Court Disallows Expert Testimony, Grants Summary Judgment to Helmet Manufacturer

Apr 10, 2004

A federal judge has ruled that a hockey player, who became a quadriplegic after an injury, is not entitled to relief in a products liability action against helmet manufacturer Bauer Nike Hockey, Inc. (Bauer).
The district court for the Northern District of Ohio, Western Division was hearing the case for a second time, since the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had reversed parts of the district court’s initial decision and remanded the remanded the case back to the trial court.
This time, the district court judge found that the plaintiff, Levi Mohney (Mohney), did not offer adequate expert testimony as established in the controlling United States Supreme Court case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, nor did Mohney prove it was Bauer’s responsibility to provide instructions as to proper assembly procedures regarding its helmet with another manufacturer’s mask. In what the court admitted was a harsh result, the court again granted summary judgment for manufacturer Bauer.
In granting Bauer’s summary judgment motion, the judge considered three factors dispositive. Mohney did not have a legally cognizable product liability claim because: (1) the inadmissibly of Mohney’s expert opinion; (2) Bauer’s exclusion as a manufacturer under Ohio law, and (3) Mohney’s testimony which admitted he had not read any of Bauer’s warnings.
Mohney was injured during a developmental hockey camp when he and another player became intertwined, hurtling toward the boards surrounding the ice. Mohney hit his head, causing spinal injuries and rendering him a quadriplegic. The issue in contention was whether Mohney followed the “Heads Up: Don’t Duck Program” established as a standard of safety to prevent player spinal injury.
Expert testimony did not establish that Mohney followed the “heads up” standard, the proper safety protocol as laid out by manufacturer Bauer. Mohney claims that because he followed the recommended “heads up” approach, he hit his face on the board, which in turn caused the “j-hooks” to dislodge and allowed his head to “torque into a crown position.” J-hooks hold the mask to the helmet through a screw-nut mechanism.
(1) Expert Testimony. According to the court, the exclusion of expert witnesses left Mohney without “any competent evidence of product defect and causation.” Causation is a prerequisite to recovery in a product liability claim.
The court held that his treating physician, Dr. Ramnath, could only offer expert testimony relating to his injuries and Dr. Ramnath’s speculation as to causation was inadmissible. The district court struck portions of Dr. Ramnath’s affidavit that concerned his review of the miniDV tape of the accident because its analysis was beyond the scope of his role as Mohney’s treating physician.
Likewise, the court struck expert testimony of a bio-mechanical and a mechanical engineer for failing all four factors under the Daubert Rule due to a lack of testing relative to the accident and improper methodology, respectively. The Daubert Court established precedent for analyzing the credibility of scientific testimony based on the Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Daubert identified “several factors to assist courts in evaluating whether a scientific theory or methodology constitutes reliable scientific knowledge. These include: whether the theory or technique can be or has been tested; whether the theory has been subjected to peer review and publication; whether a technique has a known or potential rate of error and whether there are standards controlling the technique’s operation; and whether the theory or method has general acceptance in the scientific community.” However, the court noted that these factors “are simply useful signposts, not dispositive hurdles that a party must overcome in order to have expert testimony admitted.”
(2) Component Manufacturer. Mohney was unable to establish that Bauer was solely responsible for his accident. Under Ohio law, Bauer is considered a “component” manufacturer because its helmet’s non-defective nature is only altered when the helmet is combined with a third party’s face mask. Under a product liability claim, a manufacturer is not legally liable for “any alleged defects introduced due to its … combination” with another manufacturer’s product.
(3) Mohney’s Testimony. To prevent summary judgment against him in his product liability claim, Mohney had to establish proximate cause between the helmet and his resulting injuries. Since Mohney never heeded the manufacturer’s advice, he was unable to demonstrate that Bauer failed in its duty to warn. In his deposition testimony, Mohney unequivocally admitted that he had never read the warning on the back of the helmet. According to the Ohio Supreme Court, a “claim of a failure to warn fails where the evidence directly establishes that a plaintiff did not read the warnings.”
All of Mohney’s requests for summary judgment were denied. Mohney, et al. v. USA Hockey, Inc. et al., Case No. 3:97 CV 7417
N.D.Ohio, 1/23/04
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs) James R. Oates, Esq., Merrillville, IN. and Fred C. Jug, of Brandt, Milnes & Rea, Pittsburgh, PA. (for defendants) Rudolph A. Peckinpaugh, Jr., of Eastman & Smith, Toledo, OH.; William A. Viscomi,, Ernest W. Auciello, Jr., and Timothy P. Whitford of Gallagher, Sharp, Fulton & Norman, Cleveland, OH.; Stephen D. Straus, of Traub, Eglin, Lieberman & Straus, Hawthorne, NY; Martin J. Witherell, , Ray A. Farris, and Mark A. Shaw of Fuller & Henry, Toledo, OH.


Articles in Current Issue