All Virginia products liability attorneys are well aware that, in order for an expert opinion to be admissible, the opinion must satisfy a number of certain requirements, including the requirement of adequate factual foundation. The Virginia Supreme Court recently reversed a $14 million dollar judgment in Hyundai Motor Co., Ltd., et al. v. Keith Allen Duncan, individually and as the Guardian and Conservator for Zachary Gage Duncan, et al.¸ 2015 Va. LEXIS 3 (full opinion) based on the failure of adequate foundation for the plaintiffs’ expert opinion.
Gage Duncan, a minor, was involved in a single car accident in Pulaski County, Virginia and suffered significant brain injuries. Duncan alleged that his accident was caused by Hyundai’s defective design of his car. Specifically, Duncan claimed that Hyundai’s side airbag sensors were misplaced under the seat when they should have been placed in the driver’s side door. Duncan’s expert opined that, if the sensors were placed in the door area near the floor, the sensors would have recognized the crash, deployed the airbags, and Duncan would not have suffered injury. Thus, Duncan’s expert opined that the car was defectively designed and unreasonably dangerous.
To formulate this opinion, Duncan’s expert relied on a computer-aided engineering study conducted by Hyundai in 1999. The expert did not conduct any of his own studies or perform any of his own calculations regarding the placement of the sensor at the door location he claimed was the best option. The Supreme Court held that the expert’s testimony lacked sufficient evidentiary support because “it was premised upon his assumption that the side airbag would have deployed if the sensor was at his proposed location – an assumption that clearly lacked a sufficient factual basis and disregarded the variables he acknowledged as bearing upon the sensor location determination.” Id. at 11. Further, the analytical gap between the data relied upon in Hyundai’s study and his opinions was simply too great. Id. (citing General Elec. Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 146, 118 S. Ct. 512, 139 L. Ed. 2d 508 (1997)).
This case makes it even more difficult to prosecute products liability cases in Virginia, and highlights the necessity of the plaintiff’s attorney’s understanding of the engineering basis for his expert’s opinions. Without that information and knowledge you cannot adequately represent your client, because you simply lack the ability to determine whether your expert needs to perform additional analysis or not. These cases can be extremely expensive to prosecute and every precaution must be taken to insure that your expert has adequate foundation for his opinions. The majority decision, along with the dissent, is a must read for all Virginia products liability attorneys.