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Eleventh Circuit rules in negligent design product liability case that that issues regarding testing of plaintiff expert’s alternative saw design went to weight of testimony rather than admissibility

On October 21, 2020, in Crawford v. ITW Food Equipment Group, LLC, No. 19-10964, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a $ 4 million jury verdict against the defendant manufacturer for injuries sustained by the plaintiff as a result of a design defect of one of the defendant’s commercial meat saws.  The plaintiff was a meat-market manager at a supermarket in Jacksonville whose arm was amputated in the incident. The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred in admitting the testimony of one of the plaintiff’s experts, who testified that the defendant did not use reasonable care in designing the meat saw because it lacked an auto-deploying blade guard. The defendant argued that the testimony failed to standard set forth in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S. Ct. 2786 (1993), because the expert never tested whether his proposed design would function similarly to the meat saw at issue or whether his design would be purchased by users. Quoting from Hilaire v. DeWalt Indus. Tool. Co., 54 F. Supp. 3d 223, 247 (E.D.N.Y. 2014), the defendant argued that the expert had to demonstrate that his alternative design was both “economically feasible and just as safe or safer” as the meat saw at issue.  The Eleventh Circuit disagreed as a matter of admissibility, concluding that most of the issues raised by the defendant with the expert’s testimony were objections going to the weight of his testimony regarding his alternative design, and not objections to its admissibility. The Court cited Quiet Tech. DC-8, Inc. v. Hurel-Dubois UK Ltd., 326 F.3d 1333, 1345 (11th Cir. 2003) (identifying methodological flaws that “impugn the accuracy of . . . results” without questioning the “general scientific validity of . . . methods” is “precisely the role of cross-examination” and “go[es] to the weight, not the admissibility, of the evidence”).  The defendant also argued that the district court misapplied Florida’s negligent design law in its jury instructions.  The Eleventh Circuit assumed arguendo that that either the risk utility test or the consumer expectations test must be satisfied to demonstrate negligent design, despite acknowledging that “this is far from clear,” and that the definition of design defect is in a “state of flux’ in Florida (the plaintiff contended that all that had to be proved was that a defendant had breached its duty of reasonable care).  The Eleventh Circuit concluded that there was sufficient evidence introduced at trial to satisfy Florida’s risk utility test.  The defendant also argued that the district court erred in not instructing the jury on Florida’s state-of-the-art defense, codified in Fla. Stat. § 768.1257, which provides that “[i]n an action based upon defective design, brought against the manufacturer of a product, the finder of fact shall consider the state of the art of scientific and technical knowledge and other circumstances that existed at the time of manufacture, not at the time of loss or injury.” The Eleventh Circuit concluded that there was no basis to think that the outcome of the trial would have been any different had the instruction been given since neither the relevant time period (the time of manufacture, which was 2010) nor the state of the art at that time were disputed by the parties. Finally, the defendant argued that the district court improperly admitted summaries of OSHA reports of fatalities and catastrophes because of the hearsay nature.  The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the reports were properly admitted under the public records exception to the general bar on hearsay, noting that the defendant adduced no evidence that the OSHA reports lacked trustworthiness.

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