In Burgett v. Troy-Bilt, LLC, the Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment on behalf of the defendant in a products liability case after the district court struck the plaintiff’s expert under Daubert. The key question in this case was the appropriateness of the expert’s qualifications. The plaintiff’s expert had sought to opine on electrical issues, biomechanical issues, and human factors. On the latter two points, the expert admitted that he was not an expert by educational training, and therefore the Sixth Circuit had little trouble upholding the district court’s decision to exclude his testimony in these areas. On the electrical issues question, it was “a much closer call.” On the one hand, the Court emphasized the limited training by the expert on electrical issues and how remote it was, but on the other, it acknowledged that plaintiffs “only needed a witness who met the ‘minimal qualifications’ requirement – not one who could teach a graduate seminar on the subject.” In this dispute over the malfunctioning of a lawn mower, the Court suggested that a lawn mower repairman would likely have been able to opine on the manufacturing defect but struggled to decide whether this forensic engineer and accident reconstructionist could pass Daubert muster. At the end of the day, the Court punted on the question because it found that summary judgment was proper even if the expert’s testimony was considered.
The decision prompted an interesting concurrence from Judge Stranch, who wrote separately to address “the apparent confusion here and in a number of cases regarding the admissibility of expert testimony. This recurring issue arises at the intersection of the expert requirements of qualification, relevance, and reliability and the nature of our adversary system.” Building on the struggles in the majority opinion, Judge Stranch would have found the expert qualified to testify on the electrical issues because the qualification inquiry does not ask whether the expert was the best expert, but simply whether the expert possesses minimal qualifications. Assuming appropriate qualifications, the proposed expert must still offer testimony that is reliable and relevant. Judge Stranch emphasized that the qualifications of the expert should not be confused with the reliability of the proposed testimony.
As the Court is taking a closer look at Daubert and related issues over the last several years, it is difficult to say that the Court’s jurisprudence has progressed in a linear fashion. Part of this is because of the abuse of discretion standard and the fact that some of the opinions are reviewing decisions to admit expert testimony where as others are dealing with exclusions. Judge Stranch aptly notes confusion surrounding some of these issues, it remains to be seen how that confusion will be alleviated. One possibility would be that the Court could take a significant Daubert decision en banc, but the difficulty often is finding one that would be useful for broad pronouncements rather than heavily fact-dependent. In the meantime, however, we will continue to monitor how the Sixth Circuit’s Daubert decisions evolve.