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Hudson v. Alaska Airlines, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. California

September 9, 2019

DIANA HUDSON, Plaintiff,
v.
ALASKA AIRLINES, INC., Defendant.

          FINAL PRETRIAL ORDER

          PHYLLIS J. HAMILTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pursuant to Rule 16(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, this final pretrial order is hereby entered and shall control the course of the trial unless modified by a subsequent order.

         A. Plaintiff's Daubert Motion

         1. Legal Standard

         A witness who has been qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may give an opinion on scientific, technical, or otherwise specialized topics if (1) 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, (2) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data, (3) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (4) the witness has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case. Fed.R.Evid. 702; see also Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).

         The proponent of expert testimony bears the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the evidence that the admissibility requirements are met. See Fed. R.

         Evid. 702, Advisory Committee Notes. Although relevant evidence enjoys the presumption of admissibility, the trial court is obliged to act in a “gatekeeping role” with regard to the admission of expert scientific testimony under Rule 702. Daubert, 509 U.S. at 597; see also Kumho Tire Co., Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 147 (1999). “This entails a preliminary 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.” Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592-93.

         Thus, Daubert requires a two-part analysis. Id. The court first determines whether an expert's testimony reflects “scientific knowledge, ” whether the findings are “derived by the scientific method, ” and whether the work product is “good science”-that is, whether the testimony is reliable and trustworthy. Daubert, 509 U.S. at 590 & n.9, 593. The court then determines whether the testimony is “relevant to the task at hand.” Id. at 597.

         Scientific evidence is reliable if it is grounded in methods of science-the focus is on principles and methodology, not on conclusions. Metabolife Int'l, Inc. v. Wornick, 264 F.3d 832, 841 (9th Cir. 2001). In determining whether an expert's reasoning or methodology is scientifically valid, the district court can consider “many factors” including (1) whether a scientific theory or technique can be (and has been) tested; (2) whether the theory or technique has been subjected to peer review and publication; (3) whether there is a known or potential error rate; and (4) whether the theory or technique is generally accepted in the relevant scientific community. See Metabolife, 264 F.3d at 841; Daubert, 509 U.S. at 593-95.

         Nevertheless, depending on the type of expert testimony offered, these factors may not be appropriate to assess reliability. Kumho Tire, 526 U.S. at 150. Other factors that might be considered to assess reliability include whether an expert has unjustifiably extrapolated from an accepted premise to an unfounded conclusion, or whether an expert has adequately accounted for obvious alternative explanations. See General Elec. Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 146 (1997) (“[N]othing in either Daubert or the Federal Rules of Evidence requires a district court to admit opinion evidence that is connected to existing data only by the ipse dixit of the expert. A court may conclude that there is simply too great an analytical gap between the data and the opinion proffered.”); Claar v. Burlington Northern R. Co., 29 F.3d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1994). In addition, the trial court should ensure the expert “employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field.” Kumho Tire, 526 U.S. at 152.

         Rule 702's second prong concerns relevancy, or “fit.” See Daubert, 509 U.S. at 591. Expert opinion testimony is relevant if the knowledge underlying it has a “valid scientific connection to the pertinent inquiry.” Id. at 591-92. As Rule 702 requires, it must “assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Id. at 590-92. But “scientific validity [and relevance] for one purpose is not necessarily scientific validity for other, unrelated purposes.” Id. at 591.

         2. Analysis

         No party disputes Ravani's qualifications in the field of biomechanics. Defendant argues that only a medical doctor can qualify to offer an opinion about injury causation. Although some courts have held otherwise, the weight of authority supports the conclusion that “the fact that a biomechanical expert is not a medical doctor does not mean that he is not qualified to offer an opinion as to specific causation.” Allen v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., No. 3:15-CV-0019-HRH, 2016 WL 9086966, at *4 (D. Alaska Aug. 2, 2016) (collecting cases); see also Yu-Santos v. Ford Motor Co., No. 1:06CV01773AWI-DLB, 2009 WL 1392085, at *13 (E.D. Cal. May 14, 2009); Ream v. United States, No. 2:17-CV-1141-RAJ, 2019 WL 2578600, at *2 (W.D. Wash. June 24, 2019).

         Plaintiff argues that Ravani's opinions are not the product of reliable principles and methods, and that he has not reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case. See Fed.R.Evid. 702; see also Daubert, 509 U.S. at 579. Specifically, plaintiff primarily challenges Ravani's opinions that “[t]ypically, a value of 1000 HIC is determined to be the threshold for a head injury. For mild TBI, HIC values as low as 400 in one study [1] and 160 in another study [4] are considered as the beginning levels for such injuries.”; and “[t]he lowest peak G-forces or linear acceleration to be consistent with TBI are reported to be 60g's or higher. In this incident even the upper limit values . . . are far below what has been observed to be consistent with TBI.”; and “there is no reasonable probability that the forces and motions imparted to Ms. Hudson's head in the subject incident to [sic] have any potential for brain injuries.” Dkt. 38-1 at ECF pp. 21-22. For the following reasons, those opinions are EXCLUDED.

         The court finds that the evidence before it does not show that these opinions are the product of reliable principles and methods, or that Ravani has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case. Although Ravani reliably calculates the various forces that a bag of a certain weight would impose on an individual when falling from a certain height, there is no indication that Ravani has applied a generally-accepted, peer-reviewed, scientific theory or technique with a known error rate for determining whether such a force can cause mTBI. The studies Ravani cites in his report in fact suggest that no such generally-accepted standard establishing a force threshold for mTBI exists. Furthermore, even if defendant had demonstrated that Ravani relied upon sound principles and methods, the court finds that Ravani did not reliably apply the principles and methods to the facts of the case, because the report did not incorporate plaintiff's particular characteristics (for example, her age or physical condition) when assessing the minimum threshold of force that could have caused mTBI.

         Plaintiff's other objections to Ravani's testimony are denied. In particular, Ravani's calculations based on exemplar physical models are permissible so long as a foundation for those measurements is entered into evidence. Of course, plaintiff may cross-examine Ravani in an attempt to elucidate the proper weight the jury should afford his testimony given its factual underpinnings.

         B. Plaintiff's Motions in Limine

         1. Plaintiff's Motion in Limine No. 1

          Plaintiff's first motion in limine to preclude defendant from introducing expert testimony not disclosed in its expert disclosures is DENIED. Plaintiff has not specified any particular evidence she seeks to exclude, but rather refers to unbounded, broad categories of evidence. Although the opinions experts testify to must be limited to the contents of ...


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