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Affinity Mutual Insurance Co. v. Thacker Air Conditioning-Refrigeration-Heating Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

May 20, 2019

AFFINITY MUTUAL INSURANCE, Plaintiff,
v.
THACKER AIR CONDITIONING-REFRIGERATION-HEATING, INC., Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE

         Affinity Mutual Insurance asserts in this action that a roof collapsed as a result of a contractor's installation of heating units in trusses supporting the building's roof. To prove that the collapse occurred because of the installation of those units-as opposed to the heavy snowstorm and the pre-existing defects in the roof or other factors-it relies on an expert opinion from a structural engineer, Daniel Honig. Prior to trial, defendant Thacker Heating and Air moved to strike that opinion, arguing that it does not satisfy Rule 702's standard for admissibility. The Court discussed that motion with the parties at the final pretrial conference, after which it directed the parties to respond to specific concerns about the reliability of that opinion. [DE 102]. The parties have each responded.

         For the following reasons, the Court grants the motion to exclude this opinion. Mr. Honig does not offer a sufficient explanation or analysis in support of his conclusion to show that he reliably applied an appropriate methodology. And in defense of that opinion, Affinity relies primarily on attorney argument and analysis not present in Mr. Honig's report. The Court thus cannot find that the opinion satisfies Rule 702.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         At summary judgment, the Court described the pertinent facts as follows:

Dutch Village Market was an auction barn and event center in Nappanee, Indiana. The central, open area of the building was about 200 feet long and 60 feet wide, with a ceiling that was supported by wooden trusses spanning the width of the building. Various additions to the building had also been made over time. In particular, an addition had been built along the southern edge of the building. A new outer wall was built beyond the existing wall, and a new roof was built extending from the new wall to about ten feet from the top of the existing roof. The area between the old and new roofs was filled with blown-in insulation, so the structural support for the new overbuilt roof was not visible. As it turns out, however, the overbuilt roof was built such that its weight rested on top of the existing roof at the point where they met, about ten feet from the top of that roof. That manner of construction added a substantial amount of additional weight on the trusses supporting the main roof, which created “significant structural loading capacity deficiencies within th[e] preexisting roof framing system.” [DE 70-1 p. 6].
In 2014, the owners of Dutch Village Market began a series of renovations to the building, which included upgrading its lighting, insulation, and heating, among other work. The general contractor for the project was Freeman Bontrager, who was also the president of the entity responsible for operations at Dutch Village Market. Thacker Heating and Air was brought in as a subcontractor to work on the heating system. Jon Thacker, its owner, proposed installing six gas furnaces, spaced about 35 feet apart along the length of the building. Mr. Bontrager and Mr. Thacker discussed where to place the units, and decided to install them overhead on the bottom chord of the trusses that supported the roof. Mr. Bontrager and his employees built wooden platforms on the trusses on which to place the furnaces.
Mr. Thacker then installed the furnaces on top of the platforms. He also ran gas lines to the units, and installed ductwork and drip pans and other associated equipment. Mr. Thacker estimated that the total weight of each assembly was about 280 pounds, though Affinity Mutual's expert estimated the weight to be 450 pounds. Prior to installing the units, Mr. Thacker and one of his employees stood on the platforms and judged them to be stable, so they had no concern that the platforms or the trusses would be unable to bear the weight of the furnaces. Mr. Bontrager did not express any concern either, and none of them were aware of the fact that the existing truss system was also bearing the weight of the roof overbuild. However, they did not consult with a structural engineer or otherwise attempt to determine the capacity of the trusses.
In early February 2015, a heavy snowstorm resulted in about 14 to 15 inches of heavy, wet snow falling in the area. That snow accumulated on the roof of the Dutch Village Market building, which significantly increased the load on the trusses. When someone began hearing cracking noises in the roof, Mr. Bontrager and several of his employees got on the roof to attempt to shovel the snow off. Shortly thereafter, a truss broke and a large portion of the roof collapsed.

[DE 74 p. 1-3]. After the collapse, Dutch Village Market submitted a claim to its insurer, Affinity Mutual Insurance, which paid about $1 million under the policy. Affinity then sued Thacker, asserting claims for negligence and breach of warranty, arguing that Thacker was at fault for the collapse.

         In order to prove that the roof collapsed as a result of Thacker's installation of the heating units (and related components), Affinity retained Daniel Honig, a structural engineer. Mr. Honig visited the site twice, reviewed various materials, and then issued a report in which he opined that the roof collapsed as a result of Thacker's placement of the heating units. His report began by discussing the construction of the building and the trusses that supported its roof. Of particular note, he observed that the previous addition to the roof “would have significantly increased and doubled the roof deadload throughout the overbuild area.” (Report p. 2). As a result of the overbuild, he noted, “the snowdrift zones affecting this roof would have been significantly altered and an unbalanced snow live load pattern would have occurred.” (Report p. 3). He also opined that “there were significant structural loading capacity deficiencies within this preexisting roof system.” (Report p. 5).

         In his discussion, Mr. Honig noted that the heating units were installed about a week or two before the snowstorm occurred and the roof collapsed. Mr. Honig also described the condition of the building after the collapse. He noted that the units on the eastern and western ends of the building did not fall, as those areas were supported by additional vertical supports. The remaining units along the length of the building lacked those vertical supports, and the trusses along the middle of the building failed. Id. Mr. Honig further noted that the amount of snow that fell shortly prior to the collapse would have added only about half the amount of weight that the building code requires a roof to sustain. Id. Since the weight of the snow was within the “snow loading requirements” under the code, he opined that the snow should not have caused the roof to collapse. (Report p. 4). Finally, he concluded: “Given the chronological timing of this roof collapse incident, in combination with the limited collapse location, it is clear that these structural factors were directly related to [Thacker's] HVAC installation work.”[1] (Report p. 5).

         Thacker moves to strike that opinion.

         II. ...


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