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Gopalratnam v. Hewlett-Packard Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

December 15, 2017

S.V. GOPALRATNAM, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,
HEWLETT-PACKARD COMPANY, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued December 1, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 2:13-cv-618 - Pamela Pepper, Judge.

          Before Bauer, Flaum, and Rovner, Circuit Judges.

          Flaum, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiffs' son tragically perished in a fire at plaintiffs' home in June 2010. Believing that the fire was caused by a defective lithium ion battery cell from their son's laptop, plaintiffs filed a products liability suit against separate manufacturers of the laptop, battery pack, and individual battery cells. Plaintiffs supported their causation theory solely through testimony from two expert witnesses, whom defendants later moved to exclude under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The district court granted defendants' motions to exclude, and therefore entered summary judgment in their favor. Plaintiffs now appeal the district court's ruling. We affirm.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         On June 17, 2009, Arun Gopalratnam, a twenty-three year-old college student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, purchased a laptop computer manufactured by defendant Hewlett-Packard Company ("HP"). The laptop contained a battery pack manufactured by defendant DynaPack Technology Corporation ("DynaPack"), which in turn held three cylindrical-shaped lithium ion battery cells manufactured by defendant Samsung SDI Company, Limited ("Samsung").

         Approximately one year later, on June 4, 2010, the Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin Fire Department responded to a major fire in a basement bedroom of the home of Arun's parents, plaintiffs S.V. and Hemalatha Gopalratnam. After the fire was extinguished, firefighters discovered Arun deceased on the floor of the room. A later autopsy classified smoke inhalation as the cause of death. The medical examiner discovered no evidence of pre-fire injury or disease, and a toxicology screen evidenced no drugs or alcohol in Arun's system.

         Due to Arun's death, Special Agent Antonio H. Martinez of Wisconsin's Department of Criminal Investigation was assigned to conduct a fire investigation. Special Agent Martinez concluded that the fire originated in the basement bedroom where Arun's body was located. Although Special Agent Martinez excluded multiple potential sources of the blaze (including the home's electrical and gas meters, electrical distribution panels, and gas-fueled furnaces, as well as the electrical plugs, light switch, and ceiling light fixture in the bedroom), he could not ascertain the fire's ultimate cause. His investigation did not eliminate, however, "a possible fire within the mattress area" of the bedroom "that extended into the ceiling area."

         During the fire investigation, investigators collected burnt debris found on the remnants of the bedroom mattress. The remains of Arun's HP laptop and Nokia cell phone, including two of the three laptop battery cells, were found amongst this debris. Investigators then shoveled the remaining bedroom debris out the bedroom window and into random piles in plaintiffs' yard. The third laptop battery cell was later found in one of these piles.

         B. Procedural Background

         On June 4, 2013, plaintiffs filed suit in the Eastern District of Wisconsin against HP and its insurer, defendant ABC Insurance Company, alleging negligence, strict products liability, and breach of warranty. Plaintiffs claimed that a defective lithium ion battery cell in Arun's laptop caused the fire that led to their son's death. On July 16, 2013, HP filed a third-party complaint against DynaPack and Samsung. On October 31, 2014, plaintiffs amended their complaint to include DynaPack and Samsung as defendants.

         Plaintiffs supported their causation theory with two expert witnesses. First, plaintiffs retained Dr. Daniel H. Doughty, who holds a Ph.D in inorganic chemistry, as an ex- pert on "battery safety." In addition, plaintiffs retained Michael F. Hill, Sr., a retired Certified Fire Investigator with the Illinois Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators, to opine about the "cause and origin" of the fire. Both Doughty and Hill issued expert reports and were deposed by defendants during the course of expert discovery.

         1. Doughty's Expert Report

         Doughty physically examined the cell phone battery and three laptop battery cells recovered from the fire. From this examination, Doughty noted that the two laptop cells found on the bedroom mattress (which Doughty labeled as "Cell B" and "Cell C") had retained their cylindrical dimensions and internal contents throughout the fire (as did the cell phone battery). In contrast, Doughty observed that the third laptop cell found in the debris pile in plaintiffs' yard (which Doughty labeled as "Cell A") had ejected its contents and warped into an elliptical shape.

         Doughty then set out to explain the difference between Cell A and Cells B and C. Doughty opined that the appearance of Cell A was typical for a cell that had experienced severe "thermal runaway, " which he defined as "the condition when the rate of heat generation inside the battery cell ... is greater than [the] rate of heat dissipation." According to Doughty, "[a] battery cell is an energy storage device." If battery energy "is released in a controlled manner (i.e., normal discharge), the device is safe." If the energy is released "in a rapid, uncontrolled manner, " however, "[a]dditional heat and gas are produced" that can trigger thermal runaway. This produces "very high temperature internal to the cell" which can cause the cell to "vent[] violently or explode[]." Doughty further stated that the hot "ejecta" from an exploding cell "provides a ready source of ignition of flammable materials."

         Doughty outlined several potential causes of thermal runaway, including: (1) "electrical abusive conditions" (such as an external short circuit, overcharge, or overdischarge); (2) "mechanical abusive conditions" (such as shock, vibration, or penetration); (3) "high temperature abusive conditions, " including heat from an external fire; and (4) "flaws from within the cell" that cause an internal short circuit.

         Doughty excluded electrical abuse because there was no evidence of an external short circuit-Arun's laptop was not plugged in at the time of the fire, and overcharge is usually a benign event. He further excluded mechanical abuse based upon his inspection of the laptop and the fact that it had been tested against existing safety standards, including tests for vibration, shock, and impact.

