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Expert Testimony in Mississippi Product Liability Cases

1958-ford-headlight-cowl-ornament-837901-m.jpgIn order to prove causation, a plaintiff asserting design or manufacturing defects must show proof of a defect as well as causation to recover under the Mississippi Products Liability Act. Defect and causation can be difficult to prove where there are multiple corporations involved in the design and manufacturing of an allegedly defective product. These elements can also be difficult to prove where a claim is cutting-edge. The more novel a claimed defect is, the more difficult it can be to secure reliable expert testimony to support the claim.

A 2012 case arose from a car accident on U.S. Hwy 45 in Mississippi. Doris Riley ran a stop sign and crossed the highway, crashing her Toyota into the side of a Ford Probe. The three-year-old daughter of Kelly Grant, who was driving the Ford Probe, was sitting in the driver's side rear seat and suffered a fatal head injury during the accident.

Grant sued Ford, claiming that the Ford Probe's design and manufacturing defects caused her daughter's death. Ford moved for summary judgment during the course of litigation, and the trial court granted the motion.

Grant appealed. She argued, among other things, that her expert witness' opinions had been improperly excluded and that the trial court should have compelled the manufacturer to produce design drawings of the vehicle in question.

Grant had asked for all design drawings related to the Ford Probe. Ford responded that Mazda in Japan was the place where the design had been developed and referred Grant to Mazda. Similarly, it referred the plaintiff to Mazda for all information about design decisions. Ford also gave the plaintiff Mazda's contact information.

Grant tried to get the relevant information from Mazda in the United States but failed. She filed a motion to compel the manufacturing defendant to produce design documents, claiming that it had control over the design drawings. After a 2008 hearing, the trial court told the plaintiff to ask Mazda for the documents. Ford later advised that Mazda had denied its request on the grounds that it had no legal obligation to produce the documents. Grant filed a supplemental motion to compel the car manufacturer to produce the documents, but this motion was denied.

In Mississippi, any party can ask another party to produce for inspection and copying any documents that are in its possession, custody, or control. Grant argued on appeal that Ford had a legal right to obtain the design drawings from Mazda. She pointed to a production agreement between Ford and Mazda that stated if Ford needed specifications and drawings Mazda would provide them. The plaintiff also argued that the Ford had a 33% ownership interest in Mazda.

The appellate court disagreed. It explained that Ford had claimed that it didn't have possession or control over the design documents that were requested. The plaintiff hadn't produced any evidence that showed Ford had control or custody of the drawings. Ford had shown it didn't have a legal right to the drawings because the production agreement had long since expired and only covered the relationship between Ford and Mazda during a production cycle that ended in 1997. The appellate court affirmed the trial court's denial of the motion to compel.

The appellate court also affirmed the trial court's exclusion of the plaintiff's expert's opinions on biomechanics, seat belts, and structural integrity. Ford had argued the information in the expert's affidavits wasn't disclosed or referenced during his deposition. It argued that submitting them via affidavit was improper and untimely submission of expert testimony. The trial court struck the parts of the affidavits that included data or information added after the expert's deposition and excluded certain opinions. The plaintiff argued that at deposition her attorney had reserved the right to supplement or change expert opinions as discovery continued. It also argued that the expert's opinions stayed the same and therefore didn't present undue surprise.

The appellate court explained that Mississippi does allow for seasonal supplementation, but this didn't mean "several months later" but rather immediately. Seasonableness is determined case by case, looking at the totality of the circumstances.

The appellate court also explained that in determining whether an expert's testimony was reliable, a trial court had to look at (1) testability, (2) whether a theory had been peer-reviewed, (3) the known or potential error rate of a technique or theory, and (4) the general acceptance (or lack of acceptance) for a theory in the expert community. The expert in this case had not tested the "rebound theory" related to downward force on a seat belt buckle that was to be presented at trial. He had not considered alternative explanations, and there was an analytical gap between the data and the expert's theory. Further, the expert had not offered a feasible alternative design in use when the vehicle was manufactured in 1996.

The appellate court affirmed the lower court's ruling granting summary judgment. It ruled that without expert testimony the plaintiff couldn't prove either the causation or defect in this case.

If you or a loved one is severely injured due to product design defects, the knowledgeable Mississippi personal injury attorneys of Coxwell & Associates may be able to help pursue the damages you deserve and need. In many complex product liability cases the attorneys at Coxwell & Associates use a "team approach" to handling the case. This method allowed them to obtain a 149 million dollar verdict for the family of a deceased kid. The case was settled after trial for a confidential sum of money.

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Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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