S.V. GOPALRATNAM, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,
HEWLETT-PACKARD COMPANY, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
December 1, 2017
from the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Wisconsin. No. 2:13-cv-618 - Pamela Pepper,
Bauer, Flaum, and Rovner, Circuit Judges.
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.
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").
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
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
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.
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.
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
Doughty's Expert Report
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
Hill's Expert Report
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.
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.
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.
Principles of Law
The Admissibility of Expert Testimony
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:
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
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and
methods to the facts of the case.
Fed. R. Evid. 702.
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). 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)).
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
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. ...