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Scanlan v. Sunbeam Products, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville

January 18, 2018



          Charles R. Simpson III, Senior Judge

         This matter is before the court on the objection of defendant Sunbeam Products, Inc. (“Sunbeam”) to Magistrate Judge Dave Whalin's order denying Sunbeam's motions to exclude Mark Lehto, Ph.D., Michael Wogalter, Ph.D., William Murphy, Ph.D., and Sara Ford as expert witnesses. ECF Nos. 112, 110. Plaintiffs Stephen and Alexandria Scanlan (“the Scanlans”) responded. ECF No. 124. For the reasons set forth below, Sunbeam's objection will be overruled.

         I. Case Background

         This case arises from the tragic death of two-year-old Sawyer Scanlan from heatstroke. On December 15, 2010, Stephen Scanlan put his son, Sawyer, to bed in his crib at approximately 9:00 p.m. ECF No. 88-3, p. 7. Stephen turned on the Sunbeam Fan-Forced Heater, Model No. SFH111 (“space heater” or “SFH111”) and turned the thermostat dial to mid-range. Id. at 23. He then left the room and shut the door behind him. Id. at 36. Although Sawyer's mother, Alexandria Scanlan, woke up several times during the night to feed Sawyer's infant sister, she did not check on Sawyer because she did not hear any noise coming from his room and assumed he was sleeping. ECF No. 85-4, p. 58.

         At approximately 10:00 a.m. the following morning, Alexandria went to Sawyer's room to wake him. Id. at 66-67. When she opened the bedroom door, she felt a burst of hot air and found Sawyer lying in his crib, unresponsive. Id. at 70-71. An EMS official pronounced Sawyer dead at the scene. The medical examiner concluded that “The death of this 2 ½ year-old male child . . . is attributed to heat exposure due to confinement in a small room with an electric space heater.” ECF No. 52-7.

         On December 7, 2011, the Scanlans filed suit against Sunbeam in Jefferson Circuit Court, alleging strict liability, negligence, breach of warranty, violations of the Kentucky Consumer Protection Act, and violations of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act.[1] ECF No. 1-1, p. 5. The case was then removed to this court. Id. at 1. The Scanlans disclosed several experts they plan to call as witnesses at trial. These expert witnesses include: Mark Lehto, Phd., a professor of engineering at Purdue University; Michael Wogalter, Ph.D., a human factors specialist and professor emeritus at North Carolina State University; William Murphy, Ph.D., a professor of engineering at the University of Kentucky; and Sara Ford, a vocational economist. ECF No. 52. Sunbeam filed motions to exclude these four witnesses, arguing that they do not satisfy the requirements for expert witnesses under Federal Rule of Evidence (FRE) 702. ECF Nos. 85-88.

         These motions were referred to Judge Whalin for resolution. Judge Whalin subsequently issued an order denying Sunbeam's motions to exclude the testimony of Lehto, Wogalter, Murphy, and Ford. ECF No. 110. Sunbeam now objects to Judge Whalin's order under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(a).

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(a), a party may file an objection to a magistrate judge's order within fourteen days of being served with a copy. Upon review, a district court must “modify or set aside any part of the order that is clearly erroneous or contrary to law.” Id. Clear error exists “when the reviewing court is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Max Trucking, LLC v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Corp., 802 F.3d 793, 810 (6th Cir. 2015) (citing Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573 (1985)).

         Sunbeam challenges Judge Whalin's order denying its motions to exclude Lehto, Wogalter, Murphy, and Ford as expert witnesses. FRE 702 governs the admissibility of expert witness testimony. This rule states:

A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:
(a) The expert's scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) The testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) The testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) The expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

         Thus, trial judges serve as “gatekeepers” to ensure that expert testimony “rests on a reliable foundation and is relevant to the task at hand.” Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 597, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 (1993). In Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, the Supreme Court suggested several factors that could be used in assessing the reliability of an expert's opinion, including (1) “whether it can be or has been tested;” (2) “whether [it] . . . has been subject to peer review and publication;” (3) whether there is a “known or potential rate of error'” and (4) whether it enjoys “general acceptance . . . in the relevant scientific community.” Id. at 594. However, the Court emphasized that this inquiry “is a flexible one, ” and considerations may vary based on the subject matter of the case. Id. Notwithstanding this flexibility, the role of a trial judge is to assess the “principles and methodology” used by experts, not the conclusions they ultimately reach. Id. at 595.

         In assessing relevance, the ultimate question is whether the expert's opinions “fit” the facts of the case. Id. at 591. “[S]cientific validity for one purpose is not necessarily ...

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