In Fernandez v. Central Mine Equipment Company, 2009 WL 4019259 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 23, 2009), the plaintiff, a driller's helper, alleged claims of strict liability and negligence against manufacturer Central Mine Equipment Company ("CME"), stemming from an injury that occurred while he was assisting in the operation of the CME 55, a drilling rig used for soil penetration testing. The CME 55 is a well-drilling unit equipped with, among other things, a hydraulic hoist, a twenty-two foot mast and a manually operated cathead. A cathead is a rotating steel drum around which rope is wrapped, with one end of the rope held by the drill operator and the other end extending over the tip of the mast and attached to either pipes, drill bits, or hammers. The rotating cathead provides friction which assists the operator in lifting or lowering items attached to the rope. In this instance, the rope became entangled on the cathead, causing drill bits to fall to the ground and strike plaintiff in the foot.
In support of his strict liability and negligence claims, the plaintiff offered the testimony of Clifford Anderson, a licensed engineer specializing in mechanical engineering, accident reconstruction and industrial accidents. Mr. Anderson posited that had the CME 55 been equipped with a "rope guide" or divider, the rope around the cathead would not have become entangled. CME objected to Mr. Anderson's testimony under Daubert, and simultaneously moved for summary judgment, on the grounds that without expert testimony, the plaintiff could not establish a prima facie case.
Mr. Anderson conceded at his deposition that he had "very little" experience in the field of geotechnical or water-well drilling; he had never personally operated a geotechnical or water-well drilling rig, nor did he hold himself out as an expert in this type of machinery. In fact, he did not inspect the CME 55 prior to issuing his expert report and had never reviewed technical specifications for the CME 55, instead procuring much of his knowledge from the defendant's website.
The court concluded that Mr. Anderson was unqualified as an expert under Daubert and excluded his testimony. Beyond his "apparent dearth of knowledge," he had never conducted any study or hazard analysis as to whether his proposed design would indeed provide a safer alternative. Moreover, the court could not overlook the fact that the proposed expert had never seen or operated a cathead with a "rope guide" or divider, such as the one he proposed. Plaintiff argued that Mr. Anderson was not required to possess "experience tailored to the precise product," and that his experience in accident reconstruction and industrial accidents was sufficient to qualify him as an expert. But the court pointed out that the expert must have relevant experience and qualifications such that whatever opinion he ultimately expressed would not necessarily be speculative - and that Mr. Anderson's opinions were based on unsubstantiated generalizations and speculative hypotheses. Without the crucial expert testimony to establish that the product was defectively designed, the plaintiff's claims necessarily failed and the case was dismissed.
Jessica Saunders Eichel is an associate in the New York City office of Harris Beach, PLLC. Her practice is primarily focused on litigation involving pharmaceuticals and medical devices. She defends clients in mass tort, class-action, and products liability litigation. Ms. Eichel also assists in the representation of an equipment leasing company in actions for products liability, negligence and wrongful death claims involving accidents at construction sites. She is a member of the marketing and public service subcommittees for DRI Young Lawyers. Ms. Eichel can be reached at 212-313-5434 or firstname.lastname@example.org.