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Martinez v. Cunningham

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

January 31, 2018


         SECTION “R” (5)



         Defendants move to exclude the expert testimony of Valery Rousseau.[1] For the following reasons, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of injuries sustained by plaintiff Nicholas Martinez when the door of a transport trailer fell on him. Plaintiff alleges that on April 18, 2016, he was helping defendant Dante Cunningham load Cunningham's car and motorcycle into a transport trailer.[2] The rear of this transport trailer featured a large cargo door hinged at the bottom.[3] While the door usually opened and closed by means of a cable and winch system, the system was broken at the time.[4]

         According to plaintiff, he and Cunningham tried to pull the door down manually.[5] Because Cunningham, who is 6' 8”, is much taller than plaintiff, initially only Cunningham could reach the top of the door.[6] Plaintiff positioned himself beneath the door and waited for Cunningham to lower it to where plaintiff could reach it.[7] According to plaintiff, Cunningham then let go of the door because it was too heavy, causing the door to crush plaintiff's legs and injure his back.[8] Cunningham testified in a deposition that if plaintiff had held the door closer to the hinges from the beginning, then the door would not have fallen.[9]

         Plaintiff sued Cunningham for damages on September 22, 2016. Plaintiff added USAA Casualty Insurance Company, which provided liability insurance to Cunningham, as a defendant on December 14, 2016.[10] Trial is set for February 26, 2018. Defendants now move to exclude the expert testimony and report of Valery Rousseau, a physicist at Loyola University New Orleans.[11]


         Federal Rule of Evidence 702 gives the district court considerable discretion to admit or exclude expert testimony. See Gen. Elec. Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 138-39 (1997). Rule 702 provides that a witness “qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education” may provide opinion testimony when “scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Fed.R.Evid. 702. To be admissible, Rule 702 requires that (1) the testimony be based on sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony be the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness apply the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case. Id.

         In Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., the Supreme Court held that Rule 702 requires the district court to act as a gatekeeper to ensure that “any and all scientific testimony or evidence admitted is not only relevant, but reliable.” 509 U.S. 579, 589 (1993); see also Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 147 (1999) (clarifying that the Daubert gatekeeping function applies to all forms of expert testimony). The Court's gatekeeping function therefore involves a two-part inquiry. First, the Court must determine whether the expert testimony is reliable, i.e., “grounded in the methods and procedures of science.” SEC v. Life Partners Holdings, Inc., 854 F.3d 765, 775 (5th Cir. 2017) (quoting Johnson v. Arkema, Inc., 685 F.3d 452, 459 (5th Cir. 2012)). The party offering the testimony has the burden of establishing reliability by a preponderance of the evidence. See Moore v. Ashland Chem. Inc., 151 F.3d 269, 276 (5th Cir. 1998). The Court must assess whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the expert's testimony is valid. See Daubert, 509 U.S. at 590. The aim is to exclude expert testimony based merely on subjective belief or unsupported speculation. See Id. The Court's inquiry into the reliability of expert testimony is flexible and necessarily fact-specific. See Seatrax, Inc. v. Sonbeck Int'l, Inc., 200 F.3d 358, 372 (5th Cir. 2000).

         Second, the Court must determine whether the expert's reasoning or methodology “fits” the facts of the case and whether it will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence. See Daubert, 509 U.S. at 591. This is primarily an inquiry into the relevance of the expert testimony. See id; see also Bocanegra v. Vicmar Services, Inc., 320 F.3d 581, 584 (5th Cir. 2003) (“The expert testimony must be relevant . . . in the sense that the expert's proposed opinion would assist the trier of fact to understand or determine a fact in issue.”). Expert testimony is unnecessary if the court finds that “the jury could adeptly assess [the] situation using only their common experience and knowledge.” Peters v. Five Star Marine Serv., 898 F.2d 448, 450 (5th Cir. 1990).


         Rousseau's report offers three opinions.[12] First, Rousseau states that the door exerted no force on Cunningham when it began its downward descent. Second, Rousseau opines that this force increased to a maximum of 115 pounds as the door descended, and that plaintiff could reach the top of the door only when it had moved 40.8° from its vertical position. Third, Rousseau opines that plaintiff's “presence closer to the door when the door first began its downward movement” would not have made “a difference in preventing the door from dropping.”[13] According to plaintiff, these opinions would rebut Cunningham's testimony that plaintiff should have helped to hold up the door as soon as the door started moving downwards.[14]

         Rousseau's opinions about the downward force exerted by the door are both reliable and helpful. These opinions are based on the physical characteristics of the door-its weight, length, and distance from the ground-and trigonometric equations. The Court is satisfied that Rousseau arrived at these opinions using scientific methods and procedures.[15]See Life Partners Holdings, 854 F.3d at 775. Moreover, these opinions could assist the jury in determining whether Cunningham acted negligently either by ...

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