The Kims were injured in a side-impact car accident in a 2014 Honda CR-V. A jury found Honda liable and over $21 million in damages. In the course of litigation, Honda moved to exclude Plaintiffs’ two liability experts, moved for a new trial and judgment as a matter of law, and objected to the want of a jury instruction regarding a presumption of non-liability. The District Court denied the motions, and the U.S. Fifth Circuit affirmed.
“Honda makes two central arguments that the district court erred by admitting Ziejewski’s testimony. First, Honda contends Ziejewski’s testimony about the existence of safer alternative designs should have been excluded because his opinions were conclusory and unsupported. Specifically, because Ziejewski did not conduct a formal risk-utility analysis and relied on Hannemann’s testing analysis instead of conducting his own, Honda argues Ziejewski could not show that the proposed alternative designs would have likely prevented the injuries. Second, Honda argues the district court did not analyze relevancy and reliability. These arguments are unconvincing. The district court did not abuse its discretion when it found Ziejewski did more than ‘co-sign’ Hannemann’s claims. It analyzed the relevancy, reliability, and potential helpfulness of Ziejewski’s report, which indicated that Ziejewski applied principles of accident reconstruction, biomedical engineering, and body kinematics to the facts of the case. The district court found, for example, that Ziejewski applied his education, training, and experience in body kinematics, engineering principles and methodologies generally accepted, and biomechanics to explain that the alternative seatbelt designs would not have allowed Mr. Kim’s shoulder slip-out and would have prevented excursion of his head, neck, and upper torso from the safety of his seat, and that a center airbag, side impact containment, and offset packaging would have provided an effective means of preventing occupants’ head impact with one another. Moreover, Honda’s complaint that Ziejewski failed to conduct a formal risk-utility analysis speaks to a question of substantive law—not the requirements of FRE 702. Ultimately, it is not difficult to imagine how these findings could be helpful to the jury when assessing whether proposed alternative designs would have prevented the injuries at issue.
“Next, regarding Hannemann: on appeal, Honda makes three arguments to support its claim that the district court abused its discretion in admitting his expert testimony. Honda emphasizes Hannemann’s (1) failure to perform a formal risk-utility analysis and urges that he (2) failed to prove the alternative designs would have produced a better outcome in the accident at issue. Honda also contends (3) Hannemann should have been excluded because he offered only conclusory opinions about the economic feasibility of the proposed alternatives. These contentions are not persuasive given the high degree of deference this Court gives to evidentiary rulings. First, Honda’s complaint that Hannemann failed to conduct a formal risk-utility analysis is relevant to the substantive requirements for relief, not the admissibility of expert testimony. Second, Hannemann’s report included sufficient information for the district court to find he could provide reliable testimony about whether an alternative design could lead to a better outcome. The report was thorough and relied on Hannemann’s 40 years of experience in automotive engineering, design, and crash testing. Hannemann detailed how he personally inspected the Kims’ vehicle, followed accepted scientific testing methods, relied on reputable agencies’ methods of testing, and applied his engineering judgment to the facts of the case. As such, the district court did not commit manifest error in finding Hannemann met FRE 702. Hannemann’s perspective on automotive design and expertise in engineering could help the jury understand the nature of the accident; the testimony is based on sufficient facts and data (e.g., inspecting the vehicle, reliable studies, and relevant tests); and he used and applied reliable and accepted methods of engineering analysis to form his conclusions. Third, we reject Honda’s contention that Hannemann provided only conclusory evidence of economic feasibility. Hannemann said reverse geometry seatbelts likely cost ‘next to nothing’ if a manufacturer has already committed to an ABTS (All Belts to Seat) seat design, which is used in the rear seats of other vehicles. And Honda’s corporate representative stated in his deposition that the Honda airbag would cost less than the one General Motors made in 2013. Thus, Honda cannot plausibly claim that Hannemann offered only conclusory statements when its own expert confirmed the substance of Hannemann’s statement. At bottom, Hannemann had decades of experience in automotive engineering and applied that expertise to opine that the alternative designs would have reduced the likelihood of injury in this accident and would not be cost prohibitive, testimony meeting FRE 702 and Daubert.”
After addressing the motion for judgment as a matter of law and motion for new trial, and finding the evidence to have been sufficient in those regards, the Court addressed the specific provision of Texas tort law, which provides that: “In a products liability action brought against a product manufacturer or seller, there is a rebuttable presumption that the product manufacturer or seller is not liable for any injury to a claimant caused by some aspect of the formulation, labeling, or design of a product if the product manufacturer or seller establishes that the product’s formula, labeling, or design complied with mandatory safety standards or regulations adopted and promulgated by the federal government, or an agency of the federal government, that were applicable to the product at the time of manufacture and that governed the product risk that allegedly caused harm.” In this case, both the District Court and the Fifth Circuit found that the presumption did not apply: “The last portion of the presumption—that there were federal standards governing the product risk allegedly causing the harm — was the only one disputed at trial. Meeting this element is a prerequisite to receiving a jury instruction about the presumption: defendants are not entitled to the instruction if they fail to establish compliance with mandatory federal safety standards … that governed the product risk that allegedly caused the harm. The task is identifying the product risk and any connection to federal safety standards, as the Texas legislature’s purpose in enacting the presumption was to address situations where manufacturers and sellers were being held liable in products liability cases even though the products at issue complied with all applicable federal safety standards. Treating the applicability of the presumption as a question of law, the district court defined the product risk allegedly causing Plaintiffs’ injuries as the risk of injury from a far-side impact during a near-side collision, finding no federal standard applied.”
Kim v. American Honda Motor Company, No.22-40790, 2023 U.S.App.LEXIS 29761 (5th Cir. Nov. 7, 2023).