         Regarding the possibility of overheating from an external fire, Doughty stated that multiple design elements within the laptop, battery pack, and battery cells were engineered to protect against excessive external temperatures. Importantly, Doughty further opined that, based upon existing literature, the exposure of lithium ion cells to external fire causes "predicable results." He noted that the design of Arun's laptop battery pack placed the cells close together and in a straight line. Thus, Doughty reasoned, all of the cells would have been exposed to the same external heat conditions from the fire. Therefore, Doughty concluded that if external fire was the cause, one would expect to see a uniform temperature response from all three cells. This, however, was not the case, as deformation in Cell A significantly differed from Cells B and C. To Doughty, this suggested a "different failure mechanism."

         Doughty concluded that the rate of release of the stored energy in Cell A was "much more rapid" than the other cells, and that the "[v]ery rapid gas generation" that created such a substantial pressure rise was "only consistent with an internal short circuit" that led to thermal runaway. Doughty went on to state that internal short circuits are known to be caused by "[f]laws within the cell, " such as "debris, foreign objects, contaminants, wrinkles in the electrode, etc." These flaws can exist even in "approved cell designs" and "in cells that have passed safety tests." Doughty thus concluded that the internal fault was caused by "either a manufacturing defect in the cell that ... caus[ed] an internal short circuit, or a failure of the computer's control/safety circuity to function as designed ... which in turn caused an internal short circuit in the cell."

         2. Hill's Expert Report

         Hill, the Fire Investigator, conducted site studies of plaintiffs' home on two occasions in the weeks after the fire. He also reviewed physical evidence retrieved from the home, as well as reports, photographs, x-rays, diagrams, and blueprints compiled by the Menomonee Falls Fire and Police Departments. Hill concluded that: (1) the fire originated on the top of the bed in the basement bedroom; (2) the "most probable" ignition source was the laptop battery; and (3) the fire was accidental.

         3. Proceedings Below

         On June 24, 2016, defendants separately moved to exclude the testimony of both Doughty and Hill under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert. Defendants contended that Hill and Doughty were unqualified to render expert opinions and that their respective opinions were unreliable. Defendants further moved for summary judgment on the theory that, without their experts, plaintiffs could not prove causation in any of their causes of action.

         The district court granted defendants' motions on March 21, 2017. Although the court found both Hill and Doughty sufficiently qualified, it nonetheless deemed their opinions unreliable. Because the court excluded their expert testimony, it further found that plaintiffs could not support their claim that a defective lithium ion battery cell led to their son's death. As a result, the court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants. This appeal followed.

         II. Discussion

         A. Principles of Law

         1. The Admissibility of Expert Testimony

         "Any assessment of the admissibility of expert witness testimony begins with Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and the Supreme Court's opinion in Daubert, as together they govern the admissibility of expert witness testimony." Krik v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 870 F.3d 669, 673 (7th Cir. 2017). This is true even when, as here, "our jurisdiction rests on diversity." C.W. ex rel. Wood v. Textron, Inc., 807 F.3d 827, 834 (7th Cir. 2015); see also Wallace v. McGlothan, 606 F.3d 410, 419 (7th Cir. 2010) (noting that "standards for admitting expert evidence" are "matters that fall on the procedural side of the Erie divide" and are thus governed by federal law). Rule 702 states:

         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.

         In Daubert, the Supreme Court interpreted Rule 702 to require "the district court to act as an evidentiary gatekeeper, ensuring that an expert's testimony rests on a reliable foundation and is relevant to the task at hand." Krik, 870 F.3d at 674 (citing Daubert, 509 U.S. at 589).[1] This is due to the fact that "[e]xpert evidence can be both powerful and quite misleading because of the difficulty in evaluating it." Daubert, 509 U.S. at 595 (quoting Jack B. Weinstein, Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence Is Sound; It Should Not Be Amended, 138 F.R.D. 631, 632 (1991)). This is particularly true in cases such as this involving expert testimony "on the ultimate issue of fact." See United States v. Navarro, 90 F.3d 1245, 1260 n.14 (7th Cir. 1996) (quoting United States v. Boyd, 55 F.3d 667, 672 (D.C. Cir. 1995)).

         The district court's "'gatekeeping' obligation ... applies not only to testimony based on 'scientific' knowledge, but also to testimony based on 'technical' and 'other specialized' knowledge." Kumho Tire Co., Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 141 (1999); see also Lees v. Carthage Coll., 714 F.3d 516, 521 (7th Cir. 2013) ("[T]he Daubert analysis applies to all expert testimony under Rule 702, not just scientific testimony.").

         In performing its gatekeeper role under Rule 702 and Daubert, "the district court must engage in a three-step analysis before admitting expert testimony. It must determine whether the witness is qualified; whether the expert's methodology is scientifically reliable; and whether the testimony will 'assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.'" Myers v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., 629 F.3d 639, 644 (7th Cir. 2010) (quoting Ervin v. Johnson & Johnson, Inc.,492 F.3d 901, 904 (7th Cir. 2007)); see also Bielskis v. Louisville Ladder, Inc., 663 F.3d 887, 893-94 (7th Cir. 2011). In other words, the district court must evaluate: (1) the proffered expert's qualifications; (2) the reliability of the expert's methodology; and (3) the relevance of the expert's testimony. Steps one and three are not at issue here; the district court found both Doughty and Hill to be qualified, and their testimony not only helpful, but necessary to prove plaintiffs' theory of liability. See Gopalratnam v. Hewlett-Packard Co., No. 13-cv-618, 2017 WL 1067768, at *3 (E.D. Wis. ...

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