidence firsthand if possible, rather than just reviewing photos and summaries. Fourth, the expert must rule out alternative causes and engage in some accident reconstruction or testing of their theories – speculative subjective opinions are inadequate. Finally, the expert must be able to identify standards or research in their field supporting their conclusions. In summary, admissibility requires the expert use an objective, verifiable methodology on sufficient facts, not merely credentials and subjective impressions.
Posted In: Expert Challenges, Transportation Safety Expert Witness
Tagged In: Liability, methodology, Personal Injury, Summary Judgement