Can Jury Ignore Uncontroverted Expert Opinion On Causation?

Here at MassTortDefense we often talk about the sufficiency of expert opinions, including on causation, from a legal Daubert or Frye standpoint.  A recent state court case from Texas reminds us about the rules on jury consideration of opinions that survive such legal challenges.

In Rentech Steel LLC v. Teel, No. 11-07-00318-CV (Tex. App., 11th Dist., 8/13/09), the plaintiff, who was working as a summer employee at Rentech's steel fabrication plant, suffered severe bilateral hand injuries while cleaning a power roller machine, a device that draws in steel plates and rolls them into cylinders. Rentech acknowledged some degree of fault but argued that some responsibility also rested with the settled manufacturer of the machine and the supplier.  The jury found Rentech negligent, but found no liability on the part of the other companies. Rentech appealed the finding of sole liability.

Expert William W.R. Purcell, a certified safety professional with degrees in civil and safety engineering and 40 years of experience, was retained by the plaintiff, but actually called by Rentech as an expert at trial.  He blamed the other defendants for inadequate warnings and instruction, and marketing defects, as well as agreeing there was negligence on the part of Rentech. Despite this uncontroverted expert testimony, the jury assigned liability only to Rentech.

The court of appeals noted that in Texas the jury is the sole judge of the witnesses’ credibility and the weight to give to their testimony.  Jurors may choose to believe one witness and disbelieve another and may disregard even uncontradicted and unimpeached testimony from disinterested witnesses.  Furthermore, even uncontroverted expert testimony does not bind the jury unless the subject matter is one for experts alone – one for which jurors “cannot properly be assumed to have or be able to form correct opinions of their own based upon evidence as a whole and aided by their own experience and knowledge of the subject of inquiry.”  Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. v. Martinez, 977 S.W.2d 328, 338 (Tex. 1998).

In this case, causation was not a matter for experts alone and did not require a technical or
scientific explanation, said the court;  it was within the jury’s ability to determine on its own what caused the accident and resulting injuries. See K-Mart Corp. v. Honeycutt, 24 S.W.3d 357, 361 (Tex. 2000)(holding that it was within jury’s ability to determine on its own whether lack of a railing caused the accident). Because causation was not an issue for experts alone, the jury could have disregarded Purcell’s conclusion as to causation.  The jury was free to conclude based upon the evidence presented at trial that Rentech failed to provide by a preponderance of the evidence (1) that the negligence of the other sellers was a cause of the accident and (2) that a marketing or design defect was a cause of the accident.

Other evidence before the jury included pictures of the actual roller machine and the warnings already located on the machine; testimony from a Rentech employee who operated the machine that a manual containing operating instructions had previously been supplied to Rentech; and testimony indicating that the Rentech employee operating the machine was knowingly violating the safety warnings and company policy at the time of the incident. Furthermore, the jury could have found that evidence proving a safer alternative design was lacking.