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American Automobile Ins. Co. v. Omega Flex, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

April 15, 2015

American Automobile Insurance Company, Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
Omega Flex, Inc., Defendant - Appellee

Submitted January 15, 2015.

Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis.

For American Automobile Insurance Company, Plaintiff - Appellant: Thaddeus C. Baria, Anthony J. Morrone, COZEN O'CONNOR, Chicago, IL; Stephen D. Hoyne, Saint Louis, MO; Mark Elliot Utke, COZEN & O'CONNOR, Philadelphia, PA.

For Omega Flex, Inc., Defendant - Appellee: Thomas P. Berra, Jr., Neal Frederick Perryman, Oliver H. Thomas, LEWIS & RICE, Saint Louis, MO; William J. Conroy, Lynne O'Brien Ingram, Katherine A. Wang, CAMPBELL & CAMPBELL, Berwyn, PA; Douglas G. Smith, Diana M. Watral, KIRKLAND & ELLIS, Chicago, IL.

Before LOKEN, MELLOY, and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 721

LOKEN, Circuit Judge.

A fire destroyed the home of Fred and Adrienne Kostecki in High Ridge, Missouri. Their insurer, American Automobile Insurance Company (" AAIC" ), reimbursed the Kosteckis for their loss, received an assignment of their rights, and filed this diversity products liability action against Omega Flex, Inc. (" Omega" ), the manufacturer of TracPipe, a product made of corrugated stainless steel tubing (" CSST" ) that brought propane gas from an underground storage tank into the Kosteckis' home. After a four-day trial and three and one-half hours deliberating, a

Page 722

jury returned a verdict for Omega, finding that it did not fail to use ordinary care in designing the product or sell the product in an unreasonably dangerous and defective condition. The district court[1] denied AAIC's motion for a new trial. AAIC appeals, arguing the court abused its discretion when it excluded the opinion of AAIC's metallurgical expert, Dr. Thomas Eagar, that the product was defectively designed, and admitted testimony by a defense expert, Dr. Harri Kytomaa, criticizing Dr. Eagar's fire causation theory. Reviewing these evidentiary rulings for clear and prejudicial abuse of discretion, we affirm. See Boehm v. Eli Lilly & Co., 747 F.3d 501, 507 (8th Cir. 2014) (standard of review).

I.

Prior to trial, the district court granted Omega summary judgment on AAIC's claims of breach of warranty and failure to warn. The case proceeded to trial on claims of negligent design and strict liability for an unreasonably dangerous product. At trial, the cause of the fire was a major contested issue. All experts agreed that the fire started when lightning struck a tree near the underground propane tank, causing electric energy to enter the Kostecki home and ignite combustible materials in the space between the basement and the first floor. The fire investigators found two holes in the TracPipe running through that space. Dr. Eagar and AAIC's other experts opined that lightning traveled along the TracPipe, caused the two holes by melting the CSST, and ignited escaping propane, starting the fire. Dr. Kytomaa opined that the lightning strike generated insufficient energy either to create holes in the TracPipe or to ignite propane escaping from the TracPipe. He theorized that the fire started when lightning entered the home and ignited other combustibles in the space between two floors. The fire then energized a nearby aluminum feeder wire, which arced to the TracPipe, creating the holes in its CSST. Another significant issue at trial was whether the TracPipe was adequately bonded (grounded) inside the home.

Prior to trial, after the parties exchanged expert reports, Omega moved to exclude Dr. Eagar's opinion testimony, and AAIC moved to exclude Dr. Kytomaa's opinion testimony. Both motions invoked the court's gate-keeping function to ensure that an expert's opinion is " supported by the kind of scientific theory, practical knowledge and experience, or empirical research and testing that permit assessment 'of whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid and of whether that reasoning or methodology properly can be applied to the facts in issue.'" Robertson v. Norton Co., 148 F.3d 905, 907 (8th Cir. 1998), quoting Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 592-93, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 (1993).

The district court granted in part Omega's motion to exclude Dr. Eagar's testimony and denied AAIC's motion to exclude Dr. Kytomaa's testimony. AAIC appeals both rulings. The objective of the Daubert inquiry " is to make certain that an expert, whether basing testimony upon professional studies or personal experience, employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an ...


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