Virginia Supreme Court reverses $1,750,000 jury verdict due to errors in admitting expert testimony

In CNH America, LLC v. Smith, No. 091991 (Va. Jan. 13, 2011), the Court reversed a jury verdict of $1,750,000 in a product defect case, on the grounds that the plaintiff's expert testimony was not based on an adequate foundation. The Court remanded the case for a full retrial on the merits.

The plaintiff had been injured when a hose on his newly-purchased disc mower exploded and injected burning hydraulic fluid into his hand. The injuries required five surgeries, including the partial amputation of the middle finger on his right hand.

The plaintiff filed suit against the manufacturer and dealer of the mower, alleging negligence, strict liability, failure to warn, and breach of express and/or implied warranties.

On appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court found both of the plaintiff's liability experts had testified based on inadequate foundation. One expert based his opinion that the hose had a manufacturing defect solely on the failure of the hose itself. The Court held that it was insufficient for this expert to base his opinion upon the premise that because the hose failed, it was the result of a manufacturing defect. Further, the expert admitted that he failed to perform tests that could have determined whether the hose had the defect.

The second expert admitted that he was not an expert in the hydraulic systems of mowers and had no experience in the design or manufacture of mowers or any other agricultural equipment. The Court noted that "An expert's qualifications must correlate to the opinions for which the expert is being offered. . . . the fact that a person is a qualified expert in one field does not make him an expert in another field, even if they are closely related." Further, the trial court ruled that the second expert's testimony was to be restricted to hydraulic systems generally and was not supposed to include opinions specifically about the particular mower at issue. Yet, that expert's testimony went far beyond the trial court's limitations.