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Pertile v. General Motors, LLC

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 19, 2017

GENERAL MOTORS, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company, and, TRW VEHICLE SAFETY SYSTEMS, INC., a Delaware corporation, Defendants.


          William J. Martínez, United States District Judge

         In this personal injury/product liability action pending under the Court's diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), Plaintiffs Daniel and Ginger Pertile bring suit against Defendants General Motors, LLC (“GM”) and TRW Vehicle Safety Systems, Inc. (“TRW”), for claims including strict liability, negligence, breach of warranty, violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act, Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 6-1-101 et seq., and loss of consortium. (See generally ECF No. 254.) Now before the Court are Defendant TRW's Motion to Exclude Stephen Syson's Seat Belt Opinions (ECF No. 199), and Defendant GM's Motion to Exclude the Testimony of Stephen R. Syson (ECF No. 200). For the reasons explained below, both motions are denied.


         A district court must act as a “gatekeeper” in admitting or excluding expert testimony. Bitler v. A.O. Smith Corp., 400 F.3d 1227, 1232 (10th Cir. 2004). Admission of expert testimony is governed by Rule 702, which provides:

A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if: (a) 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; (b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data; (c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

Fed. R. Evid. 702. The proponent of the expert testimony bears the burden of proving the foundational requirements of Rule 702 by a preponderance of the evidence. United States v. Nacchio, 555 F.3d 1234, 1241 (10th Cir. 2009).

         An expert's proposed testimony also must be shown to be relevant and otherwise admissible. See Adamscheck v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., 818 F.3d 576, 588 n.7 (10th Cir. 2016). To be relevant, expert testimony must “logically advanc[e] a material aspect of the case” and be “sufficiently tied to the facts of the case that it will aid the jury in resolving a factual dispute.” United States v. Garcia, 635 F.3d 472, 476 (10th Cir. 2011) (brackets in original).

         While an expert witness's testimony must assist the jury to be deemed admissible, Fed.R.Evid. 702(a), it may not usurp the jury's fact-finding function. See Specht v. Jensen, 853 F.2d 805, 808 (10th Cir. 1988). The line between what is helpful to the jury and what intrudes on the jury's role as the finder of fact is not always clear, but it is well-settled that “[a]n opinion is not objectionable just because it em braces an ultimate issue.” Fed.R.Evid. 704.

         The trial court's focus under Rule 702 is on the methodology employed by an expert, not on his or her conclusions. Bitler, 400 F.3d at 1233. Ultimately, “the rejection of expert testimony is the exception rather than the rule.” Fed.R.Evid. 702 advisory committee's note. “[T]he trial court's role as gatekeeper is not intended to serve as a replacement for the adversary system. . . . Vigorous cross-examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof are the traditional and appropriate means of attacking shaky but admissible evidence.” Id. (quoting Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 595 (1993)).


         Detailed background of this case has been set out in other orders and is not repeated here. In relevant summary, Plaintiff was the front seat passenger in a 2011 Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD crew cab pickup truck (the “Vehicle”) during a single vehicle rollover on February 25, 2013 (the “Rollover, ” or the “Crash”). Plaintiffs proceed on products liability claims against both GM, which manufactured the Vehicle, and TRW, which manufactured its seatbelts.

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a)(2) and Federal Rule of Evidence 702, Plaintiffs disclosed Mr. Stephen Syson to testify as an “expert in the areas of vehicle structures and restraints systems, including but not limited to evaluation of designs, design alternatives, and defect.” (ECF No.199-3 at 2.) In particular, Mr. Syson “is expected to testify about the safety performance of the roof structure, seat, and seat belt” of the Vehicle. (Id.)

         Mr. Syson's written report disclosing his opinions is 31 pages long. (ECF No. 288-2.) The entire transcript of his deposition is also in the record and the Court has reviewed these materials in some detail, but only briefly sets out a summary of his overall opinions below, then addressing the data and methods underlying those opinions to the extent challenged by Defendants under Rule 702.

         Mr. Syson describes the nature of the Crash and opines that “rollover accidents” like this one “are highly foreseeable crashes for vehicles like the Silverado.” (ECF No. 238-2 at 9.) He describes the steps he took in inspecting the Vehicle and measuring the deformation or damage to various components. (Id. at 10-11.) In addition to summarizing his qualifications and lengthy professional history in automobile safety, his report cites test results, published studies, and knowledge of industry practices and technologies as relevant to his opinions, which relate primarily to roof strength and seatbelt design.

         A. Roof Strength

         Mr. Syson opines, generally, that the Vehicle's roof should have been stronger. He states that “[t]he inherent weakness of the . . . [Vehicle's] roof structure is a result of a number of design defects.” He lists what he sees as those defects, and suggests alternate designs. (Id. at 12.) He opines, for example: that “[t]he right B pillar buckled . . . due to a reduction in section stiffness”; that “[f]illing the pillar with high-density EA foam . . . would reduce the weakening effect of the stress concentration”; that “[t]he C pillar is constructed with . . . . relatively low strength materials”; and, that “[t]he negative effects of numerous small holes in the structure would be dramatically reduced by using of anti-buckling filler materials, or alternative assembly procedures, which would eliminate such holes.” (Id. at 12.)

         Mr. Syson also opines as to the consequences of such alleged design defects, including that “[a] weak roof structure permits a compromise of the ‘survival space' or ‘safety zone' around an occupant.” (Id. at 13.) Given his review, he opines “GM should have designed out the danger by providing a roof structure or rollover protective system (ROPS) to keep the roof from collapsing.” (Id. at 10.) He also states that “GM could have made the roof . . . strong enough to withstand this rollover accident while maintaining Mr. Pertile's survival space, ” and that “[i]f [the Vehicle's] roof structure had maintained [Mr. Pertile's] survival space he likely would have walked away with minor injuries. However, once his survival space was destroyed, his other safety restaints were rendered ineffective.” (Id. at 14, 15.)

         B. Seatbelt Opinions

         Mr. Syson also opines that the “restraint system in the Silverado is not reasonably safe in that it failed its fundamental purpose to restrain the occupant and keep the occupant within the available survival space and away from internal components of the vehicle that could result in serious injury.” (Id. at 23.) His opinion is that “during the rollover collision, [Mr. Pertile] was inadequately restrained, in part since slack was introduced into his seatbelt restraint due to crush and the system lacked a rollover sensor that would have deployed the pretensioner.” (Id. at 7.) Given that Mr. Pertile's seat was partially reclined before the Crash, Mr. Syson also opines that ...

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